Why Are Sales Associates So Inept At Their Jobs?

"Hi! Can I Hinder You?"

One thing that never ceases to amaze me in the fragrance world is the army of sales associates tasked with "moving units." I encounter them whenever I step into a store.

We've all read the complaints, usually posted in forums after members meet snotty sales reps who hear very little and understand even less. Sometimes they're in stores, and sometimes these insane conversations happen on the telephone. There are a slew of reasons why these people wander department store fragrance floors, but people outwardly wonder why they're working in a field they know nothing about. How can someone whose job is selling perfumes be completely ignorant about perfume? Why don't department stores hire people with experience? People who actually know and love fragrance? What's wrong with them?

I'll bypass the lengthy editorializing and cut right to the answer: America's culture. Or, more specifically, America's "meritocracy." You think that department stores don't know what they're doing when they hire morons? You think they're oblivious to their customers' needs? Think again. Upper management, those invisible nobodies who do all the hiring, know exactly what they're doing.

In America, we have something called a "meritocracy." It's the fantasy idea that if a person gets an education, his "merits" in his field will grant him access to an upper middle-class lifestyle, making six figures by age forty. First you have to spend sixty thousand dollars of the government's money on an institution that dispenses the degree of your choosing. Then you have to take a high paying job that will make paying down your debt while living in your own place feasible, which is no easy task. Eventually, the thinking goes, you'll come out ahead, and become one of America's prized elite.

This, of course, is utter bullshit. If it were true, our economy wouldn't be in the toilet. The majority of jobs gained since 2009 would be white collar careers, not minimum-wage crap. The middle class, the largest customer base for degree-awarding institutions, would be growing, not shrinking. America would be on the rise, instead of in decline.

The truth is that the "meritocracy" is a good way to keep most of the population from ever becoming wealthy and truly successful. It's a terrific way to keep people down, so a select few can stay up. Most of the world's biggest successes never earned a degree - they didn't have that sort of time to waste. Think about it: if an education is being "bought" so that someone can "succeed," and it isn't being sought after for personal enlightenment or truly educational reasons, then the maxim "buyer beware" suddenly applies. Instead of gaining ground, an educated person in America loses years of his or her future to paying back incredible debt. The average college degree costs $35K. Most degrees are actually much higher than that, in the realm of $50K - $60K. A not insignificant number of young Americans attend Ivy League schools, or "big name" schools with religious affiliations that can land them $100K+ in the hole.

Great way to start your life.

What about those who can't afford an education? The single mothers who got knocked up at eighteen? The guys who simply lack the temperament for pointless lectures and filthy dorm life? The people who just aren't interested in going that deeply into debt for something so very far from a sure thing? What happens to those poor saps?

They wind up earning minimum wage, or around minimum wage, usually in the restaurant or retail sector. Waiters, busboys, sales clerks, cashiers, drivers. They won't rot away in a gutter, but they'll just barely get by. These are the folks working the fragrance counter at Bloomingdales and Macy's. They're kids off the street. They're women who wanted to bypass beauty school and work in "sales" instead. They make anywhere from $9.50 to $12 an hour. They work 37 hours a week, so the store doesn't have to give them full-time benefits. They work a "flex schedule," never knowing what the week will bring. They earn a 3% commission. They're not unionized.

They cost the stores very little.

This is how American companies want it to be. You see, if they actually required their employees to know something about the sector they're placed in, they'd tread dangerously close to needing people with "specialized skills." People who fall under that umbrella cost more, because they're usually educated. They're not looking to work for minimum wage. They want a salary.

So the stores decide to go the other way. They hire people with little to no knowledge of anything, and throw them on the floor. These people aren't there to know things. They're there to ring up sales. That's it.

And that's who we encounter when we have questions (and when we don't). That's who approaches us with samples and nonsensical comments about how much better some piece of garbage designer scent is than anything we've ever smelled before. These are the people waving coffee beans under our noses, as if that actually does anything. They're stupid; that's what keeps overhead low and profits high. That's Capitalism at its finest.

Of course, the job of selling perfume does require knowledge on the part of the SA, and it would be very good if SAs had an extensive background in fragrance, with intricate understandings of pyramids, families, and even a healthy dose of perfume history. It would be incredibly beneficial for every major department store in the USA to value knowledgable SAs, and hire based on how much they know. It would be helpful if they actually paid their SAs a competent living wage, but that's not how Capitalism works.

A Capitalist society values profit. You can only maximize profit by minimizing overhead and maximizing profit margins. You can only minimize overhead by hiring as few employees as physically possible, and paying them rock bottom wages. And that's only possible (and justifiable) if you can point to these employees and say, "Look, they're unskilled labor. That's why we pay them shit."

So the next time some little turd with a silver name badge and clip-on tie throws you a predatory grin and picks up a smelling strip, don't think of him as the problem. Remember how American society works these days, the miles of horseshit we've piled on ourselves with the "meritocracy" lie and the legion of twenty-somethings permanently damned to lower middle-class life because they're starting out with fifty times more debt than their parents or grandparents ever did. Remember the fact that Macy's can't afford to sell you a bottle of Bleu de Chanel if it can't pay the SA to "move units." Remember the Alamo.


A Note To "Newbies"

If you're new to fragrance and interested in exploring all that the fragrance world has to offer, I suggest you secure a steady confidence in yourself first, because there are dangers.

One danger, perhaps the least of them, is the issue of finances. This is in every form a pricy pursuit. There are certainly a few thousand "cheap" scents that can be had by the bottle for anywhere from $5 to $25, and running through them won't necessarily break the bank. But bear in mind that there are literally thousands of these "cheapies" out there, and if you're set on amassing a thorough collection of all of them, $5 a bottle suddenly takes on a different meaning.

Which brings me to the next danger: addiction. Yes, you're smiling. You're thinking I'm being an alarmist. Take it from someone who felt as you do; entertaining my interest in olfactory exploration seemed entirely innocent at the outset, but before long I found myself needing to own things I wasn't completely prepared to buy. I couldn't help myself. If I liked something, I wanted it, and eventually bought it. The feeling is not unlike that of "needing" a cigarette. You think you're in control by abstaining, but all the while you can't get it out of your head.

Another danger is what I call "collection confirmation bias." You have a fully formed opinion of a certain type of fragrance, and only partially formed opinions of others, and your collection is limited to your bias, and you automatically assume you smell terrific. Chances are only 50/50 that you're right. I see this all the time on Badger & Blade. That community is full of guys who collect cheaper "wetshaver" fragrances. Their bias is typically for things that are inexpensive and old-school. Many of these fellows wear this stuff exclusively, and they think they smell terrific. But do others agree? With such a limited range in their collections, it's likely they appeal to other people half of the time, and the other half they're actually annoying everyone around them. They've stopped on the one kind of fragrance they enjoy, and failed to diversify. A stopped clock is only right twice a day.

This brings me to the final and most relevant danger that you face. As a "newbie," you're hungry for information, for guidance, and you're impressionable. You scour the boards for tips, and take advice from others seriously. Most people are out to help you, but some have their heads up their asses. These are the people who imply that there are "wrong" fragrances and "right" fragrances, and that wearing and liking the "wrongs" makes you "inexperienced" and/or "naive."

In the fragrance exploration business, the "rights" and "wrongs" come in groups, not as individual scents. For example, liking and wearing Tuscany by Aramis is automatically "right." If you like it, you should wear it and enjoy it. But only pursuing aromatic fougeres, and strictly wearing those kinds of compositions is not the most open-minded and enlightening approach. You're better off branching out into other realms also, because who knows what else you'll discover and come to love? There are some excellent chypres and orientals out there as well.

Don't let anyone tell you that liking something specific is "wrong." Don't let people attach any meaning to your preference that strays beyond "you like it, and that's all that matters." If you like a specific designer frag, and many in the community do not share the sentiment, you're still "right," because what your nose appreciates is all that matters - your nose is the only one you have! There are no external social forces, no ideologies or beliefs that can outweigh your own feelings. There is no cost-to-value ratio that supersedes the priceless sense of pleasure gleaned from something you enjoy.

Why should anyone else dictate what you like? Why should you have to explain yourself? There are no reasons to entertain that audience, because there are no authorities in the community. Don't let anyone tell you that they know more about fragrance because they've smelled thousands of fragrances. A man with five thousand reviews under his belt has still only experienced 1% of what's out there. In 2016 there are as many perfumes in the world as there are stars in the sky. No man has experienced enough of them to claim the title of "expert."

Now go forth, and enjoy your new passion. A brave new world stretches yonder.


The Rise Of Niche May Be A Curse

Painting By Bruce Pennington

In the last ten years, the world has seen a proliferation of niche perfumes unlike any in history, with literally tens of thousands of independent and luxury perfume makers flooding the market. I won't go on and on about the nature of the industry in this post (this will not be a long post), as I'd rather ponder the implications that this phenomenon holds for society. In my view, things look grim.

Perfume is without question a luxury item, an unnecessary accoutrement to one's grooming routine that usually costs more money than it's worth. Yes, it's wonderful stuff, and sure, we're all the better for having it, but personal fragrance is the sort of thing that enters dead last on the list of Shit You Must Have. Food, shelter, steady work, transportation, all are infinitely more important.

What do we know about the fragrance industry as it parallels the global economy? We have seen in the last decade the formation of an incredible economic divide. In America, the top one percent of the population holds almost forty percent of the nation's wealth, while the middle class flounders at less than a quarter percent. The average niche perfume costs about $140 per 100 ml bottle. Which demographic do you think is buying these fragrances? Clue: the majority of middle class American families aren't blowing their money on niche perfumes.

The middle class makes up the majority of the population.

With this basic knowledge in hand, we must heuristically conclude that the majority of niche buyers are people in the upper class. They are a small subset of the population, but they are the drivers of the burgeoning luxury market, which sees continuing growth.

This bodes ill for society as a whole. While the majority of the American people (and European people, for that matter) struggle on a day-to-day basis to make ends meet, and an astonishing 43% of Americans live paycheck to paycheck, a tiny subset of anywhere from 5% to 15% of the population is making enough money to fuel an industry. Part of that industry is niche perfumery.

Of course there are outliers. Some who firmly inhabit the middle of the middle class will be tangential spenders who are either (a) bad with money, or (b) so obsessed, they don't care how they spend every last penny of disposable income. These people will buy niche at any cost and accumulate bottles as collectors, or as investors looking to re-sell. You can't tell me Dan "My Mickers" on Youtube is a one percenter - although he may be upper middle class for all I know. There are certainly many Dans out there.

But their numbers aren't enough to keep the insanely expensive niche perfume industry alive and well. Someone else is doing that. It's no coincidence that the niche market exploded after the crash of 2008. In the ensuing eight years, the economy stagnated for the majority of the population, but boomed at unprecedented levels for the already rich.

The chickens may be coming home to roost. The rise of niche may be a curse.

This election season has been many things to many people, but one thing I've noticed is that everybody is very, very scared. Everybody. Not just the lower and middle classes. Even the rich are terrified. The Koch brothers are scratching their heads, trying to fathom how we got to this point, with Donald J. Trump and Hillary Clinton the two major candidates. Two terrible choices. And if you know anything about the Koch brothers, you know they usually aren't scratching their heads during an election. They're usually rigging the shit out of our make-believe democracy. The fact that even they don't know what's going on has me, quite ironically, a little worried.

If Hillary wins, America's relationship with Russia will deteriorate further than it already has. A new Cold War will begin, which will be a gateway to WWIII. President Putin has already expressed rankling concern with America's missile defense system, stationed in Romania and several other remote outposts flanking his country. He astutely holds our "democracy" in low esteem, and considers anti-American foreign policy justifiable not only in bureaucratic terms, but also on moral grounds.

It's also reasonable to suppose that a Hillary victory would do little to stem the tide of ISIS attacks in Europe and the Middle East. And I'm a firm believer that we're headed for another catastrophic recession, possibly even a depression, with our fundamentally unsound stock market sitting a little too pretty.

A Trump presidency would guarantee a recession, triggered by evaporated investor confidence alone, and an emboldened Russia would simply go ahead with whatever plans it has to retake annexed Soviet territories, spurring all kinds of conflict. North Korea would grow the stones to act on its fantasies, our domestic economy would crater those tidy jobs numbers Obama's been bragging about, social politics would mudslide back to the fifties (in the last two years we've managed to make it as far back as the sixties), and the world would soon label America's vacationing travelers "refugees."

This all falls shy of being apocalyptic, but consider that at near negative interest rates on bonds, and certain commodities holding on by a thread, the Federal Reserve has no bullets left in its gun. Another crisis means we're on our own.

What does this have to do with perfume? Nothing and everything.

I'm not suggesting that these bad political choices are directly related to the world of niche fragrance. But I am suggesting that the burgeoning luxury market of niche is a symptom of a greater problem. It's nice that the wealthy have so much money that they can finance these start-ups and buy their overpriced compositions. It's wonderful that brands like Memo and Byredo and Clive Christian and Creed have sprung from the loins of Europe and found homes on the napes of lily-white necks across the continent. There's nothing wrong with it on an objective business level.

But the fact that there are so many of these niche fragrances, thousands of them priced at $250, $300, $500 a bottle (or more), signals danger on a social level. As Nick Hanauer said two years ago, "The pitchforks are coming." He couldn't be more right about that.

Don't let your scent trail lead them to you.