So then…he pours another glass of wine and asks, “Did everyone else get the anti-Christmas letter from Wal-Mart?”
We look up from our rubber-chicken dinners at this industry event — and laugh at Richard’s question.
We’re all salespeople for various auto accessory companies so we call on clients like Wal-Mart, Target, Kmart, and automotive chains.
Todd, a sales guy from Atlanta, says, “Well, it’s not exactly ANTI-Christmas. It just reminds us salespeople that we can’t give any gifts to our Wal-Mart buyers for the holiday.”
I say, “I told my Wal-Mart buyer that shouldn’t prevent HIM from getting ME a gift.”
They laugh. Ten of us are eating dinner at this round table in the hotel ballroom, waiting for the speeches to start on the dais.
Nick, an older grizzled sales veteran (and a New Yorker), knocks back a slug of Jack Daniels and grouses, “It’s ridiculous. What’s wrong with giving gifts to your clients? We’ve done it for years — and now all of a sudden, all these chains are telling us we can’t take our buyers to dinner, can’t take ‘em to shows, can’t –”
“Take ‘em DRINKING?” interrupts Todd.
More laughs. Nick snorts. “Hell, YEAH, take ‘em drinking! What the hell else you gonna do in Bentonville, Arkansas, for God’s sake?”
Several of the men nod, picturing that sleepy little town that houses the Wal-Mart headquarters.
The chains have become very strict about salespeople potentially influencing purchase decisions of the buyers with lavish gifts or vacations. Apparently, back in the day, vendor salesmen were pretty fast and loose with incentives to buyers to ensure their product lines were chosen for distribution in the stores.
Another salesman pipes in, “I get that they don’t want you “bribing” the buyers to carry your product line, but how are you supposed to establish a relationship with a buyer if you can’t even share a meal together?”
“Yeah,” says Todd. “I even told my Target buyer we could split the check for dinner, but he doesn’t even want to be seen out with a vendor in case someone thinks he’s getting a free meal!”
“I heard they have hidden video cameras in the vendor meeting rooms so they can make sure salespeople aren’t bribing the buyers!” says another salesman.
“This summer, I was calling on Wal-Mart to show our new automotive cooler, so I stocked it with snacks and sodas to demonstrate how it keeps things cool,” I say. “My buyer comes in and says, ‘I’m dying of thirst and that soda can looks so cold.” So I say, ‘Help yourself! It’s just for the demonstration!’ He looks around the room – I swear he’s acting like there are cameras in there! Then he says, ‘Well, I should pay for it first.’ Then he digs in his pocket and slides a quarter over to me before taking the soda!”
“No way!” says Todd.
“That’s ridiculous!” says Nick.
“I know!” I say. “I wanted to tell him, ‘Hey, I paid 50 cents for that soda, ya cheapskate!’”
Nick takes another hit of his Jack Daniels and says, “Many years ago, back when I was first starting out in sales – and when the chains weren’t so uptight, I had this buyer at a national auto chain based in Philadelphia. This guy was great – carried tons of our products in his stores – he bought literally millions and millions of dollars of our stuff. We took him out to dinners and shows, gave him some great gifts for the holidays, even treated him and his wife to a few weekend getaways.”
We lean in to hear better. The other tables at this event are pretty noisy.
“So one day, I’m presenting our new line of seat covers,” continues Nick. “And my buyer says, ‘Let’s go try these out.’ I look at him like he’s crazy because he’s never cared about seeing how the products actually work in the car before. But I say ‘sure,’ and off we go. So he’s barely noticing how nice the seat covers are, but he’s saying things like, ‘Hey, let’s turn left up here’ and ‘yeah, swing around to the right.’”
I exchange anticipatory looks with Todd and a couple of the other salespeople at our table.
“Before I know it,” says Nick, “We’re at the river and my buyer points to a new condo building that’s built right there, overlooking the water. He says he’s heard those condos are really great — and they cost $90,000 – and he and his wife have been looking for someplace in the city to move – and how he’s thinking about adding another section of seat covers to the stores. And finally I realize — he wants my company to buy him one of these $90,000 condos!!”
“Oh my God!” I say.
“And we DO!” announces Nick, raising his drink in the air.
“Oh my God!” I say again.
A couple of the guys laugh. A couple shake their heads in amazement.
One of them says, “Wow – well, you certainly can’t do something like that these days!”
“Of course not,” says Nick. “You’d never be able to find a condo on the river today for just $90,000!”
— Darcy Perdu
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(Does your company permit holiday gifts to be given and/or received? One of my past companies let us accept gifts from vendors – as long as the gifts were edible and could be shared with all the other employees. But I am not a “sharer” – especially when it comes to Christmas treats! Holla! Share your Christmas gift tales in the Comments!)