The Blender Salesman Who You Ignore at Costco

By
Image
Photo: Ryan McVay/Getty Images

Tyler Jensen,* 47
Salesman
Denver, Colorado

For the last 20 years, I’ve worked in sales. It’s always been fine. I made enough. But my life has gotten more expensive, mainly because of health-care costs. I wanted to find a routine where I could supplement my current income by working a few extra days here and there for a compressed amount of time. Something where I could go do it, end up with a decent amount of money, take a few weeks off, then do it again.

I’d always been a big fan of the Vitamix. I’ve had one for years. I love the product. Firm believer. Made in Cleveland. Family-owned company. I thought that something I love that much would be easy to sell.

How’s that working out? Not very well.

I signed up back in November 2015. They start you with approximately 120 hours of on-the-job training, shadowing a veteran rep for ten days. I followed my guy, I’ll call him Randy, for the first couple days. Then I started doing what he does, which is basically demonstrating the blender at Costco.

Costco sells a lot of Vitamix blenders. I don’t know but it’s got to be their biggest account. The company is committed to doing a certain number of shows per Costco per year. There’s a lot of Costcos. If you divide out the number of sales reps by the number of Costcos, times the number of shows per year they have to do in each Costco, that takes up 75 to 80 percent of each rep’s selling days.

When you’re demonstrating the machine, you go through the different things you can make. In order, it’s smoothie, ice cream, soup. When I trained, I learned those recipes. There’s a separate pitch for each section. Then there’s a closing pitch after the soup.

What I was taught to do by my trainer was to run through those scripts from beginning to end — whether there’s one person in front of you or zero or 20 — then start over and do it again.

From the beginning, there were little red flags. Randy had been doing this for 11 years. He was a veteran. He was making approximately $400 a day in commission over the ten days I worked with him. But he told me that he was paying for his own hotel. And that he was not getting a per diem from the company to buy food. That’s not normal, as far as I know, for a company to have its sales force work without anything like that.

I think that because I love the machine so much, I just saw everything through rose-colored glasses. The pay was going to be based on straight sales — all commission. There’s no set wage per hour. Which is fine. I’m a good salesman. I was being assured on all fronts by the managers, by my trainer, by people at Vitamix that there’s a certain dollar amount that all of our reps make — at least, the ones who are good. So I’m thinking that even if it’s a little slow, maybe 250 bucks a day. And I wasn’t really asking the question: How is it in February in, you know, Boise?

I wasn’t thinking through contingencies like a normal person would. Randy was getting paid to train me, and he probably was getting a bonus if I stayed on a certain amount of time after he trained me. In fact, I know he gets paid that way. So nobody was saying, “This looks good now in November, but once we get into January, February, March, it’s not going to be this busy. You’re not going to have a crowd of 12 people to watch your pitch on a Tuesday at 2 p.m. It’s going to be dead and really fucking boring.”

I found myself the first couple shows repeating my pitch over and over, just like I’d been trained, talking to no one, maybe one or two distracted people. It drove me fucking crazy. Sometimes it would work and attract a crowd, but 80 or 90 percent of the time, I’d put out the effort and there’d be absolutely nothing to show for it.

In my region, let’s say there’s 25 reps. If they get a 26th, say, me, that’s the dope who’s going to agree to go do the Costco shows that the other salesmen know not to do. Now, because I’m new, when they asked me, “Do you want to do a show in Bumfuck, Idaho, in February?” I say, “Sure, that’s fine.” Because I’m thinking: (a) I’m a team player; and (b) this will help me down the line with getting some better things, better shows. I’m not thinking that I’m going to make 12 bucks an hour and work my fucking ass off for ten days.

On a typical Saturday at Costco in Boise in February, the door count is maybe going to be about 4,000 cardholders, plus another 3,000 people who’ve come along with them.

We don’t determine where we are in the store, Costco does. Usually, they’re pretty good about putting us in a funnel location so the maximum number of people come past our booth. But on a Tuesday at 11 in the morning or 8 at night in Boise in February, there’s nobody in the store. If there is somebody, they don’t want anything to do with me. They just want to get a sample.

I have a big booth, it’s not like you’re going to be miss it. I have a big banner, probably ten-by-ten. A whole bunch of blenders, making noise. Visually and sonically, they can’t miss it. But of those 7,000 people, right after Christmas, maybe 4,000 of them will walk past me. Three-thousand of them will avoid me and not make eye contact. As they’re walking by, I try to make some kind of connection, even if it’s asking them, “Are you making smoothies at home? How do you like your blender?” It’s fucking exhausting. In the end, I’ll have handed out about 700 samples. And I’ll sell two blenders. That’s about 150 bucks commission. For an entire day’s work, on the road, not being at home with my family. It’s fucking demoralizing — demeaning, absolutely soul-crushing.

Costco’s hours are 10 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. I have to be there at least an hour early to set up and stay there at least a half-hour after closing to pack up. When I get to the Costco, I’ll go out and buy my produce — spinach, strawberries, carrots, celery, pineapples, oranges. I stop at a separate store to buy certain things like ice. Before the 10 a.m. start, I wash everything, cut it and prep it, bag it, and put it into my coolers — one for produce, one for ice.

The schedule had been pitched as a ten-day show. You go, travel somewhere, come home. But it’s really like doing a 12- or 13-day show. The day before the show, I have to go through my booth, make sure everything is there. I have to talk to the people at the Costco, and they’re generally totally helpful and fine, but I’ll spend three or four hours taking inventory of the blenders that they send to me on pallets. The exit day is a long-ass day as well because I have to tear my booth down, take another inventory, wrap the pallets, and make sure the pallets get sent back to Vitamix. The day after, you’re dead and all you want to do is sleep.

Five or ten years ago, it was a good time to be a Vitamix sales rep. Back then, instead of going to Costco, you were going to Sur la Table or Williams Sonoma, Whole Foods. The product still had a little mystique. They still sell at those places. But at this point, the market’s so successful, anyone who was going to buy one already did. Vitamix is now in Target. They’re on QVC.

I want to say 90 percent of the people who stop at my booth and seem interested already have a Vitamix. That’s great. It speaks well of the company. But I wish I had on film the number of times I’ve had people stand in front of me, listen to my pitch, ask me a bunch of questions, then order it on Amazon. Right in front of me. On their phone. If I see somebody doing it, I just say, “Put that phone away. I work for commission. I’m teaching you about this machine. Isn’t that worth the 20 or 30 dollars you’re going to save ordering it online?”

Just recently, they’ve changed the policy, the per diem, the hotel. I think they’ve made it a little easier to justify doing the job. The traveling reps can do a little better than they did the last few years. I think it’s just common sense to pay for your reps’ hotels and give them a little spending money per day when they’re on the road.

I think I’ve stayed this long, I guess due to inertia … and fear. Everyone knows the economy’s changed. It’s great for super-rich people. But the landscape of good jobs for everyone else has pretty much disappeared.

They lead you on with pimpery. There’s always the promise of a good show coming. A better time coming. A special deal coming. A really good fair or event coming. There’s always a better day for you, the sales rep. It’s right around the corner.

Growing up, my dad and his friends were all salesmen, and it was not uncommon at all to know really good sales reps who would make $150,000 a year, $200,000 a year. Now, that same sales rep might be lucky to make 100. These were people who worked hard. They spent 150 days a year or more away from their families, on the road, staying in shitty motels. But they were rewarded for it. Nowadays, it just seems like they’ve found all kinds of ways to rein everyone in. I think it’s technology, I think it’s greed, and I think it’s the fact that these middle managers who’ve taken over the world just couldn’t stand the fact that the salespeople were making more money than they were, even though they work much, much harder.

I don’t consider myself someone who’s easily hustled. I usually do the hustling. I don’t like to think that I’m dishonest, but I am a salesman. The kind of comes with the territory. I thought when I got hired that however hard you’re willing to work and however much you can hustle people and convince them they need a Vitamix, that’s how much money you’ll make. It’s absolutely not the case.

It’s not me and it’s not the product at all. It’s a great product. I’m a great salesman. But my trust in my own judgment — that is severely shaken. It doesn’t work the way I thought it would. Not just for me — for everybody. People I’ve told this to, my friends parents, spouse, etc., they ask me the same thing: What the fuck were you thinking? I was blinded by my love for the product. It sounds fucking silly because it’s a blender. I’ve used the thing day after day for years, and I fucking love it. I thought, if I love something this much, it’s going to be really easy to convince people to buy it.

*Name has been changed.

The Blender Salesman Who You Ignore at Costco