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Heavy Meddle: Help! I'm A Magnet For Pushy Salespeople!

Steve Almond: "If a salesperson is coming on too strong, say something." (James Vaughan/flickr)
Steve Almond: "If a salesperson is coming on too strong, say something." (James Vaughan/flickr)
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Welcome Meddleheads, to the column where your crazy meets my crazy! Please send your questions to Right now. Not only will you immediately feel much better, you’ll also get some advice.

Dear Steve,

Could you advise me on a polite way to deal with "aggressive hospitality" when shopping? I find myself reacting rudely, then feeling bad about this. I prefer to avoid stores entirely, but I can't do all my shopping online. For some reason, I seem to attract salespeople like a magnet. Some of my friends say they are completely ignored when they shop. Trust me, I do not look wealthy or attractive. I am over 50 and dress for comfort.


Trying Not to Be Rude

Dear Trying,

I read my wife this letter and she immediately told me about her last trip to the Gap, where she was assailed by no fewer than six friendly staffers who wanted to know how she was doing and issued other hospitable greetings intended to establish a relationship that would lead to a transaction. Welcome to America!

Like you, my wife gets approached by a lot of salespeople. She believes it’s because she seems “approachable.” That is: she doesn’t look intimidating. She’s friendly and polite, sometimes to a fault. She’s also shy, which our extroverted culture tends to misread as compliant. So perhaps this sense that you’re “approachable” makes you a magnet? Having never approached you in person, I can’t really say for sure.

But I can tell you a little story, by way of empathizing with your situation:

A few weeks ago, I walked into a discount rental car office with the intent of renting a vehicle at a deeply discounted rate I found on the Internet. I had my wife and three kids — ages 7, 5 and 1 — in tow. I brought them along not because I’m a masochistic idiot (though I clearly am one), but because I needed to make sure that the car we’d reserved would have room enough for all three of them and their various child-restraining safety devices.

This is what capitalism does to people. It makes our relationships transactional. It compels us to keep score with money.

It was a hot day, and the place was crowded, and our kids were, let’s say, restless. I wanted to get the transaction over as quickly as possible. The guy who helped us, whose name was Rocky, had other ideas. He noticed three things immediately: that we’d gotten a discount rate; that we were renting for a full month; and that my wife, in particular, seemed concerned about whether the car we’d reserved would be large enough.

And thus began that unctuous retail ritual known as the up-sell. Rocky gazed upon my harried family and leaned toward me and said, in a conspiratorial whisper, “Listen, I probably shouldn’t do this, but I can get you into a bigger car for a little more money. You know, something safer. So you can take care of your family.” He proceeded to try to sell me on one of the many unrented SUVs sitting in his sun-baked lot. When that didn’t work, he scaled back to an SUV hybrid (“no thanks”) then to a large sedan. This dance went on for another 20 minutes, with Rocky dropping his rates for various larger cars, while I politely fended him off.

In the course of considering one of these cars, I noticed one on the lot identical to the car we drive at home. I asked whether we could rent that car, which was in the same class as the one we’d originally reserved. Rocky, realizing that this would mean losing his up-sell, told me that they had lost the key to that car.

“It’s an electronic key,” I said. “How is that even possible?”

It was at this point that I realized that I had two choices: I could either take my chances with the smaller car, or submit to Rocky’s manipulations. Just under the surface of our polite interaction, there was a battle of wills raging over my wallet.

In the end, I told Rocky, as calmly as I could, that I wanted to rent the car I’d reserved. Period. End of story. It was another 15 minutes before Rocky handed me the keys. The car is definitely a bit crowded, but it’s been fine.

I realize this is an extreme example of what you’re talking about, but it feels instructive. A few things to note:

First, as obnoxious as Rocky was, he was just doing his job. He saw an opportunity to get a bigger commission on a long-term rental. Like a good salesperson, he had picked up on the family dynamics (they weren’t exactly subtle), and he could see that my wife, in particular, was in the market for a little more comfort. He could see that I was a thrifty guy, but also that I was ambivalent. So he pushed. He wasn’t being evil. He was being a good employee.

Should Rocky have lied about the lost key? No. He should have thought of a more convincing lie. “That car’s already reserved” would have worked just fine. But that’s a tactical error, not a moral lapse.

This is what capitalism does to people. It makes our relationships transactional. It compels us to keep score with money. For Rocky to feel successful, to be the sort of guy who moves up in the world, he needed to compel me to rent a bigger car.

You’re allowed to tell them, politely and <em>firmly</em>, that you’re just looking right now, and you’ll let them know if you need help.

Finally, as the consumer becomes more and more informed, and products become more uniform, much of what businesses rely upon for an advantage is the savvy aggression of salespeople.

And that, in a larger sense, is what you’re encountering.

The key thing to remember is that none of this is personal. Good salespeople try to make it personal. In subtle ways, they seek to establish a relationship that makes you feel beholden. Don’t let them. It’s just business. They’re just people who want your money in exchange for goods or services.

You’re allowed to tell them, politely and firmly, that you’re just looking right now, and you’ll let them know if you need help. And you’re best to do that right up front, if you sense a salesperson hovering or attempting to “manage your browsing.” (Note the eerie linguistic overlap with the digital world here.)

As I noted, I basically invited Rocky into my life. It was my ambivalence that drew him to me. But it was also my failure to put my foot down that extended the interaction.

Remember: when you enter a store, you’re under no obligation to interact. If a salesperson is coming on too strong, say something. Don’t expect deference or passivity to be enough. A good salesperson is trained to keep selling until they’re given an explicit No. ABC: Always Be Closing.

So just thank them for their efforts, and tell them that you’ll let them know if you need help. You don’t have to be snippy about it. But you also shouldn’t feel guilty or conflicted. Being the customer doesn’t give you the right to be rude. But it does entitle you to walk away from “hospitality” that feels aggressive. You’re allowed, in other words, to mind your own business.

Onward, together,

Okay folks, now it's your turn. Did I get it right, or muck it up? Let me know in the comments section. And please do send your own question along, the more detailed the better. Even if I don't have a helpful response, chances are someone in the comments section will. Send your dilemmas via email.

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