By Brendan I. Koerner
There are only two questions that I dread hearing: "What's that leaking out of your [insert orifice]?" and "May I help you?" Yes, I'm one of the millions of consumers who would prefer that salesmen only speak when spoken to. I know this quirk of character probably makes me seem like a real jerk in some of your judgmental eyes, but I can't help it—I'm too vain and too antisocial to quietly suffer the upselling of some Circuit City sales associate.
I trace my salesman-phobia back to early encounters with ads starring Cal Worthington (right), a car salesman and minor star in my native Southern California. Lots of the kids loved Cal's commercials because he'd tool around in a Dodge with a monkey, or ride an elephant across his lot. (The orca stunt was new to me.) But cynic that I am, I saw right through the zoological pranks and realized that this was exactly the sort of salesman who'd sell you that "anti-rust coating" that you didn't need—a Stetson-wearing version of William Macy's character from Fargo.
My distaste for pushy salesmen is part of the reason I've always liked stores with "discount", "value", or "99 cent" in their names. For the most part, the salesmen at these establishments aren't working on commission, don't know the first thing about electronics, and much prefer to check out the posteriors of passing females than assist you in selecting a Uniden cordless phone. They know that low prices are your personal deity, and thus there's no use in trying to get you to upgrade to something $100 more expensive—as if they stocked anything over $100 to begin with.
That said, it would be a gross oversimplification to say that all low-end salesmen are alike. Over the years, I've taken extensive mental notes on the Coby and jWIN hawkers I've come across, and I've managed to break down their genus into five distinct species. After the jump, the fruit of years of quasi-scientific research in the burgeoning field of low-end studies.
Mr. Hover Unlike his counterparts in the mainstream electronics world, Mr. Hover (aka Closeupensis lingeranosis) doesn't hang around because he wants to flip you upwards from the Pioneer PDP-4360HD to the more expensive PRO1130HD. Far from it—he's probably only seen a TV set that awesome at a sports bar, and he's never paused to consider the gaseous properties that make such sets tick. The reason he's breathing down your neck is because a couple of kids who looked a lot like you ripped off his store last week, doing a distract-and-dash scam with an armful of GPX CD players. If you want him to unlock the glass case that holds all the camcorder batteries, you're gonna have to make nice and compliment his cubic zirconia necklace, which mysteriously has a pendant reading "JUICY".
The Nephew This guy's family owns the store, so he's hip to the latest fell-off-a-truck shipment they got in. The one directive he's gotten from above is to get rid of the schwag fast, even if it means selling it far below the marked price. The Nephew will actually come up to you while you're looking at, say, a boombox and try to downsell you—"We've got a special on these slightly damaged Memorex MP3207s! Yeah, it'll play your Credence tapes, no problem. How much you wanna give me?"
The Bamboozler A particularly dangerous and, thankfully, rare species of low-end salesman. The Bamboozler seems to congregate primarily in the electronics shops around New York's Times Square, where tourists who've yet to figure out the exchange rate come in search of bargains. He doesn't exactly try to upsell, as his main goal is to get folks in and out of the store as quickly as possible. But he will prevaricate like Pinocchio on a moonshine bender. The Bamboozler's preferred strategy is to invent specs on the spot, figuring that his marks won't know that there's no such thing as a "telephotonic lens" on a digital camera. The species can be sussed out by giving him a pop quiz on memory-card options; if he claims that the SD in "SD Card" stands for "super dependable," run out of there as quick as your legs will take you.
Wide-Eyed Willie The last two dozen customers at Wide-Eyed Willie's multipurpose store bought tube socks and bootleg Manu Dibango CDs, so he's pretty amazed that he has a shot at selling you one of the Nextel push-to-talk phones that's been hanging in his display window since approximately the dawn of time. So amazed, in fact, that you actually have the upper hand on the guy; try to talk him into throwing in the used Emerson TV in the window, too, the one that he used to have hooked up to his (defunct) security-camera system. If you really play your cards right, you'll have a friend for life, and a hook up for buying toilet paper on credit the next time you're low on funds.
Up From Appliances This guy spent the last few months selling blenders on the other side of the store, but now he's moved over to the shelves with all the Apex DVD players. This is a prime location because it's close to the door, where the bin of $9.99 Coby CD players attracts girls during the summer months. The proximity to outside also gives him a chance to take more frequent smoke breaks. But don't be fooled by the easy smile and the fact that he calls you "brother man". Up From Appliances is secretly ambitious, and though he's not exactly pushy in the classic Guitar Center mold, he'll do what it takes to make sure you spend some cash. His preferred sales tactics include: pointing out the terrific bass on whatever weak-ass shelf system you're checking out, telling you "I owe one of these," and making vague promises that he'll invite you to his band's show at the local juice bar. Of course, when you come back several weeks later to either complain about the crappy CD player you bought, or ask when Up From Appliances' band is playing, you're informed that he just quit...in order to take a job at Circuit City.
NEXT WEEK: Rockin' in the free world, and on four tracks to boot.
Brendan I. Koerner is a contributing editor at Wired and a columnist for both The New York Times and Slate. His Low End Theory column appears every Thursday on Gizmodo.