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 because 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 afford to pay the SA to "move units." Remember the Alamo.


  1. Three points-
    1) I'm not sure where Americans got the idea that EVERYONE needs a university degree. I recall being told by one professor that all these English Lit and Liberal Studies degree holders were going to get jobs teaching.
    I'm sorry there just aren't that many jobs (teaching or otherwise) in the US that pay 6 figures a year, or even $50,000USD a year for that matter. We need plumbers & bus drivers & such too y'know?

    2) In Spring of 1990 you would have seen 19 yr old Bibi handing out Tresor scented peach colored polyester petals from a wicker basket on the main floor of Macy's Union Square in San Francisco. She was proudly wearing her Lancome uniform of black sheer stockings, black micro mini skirt, black suede 4 inch pumps, & silver satin big shouldered Lancome logo-ed jacket. That was her first "real" job after being a delivery girl for a little pharnacy in her home town. She was making about $9 an hour which wouldn't have even paid for parking in downtown SF. But she did get a store discount! Training given by Macy's & Lancome- a script of the perfume's highlighted notes.
    Next Xmas I worked at the Neiman Marcus Estee Lauder counter for about $10 an hour. The I started working at the Nordstrom fragrance counter for $12 an hour 15 hours a week all through university- & I still got my store discount!

    NM training- 6 hrs by an Estee Lauder rep.
    Nordie's training- 3 hrs by Nordie's on running the register & customer service, an occasional sales rep from various perfume companies would give us 1 to 2 hr product briefings. Creed had an exceptionally good sales rep that I really learned a lot from. Fortnum & Mason had a very knowledgeable sales rep at that time and launched some fragrance products that failed dismally. Never ever even saw a Guerlain sales rep.
    This was all in SF & Marin county - VERY wealthy, upscale, and expensive areas to live & work in.
    My friends who still work at dept stores say now they rarely even get to talk to sales reps, perhaps before Xmas or the debut of a new fragrance. A box with a sales kit arrives & that's about it.
    Now if you go to a fragrance counter in France, Switzerland or Germany the SA will have usually apprenticed at least 2-3 yrs in their field. Same goes for SA's in camera shops, shoe stores, kitchen appliance dealers etc.

    I HOPE I NEVER SMELL ANYTHING REMOTELY LIKE TRESOR'S PEACH/BENZALDEHYDE/ROSE/ETHYL VANILLIN synthetic atrocity again! (Such as Exclamation by Coty & Realm by Erox, even Dior's Dune.) You want to smell synthetics done badly? Try any & all of Sophia Grosjean's fumes.

    1. The idea seems to flow from an odd caricature of the American dream in which you earn your degree and become a "member" of society. My issue is that it shouldn't take ten years of your life to figure out (a) what you want to do with yourself, and (b) that life generally sucks. It doesn't conform to your philosophy about "deserving" a good, high paying job - and there is nothing about a piece of paper that makes you any more or less valuable to the greater good of society. Smart entrpreneurs recognize these truths early and get right into the risk taking - see the link above for examples of who I'm talking about.

    2. Meh, I really didn't know what I wanted to do with myself when I was 18. My 'uneducated' parents really wanted me to get a college degree. Dropped out of high school at 17, joined the Navy to see the world- dropped out of that in a year. Went to cosmetology school- finished, got my license & was bored with that. Got a "versatile" degree in organic chemistry and realized most of my college peers were graduating with useless degrees. So I extended my o chem degree to pharmacy because there was a shortage of pharmacists & I knew I could get a well paying job anywhere.
      Student loans were paid off after my 1st year out of university & I bought a house the next year.
      I really hated the whole build a career/mortgage/treadmill/joining the rat race/becoming a "member" of society BS though. Dallied in real estate and my own cosmetic line too. Did it for 10 yrs then sold all that crap I thought I needed to buy, travelled the world, married a sheikh & became a Muslim housewife. My life doesn't suck anymore! (Don't tell Gloria Steinem or Betty Friedan.)

  2. I hadn't thought of the economic rationale for hiring non-specialist staff and paying peanuts. I assumed it was because the average person doesn't need or want too much product information, but are happy to squirt and buy, ie it is inherently an impulse purchase for many, fuelled by the gloss and glamour of those high budget, deeply shallow(!) and vacuous perfume ads.

    1. You'd be surprised how many people have questions that reps can't answer - a forgivable situation if these reps would just admit ignorance. That so many of them insult customer intelligence with ridiculous answers makes shopping at department stores and even many mom & pop shops quite trying on one's patience. It's gotten to the point where reps are telling Chanel buyers their store's frags are "mostly natural." It takes a heavy concern for the bottom line to be comfortable with that much stupid.

  3. You opened the proverbial Pandora's box here Bryan
    because it's only a matter of time before these "un-specialized" sales persons will be replaced by much more efficient, knowledgeable and cost effective robots. Many people still laugh this away thinking it's not happening anytime soon but make no mistake about it; it's coming.

    1. Very true, although it's not a sure thing - fast food restaurant chains will probably attempt to mainstream robot clerks first. Right now at about $250K per machine the prospect is cost prohibitive, but there will be a relaxation in the market for robots once a few dozen restaurants decide to keep them and demand opens up competition between robot manufacturing companies. If it proves to be a truly revolutionary approach to retail in the food industry, expect to see some pop up in department stores. However I suspect that companies have shied away from this approach because technology doesn't favor moving robots, only stationary units. Part of good salesmanship is the ability to "lead the customer" to the most mutually beneficial purchase. $250K is a hefty sum for something stationary.

  4. It also depends on the outlet. Some companies provide their own sales associates (I've been acquainted with a regional manager and some of the staff at Lancome, iirc), who do know their stuff......or at least a rehearsed version). Though they're more common at places like Neiman Marcus, Bloomingdales, or the more upscale Macy's locations.
    I wouldn't be surprised if the ones at Sephora or ones who don't rep a particular brand are hired because their wages and commissions are low. But I'm also guessing that technical info isnt good for sales. Sure, someone who frequents the fragrance fora, blogs, vlogs (and has been following that whole fragrance community blowout last week like a soap opera), might like to know about the performance, the note pyramids, trying it out to see how it dries down etc, and good sales reps can be informative about that (I remember an Acqua Di Parma sales rep offering me some samples so I can give them a full wearing before committing to a purchase). But the average person wants something that smells "good" or "sexy," which is what will sell the hundred billionth bottle of the new Armani scent. Something like "this might be better for a night out since it contains *insert dense or sweet notes*. It might not be suitable for office wear. Try this one instead, here's a sample" would just confuse most people

    1. True, many stores are aware that the average shopper isn't interested in deep analysis of whatever is on the shelf. That may contribute to how dynamic SA involvement is.


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