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Fire In the Belly Or Burnt Out?

Furniture World Magazine


Reflections on the legacy of America's Salespeople.

Penrose Scull, in his book, "From Peddlers to Merchant Princes, a History of Selling in America," traces the development of selling from Colonial times to the present.

The first peddlers consisted of craftsmen in Colonial America who bartered rather than sold their goods in order to obtain other goods they needed. Thus someone who made such tools might barter them in exchange for some of a farmer's crops. A shrewd craftsman might then turn around and barter those crops for other staple goods. "Every American," writes Penrose Scull, "who had something to dispose of ... had to do a job of selling." In the truest sense, the best of these craftsmen became skilled at buying up and down until they ended up with something that a farmer might pay actual money for. Money was in short supply among the vast majority of colonists.

The scarcity of money had a significant effect on the early American economy. In Europe, for example, manufacturers limited the number of their products so as to sell them to a ready market of wealthy people at the highest possible price. In the colonies, on the other hand, manufacturers began to produce as much as they could to sell to the greatest number of people at the lowest possible price. This new concept helped trigger the invention of faster and cheaper ways to manufacture things, as when Ezekiel Reed invented a machine that could produce one hundred million tacks a year. In turn, this triggered a whole new phenomenon. Since Ezekiel's local market was not large enough, he had to enlist traveling salesmen who could sell to a new market.

The first of these peddlers, entrusted with the owner's wares on a basis of consignment, were generally poor young men driven by a burning desire to make a good living despite the tremendous physical hardships that stood in their way. These peddlers were the ancestors of our modern day manufacturer's reps. They were strong of body, capable of carrying on their backs tin boxes filled to capacity with fifty pounds of an assortment of small household utensils like combs, scissors, small tools, etc. Often they had to trudge through ankle-deep mud and much deeper snow over cow paths and narrow country roads when they were fortunate enough to come upon these. These adventurous young men were equally strong of will and must have had what one modern author described as "that fire in the stomach." Today's reps might find inspiration in the dogged persistence of those pioneer salesmen. Imagine the early peddler, his faced caked with dust or frozen by snowy winds arriving with his fifty pound cache on his back.

Like today's reps, those early peddlers were generally respected for their ethics. It was the exception among them who practiced the unethical tricks of the hucksters. Author Penrose Scull, quoting from a contemporary report about the peddler, describes him as resolute and enterprising, an honest dealer who would have quickly "run out of his routes and come to the end of his chain" had he resorted to a bag of deceitful tricks. Of course, occasional hucksters did exist then, those "first class bums and crooks," as Penrose Scull describes them, often given to "drunken brawls, bloody fights and shady deals."

The best of these peddlers must have been exciting to hear and marvelous to behold. When they began their persuasive pitches, "wants dawned on the minds of the household they had never known before," to cite the author's testimonial from an unnamed historian. That testimonial called to mind an old, old saying among salespeople: "Fan the fires of their desires and you'll not fail to make the sale."

Surely against the backdrop of those rustic peddlers it must be evident to those of us who reflect on it honestly that by and large those of us who today hang our heads and moan aloud that we are burnt out, probably never caught the fire in the first place.

Today's reps, of course, no longer take their wares with them. Yet the ultimate role of all salespeople remains the same. In the first analysis, what matters is not so much how the products of salespeople are conducted, but how they conduct themselves. There remains these three: attitude, knowledge and skills, but the greatest of these is attitude.

Corporate trainer, educator and speaker Dr. Peter A. Marino has written extensively on sales training techniques and their furniture retailing applications. Questions on any aspect of sales education can be sent to FURNITURE WORLD at pmarino@furninfo.com.