By Todd Wasylyshyn
About 20 years ago, I was wandering through the lower level of the Sands Expo Center at JCK. A friendly older gentleman came out of his booth and warmly greeted me in the aisle. When Howard asked if he could have a couple of minutes of my time, I agreed. Picture George Burns in the movie Oh God (Google it if you must): who can say no to God?
I ended up doing some business with him over the coming years before curiosity got the best of me, resulting in the following carefully worded question: “Howard, I hope you don’t mind me asking, but I’m interested to know how old you are.”
He said, “I don’t mind telling you if you’ll just tell me why you ask.”
Without implying I thought he was ancient for a traveller (which he obviously was), I said something like, “Well, you’re very good at what you do, you seem to love doing it at a time of life where most are more interested in golfing or fishing, and I find that inspiring.”
He said, “Thank you very much. I’ll be 82 next month.”
That brought to mind the following quote, spoken by Willy Loman in Arthur Miller’s 1949 play, Death of a Salesman:
“What could be more satisfying than to be able to go, at the age of eighty-four, into twenty or thirty different cities, and pick up a phone, and be remembered and loved and helped by so many different people? Do you know? When he died—and by the way he died the death of a salesman… hundreds of salesmen and buyers were at his funeral. Things were sad on a lotta trains for months after that. In those days, there was personality in it, Howard. There was respect, and comradeship and gratitude in it. Today it’s all cut and dried, and there’s no chance for bringing friendship to bear—or personality. You see what I mean? They don’t know me anymore.“
Even if I wanted to be on the road 30 years from now, I’m not sure there will be such a thing as a travelling sales rep by then. There are few enough now. Globalization, mega jewellery shows, buying groups, and B2B websites could all make people like Willy Loman, Howard, and myself completely obsolete. Are retailers ready to let go of these seemingly expendable middlemen and women of our industry?
A recent conversation about cold calls on the Retail Jewelers Organization (RJO) Facebook page made me realize some retailers undervalue sales reps. This compelled me to share a few reflections that just might give you a new perspective on jewellery’s indomitable road warriors.