There’s No Honest Retail

I met an elderly glove salesman many years ago, when I was working at a hardware store. That may seem rather uninteresting. He was nondescript as well. He drove an old car and wore an old brown overcoat. For many years, he would show up out of the blue one time in the fall and then in the spring. His white hair was a little too long but his handshake was strong and his smile was kindly under his shrewd blue eyes.

I enjoyed talking while I picked out gloves for our store to sell. It was complicated. There’s so many categories – kids, womens, and mens, working gloves, gardening gloves, hunting gloves and then many sizes. I made spreadsheets about how many gloves we sold by season and what kind sold the best. I had a list of customers who had specific needs. That old guy wasn’t our only glove salesman; young, pushy, hurried, etc. but this guy was my favorite. I would listen to him tell me what was the best buy and then his best sellers and I would choose several hundred pair of gloves to purchase out of his trunk. His prices were always the best.

I loved this process, the buyer’s sense of retail vs the seller’s need to earn. One day the old man sat down with me in the hardware breakroom, and proceeded to tell me his personal story – about how all his life, he had sold gloves out of his trunk in three states. He said he knew this kind of business was going away and wanted to know if I would type up his story. It was hand-written on notebook paper. I agreed and we parted.

Not long after that I received his story in the mail and over a period of a couple months, in my spare time, I typed it into book form. Then I mailed it back to him. I never heard from him or saw him again. For many years, I kept his story in my computer. He was a very interesting man.

This salesman taught me a very important lesson about life and salesmanship. When I asked him what he thought I should sell gloves for he said “There is no honest retail.” He said that nothing has a real retail but it does have a true cost. Knowing the real cost is what we all need to know in life. He said that the big stores were no better than a canny glove salesmen. He had been able to live in the margin between his cost and his sales but the big companies undercut that margin to the point where he and other salesmen couldn’t survive.

Now I find myself that old person. I look around and see small businesses are disappearing. Everything I buy has an inflated retail. In this modern economy, how do we interpret the lesson of the canny traveling glove salesman? Businesses and government know what people want and what they are can pay. But nowadays, how do we establish the real cost? What is a life or survival worth, for example? Can you pricetag happiness? What are we deserving of; and what must we earn? I don’t think I am as shrewd as that old glove salesman. I can’t answer these questions.

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