"No, I did not."
"In '65, Tennis & Son seemed to be the booming firm in hardware there. They were rich and had a big trade. The old man died, the boys ran through the business so fast that you couldn't catch it with a gun. Oh, I've seen a good many fellows go under in twenty years."
"And you think it's always their own fault?"
"Not always. I've seen some mighty good fellows go down. I remember a Toledo concern—good workers, good habits, living economically, but '76 pinched them to the wall. I tell you it's hard to see such men fail. It's like death to them. They fight against it until it's no use fighting longer, and it's pitiful to meet them."
"How is plated ware?" I asked, to be sociable.
"Like all other ware, mighty hard to sell. There's several Rogers, all genuine, but I'm the head one. Our goods are the best known and the best, but if another 'Rogers' offers 2 1/2 per cent, better, off goes my customer. Do you have folks so confounded close?"
I assured him, laughingly, that I had.
"Well," said he, "it's funny. I'm not so all-fired close when I buy a suit of clothes; I don't leave a man if he won't throw in a pair of suspenders; but dealers will go back on their best friend for a tooth-pick. I'd like to sell a line of goods like Chris Morgan's, where the price isn't mentioned."
After dinner I called on Harris and found him scolding the boys in the store-room. I saw he was irritable, and would have gone out if I could, but he saw me and I had to advance.
"D—n those Eastern fellows," said he, vindictively, "I'd like to wring their necks."
I had to appear interested and ask why.
"Because they're such infernal fools. Here's a case of 150 pounds just in by express with $3.37 charges; could have come by Merchants Dispatch for 69 cents. But the fool clerks they have down there have the most insane idea about express, and every little while will shove something like this in on us."
"Can't you charge it back?"
"D—-d if I don't!"
He went into the office and ordered the book-keeper to charge up the difference. I could sympathize with him. As stock clerk I had seen many a box come in from the East by express that we were in no hurry for, and that was never ordered to be so sent. The parties doing most of this are not in New York stores, but at the factories. In the small towns where most factories are, express and freight bills are paid once a month in a lump, and the clerks and shippers do not see the cost of each shipment. This makes them careless as to such charges, and to receive or send a big box by express is a matter that does not need a second thought. But in the cities, where each package is paid for when delivered, the clerks soon learn how express charges count up, and they do not ship so carelessly.
Perhaps I said something of this to Harris, but he finally turned to me sharply and said, "What are you selling?"
I handed him my card again.
"Oh, yes; well, we don't need any."
Goodness! How disappointed I was! I guess I looked it, for he added, "Unless you've got some d—d low prices."
I assured him I had, and made up my mind to give him only our ordinary figures; I had heard our senior say once that the man who talked this way was never a very close buyer.
Just at this moment a very pert young man came in at the office door, walked up to Harris, handed out his card in a way that pushed me to one side, and said:
"Mr. Harris, we've got the best butcher knife there is in the market."
"Better than Wilson's?"
"Yes, sir; better than anybody's."
"How does your price compare with Wilson's?"
"We are about the same."
"Then I don't want it. Wilson's are good enough for me."
"But I can show you ours is better."
"I don't want any better, unless it's at less price. Wilson's sell themselves."
The young man looked crestfallen and soon went his way; I took up my story, but instead of asking about this, that or the other article I handed him my price-list and asked him to look it through. He stretched himself on his lounge, and taking the book was about to open it, but stopped to ask, "Have you got a cigar about you?"
When I had given Mr. Harris a cigar and he had lit it, and when he had once more resumed his horizontal position on the lounge, I proceeded to take his order. He was an easy man to sell. The stock was low on some of my goods, and he had a favorable impression of my house, so he ordered easily, saying but little about prices until we came to cartridges.
"Whose cartridges are you selling?" he asked sharply.
"We handle both the U. M. C. and Winchester."
"We don't keep them in stock, but I can get them for you if you prefer them."
"I won't sell any other."
I was curious to know why.
"Just because I like Hulburt; he's one of the nicest men there is in New York, and I'm going to handle his cartridges every time."
"But," said I, and very cautiously, "don't you find some trade that will insist on having the other brands?"
"Yes, and they can go somewhere else and get them. I wouldn't buy a U. M. C. cartridge if there never was any other. Reachum uses their goods to cut prices with, and, d—n 'em! they can sell him, but they can't sell me."
I finished the bill, then chatted awhile with him about trade.
"There's no money in business," said he; "times were when you could make a profit, but nowadays it is a struggle to see who can sell the lowest. There's a revolver that I bought of Tryiton for 53 cents, and our men say he has advertised it all over for 55 cents. How the devil am I to pay freight and sell for 2 cents profit? There is no such idiocy in any business today as in the gun trade. A jobber has to fight against every other jobber and the manufacturers too. The U. M. C. folks are said to back up Reachum, and Simmons is supposed to have Winchester behind him, and away they go, seeing who can cut the most and be the biggest fool."
"But is it not so in other lines?"
"No; the prices are not advertised to any such extent as with guns and ammunition."
"Then you think the factories could stop it if they chose?"
"Oh, the factories be d—d! Seven-eighths of the factories are managed by school-masters. They get up their little schedule of prices just as they draw off their 'rules and regulations' for their help, and expect the dealers of the country to dance to their tunes."
I thanked him for his kindness and went on my way very well content. But when I sat down to copy off the order I was put in quite a quandary. Traveling men meet such men as Harris frequently. He gave the order because he was friendly to the house, but he had not asked for prices on anything. What was I to do? I had several prices, for my figures were elastic, to offer trade, according as the buyer was a close one or not, and just where to put Harris I did not know. I proposed to ask him all I dared and not get into trouble, but to decide on what this limit was gave me some study.
The other trade in the city I attended to carefully, and was well satisfied with my work. In the evening I started for C. As I went into the car there were three men at one end talking rather loud and sociably, and I went as near to them as I dared. One of them had lately been out to Denver and that section, and was describing to his audience the wonderful perpendicular railroads of Colorado, I soon found that all three were connected with boots and shoes, but handling different grades or styles, so they did not conflict. Of course they were from Boston, and equally of course they were rather priggish. The talker was not more than 22 or 23 years old, but the immense experience he had passed through was more than wonderful, and the old chestnuts he got off as having happened to himself were beyond Eli Perkins' power of adaptation.
"I had a customer in Peoria," I heard him say, "who picked up a goat shoe and said 'he supposed dat was apout tree sefenty-fife.' I told him it was $5.25. 'O, tear, tear,' said he, 'can't you make him four tollar? Shake dells me: Fader, ton't you puy ofer four tollar. You should see my Shake; he is only dwendy-dwo, but he got a young head on old shoulters.' I told him that, seeing it was he, I would make the price $5, and he ordered twenty-four pairs."
He told this as if it was the most comical story ever heard, and he laughed both long and loud over it, as did his two friends.
"When are you going home?" one asked him.
"Next week; been out over two months; had a big trip, but I don't expect to do any more traveling."
"No! Why not?"
"I'm going to be married."
"No! Who to? Are you telling the truth?"
"Yes, I am; honest; going to marry the boss's daughter. She and I used to go to school together, and I honestly believe she made the advances to me, rather than I to her. Oh, yes; I'm all fixed; going to stay in the office and help the boss."
I wondered what kind of a girl the "boss's" daughter could be, to marry such an ass as this, and I would have been glad to see the photograph of her that he passed to his friends, but I made up my mind that the "boss" was getting a rare prize in a son-in-law.
Sitting in the smoking room of the hotel that evening I heard some men mention names that were familiar to me, and I discovered the talker to be a groceryman.
"If our goods are close," said he, "the sales are large and folks have to buy. I heard H. K. Thurber say that the best year's business that he ever did was on a net profit of 1-3/4 percent."
"Phew! How much did he sell?"
"Eighteen or twenty millions."
"I've been in Thurber's store," said another, "and I tell you they have things down fine. I think H. K. Thurber had the best head on him of any man I ever saw. He was quick as lightning; his judgment was good; he had no soft spot for any one, and he didn't tell his plans to any one. But Frank, his brother, seems to be just as successful, and yet is very different."
"He's the politician, isn't he?"
"Yes; he was a Greenbacker, and anti-monopoly, and lots of other things. Some of these days he'll be Mayor of New York, or go to Congress, and he'll be heard from. His public life is profitable now, for it helps to advertise Thurber's business."
"Well," said another, "You've got to get up mighty early to get ahead of Hoyt in Chicago. They don't sell as many dollars, perhaps, as Thurber, but they have sand, and they don't put it in their sugar, either."
"I like groceries. A dealer has to buy them, whether times are good or bad. Folks must eat."
"And take medicine?"
"Yes, and take medicine. And, by the way, do you know that the grocers are giving druggists a lively time on medicines? They are. Thurber has a drug department, and advertises them at 'a grocer's profit.' Lots of others have gone in, and the day will soon be here when a man can buy his sugar and quinine in the same place."
"What will druggists do?"
"What have they been doing the last ten years? Sell teas and coffees, cigars and tobaccos, and fancy goods. Look at a drug store in holidays, and it is full of plush cases, placques, bronzes, and goods that were supposed to belong to jewelers. The bars are dropping down in every line."
"Business is done in queer ways," said a man who was sitting near me. "Tobacco men give away guns in order to sell their tobacco; coffee is sold by giving plated ware, baking powder by glassware, boots and shoes by giving dolls and sleds, ready-made clothing by a prize of a Waterbury watch, and soap by giving jewelry. Nowadays a dealer don't ask you about the quality of your goods, but about the scheme you've got to sell them. It's a demoralizing way of doing business, and ruining trade."
"That's so! That's so!" was echoed from all sides.
Stepping into a hardware store early the next morning, after introducing myself I was handed a letter sent to me in the care of the firm. I was very glad to receive it, and accepted the pleasantly given invitation to sit down and read it.
No man should greet a letter with more welcome than a traveling salesman. It is a tie that connects him with home, he who is so wholly disconnected. He is always wondering what his house may think of this sale, or that price, or this failure to sell, and be he never so sure that he has done well, still the assurance from home that they recognize his success makes him happier.
Houses differ much in their manner of writing to their traveling men. A friend of mine who lately made a change told me his principal reason for leaving the old house was the letters they wrote him. "I never cut a price in the world, unless I had to do it to meet a competitor; but if I did it, no matter for what cause, I was sure to be reminded that I had not been sent out to 'cut,' but to make money. Yet when I came home and explained why I did it, I was told I had done the right thing. But they nagged me the next trip just the same, and I grew tired of it."
I did not find any such letter as that. It was a hearty commendation of my work and braced me up for the future. "We miss you in the stock," the letter read; "but we can put up with all that while you do so well on the road."
I spoke of this to a traveling man. "Well," said he, "I scarcely ever hear from my house from one end of the trip to the other. Our goods don't vary in price very much, and I'm not much of a hand at writing letters. I send in my orders when I've any to send, and when I've none I save postage. But I know men who have a printed form, and they have to fill one out and send home every night, orders or no orders. That's too much like being a sleeping-car conductor for me."
After reading my letter I turned to Mr. Shively with determination to sell him a good bill. But I saw he had a customer, and kept out of the way, but not too far to hear the conversation.
"That," said Shively, "is a better gun than the ordinary Lafoucheaux—a good deal better. I know you can buy of Reachum and Shiverhim & Gaily for $7.65, but there is all of $2 difference in the goods, and the man who should appreciate this the quickest is the retailer."
"But I can't get a cent more for this gun than for the others; buyers will not discriminate."
"You give them no opportunity. You take it for granted that they will go to the lowest-priced places, so you insist upon buying the lowest-priced goods, but I tell you, Mr. Thompson, you are making a mistake. A certain proportion of every community runs after the lowest prices; a large majority seek good value for their money, and a small percentage, who are fools, buy only high-priced goods. Then again, a share only of the trade will come to you or me. Our competitors, no matter how mean they may be, will have their own friends, and, try as we may, we can only draw a certain share of the trade."
"Of course it is so. And the dealer who looks these things squarely in the face and acts accordingly is the one who succeeds. I remember when I was younger I expected to do all the business in my line here. There was a run on Parker's gun. The list price was $50; they cost us $37.50. Every one was asking the list, but making a small cut if necessary. I had a fair trade in them, but I concluded I would do more, so I advertised the price $45. This did not accomplish what I expected, so I came down to $42.50, and finally to $40. I sold a few more guns than I otherwise would have done, but I did not make one dollar more of gross profit. In order to attract a few extra buyers I had been cutting down prices to men who would have bought of me, whether or no, and I stopped it."
"I remember my first Parker gun," said Thompson; "I called a man into my store to look at it, one who talked as if he knew all that was worth knowing about guns. He opened it, looked through it, sighted it, etc., then asked the price. I quoted $50. 'That settles it,' says he, 'I wouldn't have it; a good gun can't be bought for any such money,' and he dropped it as if it was a hot brick. The next time I showed it I asked $75, and I sold it at $65."
"Yes," said Shively, "the fools still live; I'm one of 'em. I suppose I do things just as bad as that every day, but I don't do it knowingly. Here's this craze over Smith & Wesson's revolvers. A man, for some good reason of his own, wants a revolver in the house. He hopes he shall never have to shoot with it, but for fear he may need one he buys it. The chances are ninety-nine in one hundred that he has never been a marksman, or if he was he is so much out of practice that he could not hit a door off hand, and with his nerves steady. I show him a good revolver at $2.50, or a double action bull-dog at $3. But he asks, 'Have you Smith & Wesson's?' Of course I have; single action $9.35; double-action, $10.35. I explain that the cheap one is as safe to the shooter as this is; that the chances are not one in a hundred that a man can jump out of bed excitedly and hit a burglar off-hand; that no burglar, hearing a shot, waits to be informed whose make of revolver is used, and that practically the cheaper pistol is the most sensible for him to buy. But he has a foolish idea that he is going to be a much more formidable fellow with a Smith & Wesson under his head, and he takes that. And because of just such idiotic men Smith & Wesson can ask a big price for their goods."
I was much interested in that talk, and sorry when the two men separated. But I was there to sell Shively some goods, and I went at it right heartily.
"I am rather tired of the gun business," said he, "and would drop that branch quite willingly. It is being managed on the basis of brag rather than that of brains. Any fool can sell a revolver at 92 cents that cost him 90, or a gun for $7.50 that cost him $7. No brains are required to do that. The poorest salesman I have on the road sells the most goods and makes me the least money. The gun business has got into the hands of men who have just brains enough to run a ten-cent counter store."
"Is it not about as bad in other lines?" I asked.
"No, not quite. There is much more detail to other lines. The gun business is compact and the line small. Consumers pick up names of makers quicker, and post themselves easier. A man buys a pistol or gun but once or twice in his life, and he gives the matter considerable study and shops around a good deal. Fifteen years ago Kittridge of Cincinnati used to be the champion cutter, but either he is out of business or has changed his tactics; now St. Louis and Chicago have gone into the postal card business and struck the 'Me Big Injun!' attitude. Here is a card one of my men sent in from a little town to-day. Shot quoted 80 bags $1.16! The man can't buy 80 bags in 80 months, and the house sending the card to him knows it, but it gives him a basis to work on us, and hurts us without helping anyone."
"Yet you buy of these card men?"
"No, I don't, d—n them; I'd shut up shop sooner. There is no reason in the world for wholesale gun stores; the business ought to be handled by the wholesale hardware trade, and ought to be done in a legitimate way on a legitimate profit. But some idiotic manufacturer, either being hard up for money, or envious of a competitor, goes to one of these gun houses and offers a special cut price, and within twenty-four hours every little cross-roads dealer is advised of the cut."
"I heard a man swearing just about the same way about screws," I said.
"Screws? Oh, yes; that's so. Screws have been about as mean. One factory used the hardware trade of the country to club a competitor, and thousands of dollars of values were wiped out in the operation. I had, say $1,000 worth of screws, bought at 75 percent off. Russell & Erwin wanted to hurt the American, so down went screws to 80. That didn't settle the business, and next they went to 90 off. What was worth $1,000 at 75 off was worth but $400 now. And this cut was advertised everywhere, so that retailers insisted on getting it. The orders as sent in were not filled, and retailers' orders on us were much larger than before. By and by we had no stock, and then, without any reason other than their own sweet will, prices went up again. It was a most outrageous piece of business from beginning to end."
"I am glad all the bad work is not done in guns," said I, "but how is your stock? I think bull-dogs are going to advance."
"I suppose they are; look at this letter."
He handed me a letter from a New York house which read:
New York,——, 188—.
Messrs. Rhodes & Shively—Gentlemen: I have entered your order for 100 "Blank" Bull-Dogs at $2.85, prices guaranteed. Please send on specifications. A combination is about to be formed among the manufacturers, and prices will advance to $3.25. Yours respectfully,
This was news to me, so I opened the letter I had just received from home and read to him:
"We have just got in a large lot of 'Blank' bull-dogs and you may cut prices to $2.65."
"Well," said he, "what the devil does this man mean by sending me such a letter?"
"He undoubtedly believed there was going to be an advance and booked you for 100 revolvers."
"What is your price on cartridges?"
"Fifty-nine per cent."
"There is another smart combination. The cartridge association puts my competitor in the A class and gives him 50 and 10 off, but we, who have to sell in the same town and to the same men, can only get 50. It's the most childish and sickly combination that I ever saw. Manufacturers seem to sit up nights to see what infernal fools they can make of themselves. Now I tell you there are only two classes of dealers—wholesalers and retailers. If a man is a wholesaler he should have wholesaler's prices, and if he isn't he shouldn't. But your smart Aleck manufacturers want to rate them, as Bradstreet does, and give 12 1/2 off to the A class, 10 off to B, 7 1/2 to C, 5 to D, and list to E."
"But a man who buys 1,000 dozen axes ought to buy for less than he who buys but 100 dozen?"
"Not a bit of it. If both men sell at wholesale they ought to be on one level, otherwise the smaller buyer can not hope to succeed. And I tell you it is much more to the interest of manufacturers that there should be six small houses in a town than one extra large house. Your large buyer is autocratic; he can break the market, and often does it to his own hurt, as well as to the damage of every one else. The average buyer is content to buy as low as his competitor, or if he gets a little inside price, keeps it to himself, lest his competitor shall know it."
"You seem to have figured it out pretty thoroughly."
"I have, and I know what I'm talking about. But of all the silly things manufacturers do, they never get quite so absurd as when they undertake to advertise."
"I can explain what I mean by showing you this letter," said Mr. Shively. "Here is a line of goods I proposed to handle, and wrote the manufacturer for prices. He has advertised them largely, but has not worked up a very large sale as yet, though he has succeeded in making them pretty well known. He writes me he will discount 35 and 5 per cent., and adds: 'Please do not quote or sell at better than 30 and 5.' What does he take me for? The list is $12; 35 and 5 off brings the net price to $7.41, and if I sold at 30 and 5 off, I get $7.98, or 6 per cent. on the investment, and I pay freight out of that! But this manufacturer thinks I am liable to cut under $7.98, so kindly cautions me against doing it. He must have a mighty queer idea of a merchant's profits."
"What would you do if you were in the manufacturer's place, to begin with?" I asked.
"First decide on a fair retail price. Every article must first be judged on this basis. It is not 'What will the jobber pay for this?' that decides the cost of goods, but 'What will this retail at?' Having decided this, then settle on a discount from this price that will pay the retailer a fair profit, and in quoting prices to the retail trade stick pretty close to this. Then the jobber should have a margin of 15 per cent. at least, and yet be able to sell retailers at my price."
"But suppose the goods will not allow all this."
"They must allow it if they are to be handled by the trade in a regular way, and they will always allow it if proportioned aright; but what I complain of is that so many manufacturers are unable to comprehend the jobber's position. Here is a sheep-shear that is advertised to consumers at $1.25 per pair; the maker says the lowest he can sell at and make a small margin is $8 per dozen. There is a good margin between $8, factory price, and $15, consumer's price, but how is it divided? A retailer is quoted the goods at $8.65 and the jobber at $8. Don't you see that common sense would say $10 to the retailer and $8 to the jobber? If the jobber wants to sell at less than $10 let him do so (he is sure to do it), but the manufacturer should not."
"Some houses ignore the jobbers altogether; what would you do with them?"
"They are all right; I have no fault to find with them; I can meet all of such competition, and without worrying. No factory can handle my trade so cheaply as I can. A great deal of my trade no factory can reach. Salesmen get higher salaries from the factories than we pay. They only get the trade they drum; there is very little of mail orders from the small trade sent East; what they need they want quickly. Both Russell & Erwin and Sargent & Co. have drummed the retail trade for years, but they have done jobbers no harm, and of late are very anxious to get the jobbing trade. I don't fear the drummers from the factories, but I do dread the low quotations they scatter around, because I must meet their figures."
Mr. Shively seemed pleased at having a good listener, and had talked as if enjoying himself. While I was very much interested in his views, still it is probable I should have acted just the same even if I had cared nothing about what he said. No higher compliment is paid to a man than to place him over you as your teacher. I left him after getting a fair order from him, and passed into a large retail store.
That undefined line between the large retailer and the small jobber is a delicate one on which to tread. It is rarely that a retailer will buy of his home jobbers. Every jobber will sell more or less at retail; will tread on the toes of his retail neighbor, and the latter has a special desire to buy as low as the jobber does. Much of his stock is bought at such prices; on a large part he is assured by the salesman that he is getting as good prices as the largest jobber in the land. If one is not direct from headquarters it is doubtful ground to walk on, but it has to be taken care of.
I handed my card to the man whose face seemed to me to show authority and ownership, and I was not mistaken.
"Guns!" said he, "we don't handle guns."
"But you do revolvers and cartridges." I had seen them in the show-case.
"Yes, but we don't sell them. The jobbing houses are retailing at wholesale prices, and we poor retailers stand no chance."
"You must retail at wholesale prices, too. You can buy about as close as they do, and you can do retail business as cheaply as they can."
"Yes, but don't you see, no matter what our prices are they are retail prices, and for the same reason their's are wholesale; the idiotic public loves to be fooled, and will fool itself if no one else takes the job. What are cartridges worth?"
"Two dollars and ten cents per 1,000 for 22s."
"Why, I can buy here in town for that!"
"I presume you can; we make no money on cartridges; neither do the jobbers here or anywhere else."
"Well, if you can't beat the houses here, how do you expect to sell goods?"
"Oh, cartridges are but one item in a very long list, and, profit or no profit, people must have them."
I always expect a retailer to tell me that I must beat his home jobber, or he will not buy of me. But I know that this is not often true. He will not buy of the home jobbers at the same price, for he feels that he is building up his competitor. I have seen a great many jobbers who had spent time and money trying to get control of all the trade in their own city, but I never saw one who did not finally give up in disgust. It is not human nature to be willing to help build up a man who is in any way your competitor, and often you would rather pay a trifle more elsewhere than buy of him. This may not be "business," but it is human nature, and there are many places where the latter is by far the stronger.
I undid my sample roll and showed my revolver samples to Mr. R. Almost every revolver reminded him of something, and I listened to his stories with the interest of a man who wanted an order.
"There is no trade in the world so mean as this," said he. "People come in here for a revolver, and I am almost sure they mean mischief with it. What am I to do? My refusal to sell one will not prevent their getting it, yet I hate to sell to them. Of course a large majority of those I sell are sold to people whom I know, and I know they buy them for proper use. But a woman will slip in here and slyly ask for a revolver, and I am wondering if she is going to commit murder or suicide. Many a time a man looks so woe begone as he buys a pistol that I make some excuse to keep him from loading it here for fear he will blow out his brains right in the store."
"Did anything like that ever happen with you?"
"No, not with me, but it has happened. I read of a man going into a gun store, buying a revolver, asking the clerk to load it (doing it all calmly), and then placing it at his temple and falling down dead. I believe I would go crazy if such a thing were to happen in my store, and I always worry more or less for fear it may. It's a mean business at the best; I wish there were no revolvers made. What do you get for this?"
"Well, send us six."
I sold him a fair bill, and then spent the afternoon trying to sell two other large retailers, but without success. One of the men was snappish, the other good-natured but full of goods. I did want, very badly, to get a little order out of them, but when I went to supper I had nothing from them. After supper I went down to the cross-grained man's store determined to get so well acquainted with him that I could meet him again under different auspices.
He looked at me as if he expected to be pestered in some new spot, but I put him at rest by saying I had a little time to lounge and thought I could do it there. At this he dropped some of his frowns and began to be sociable. We talked until I was sure it was long after his shutting-up time, so I bade him good night, saying I was going off in the night.
"Don't you ever drink a glass of beer or wine?" he asked.
"All right; let us lock up and go down the street a block."
I think a merchant who does not want to buy usually feels uneasy to have a traveling man about the store. He keeps up all the barriers that he can, so that he shall not be led farther than he intends to go. If he becomes very friendly it may be all the harder for him to say "no" by and by, so he keeps up an uncomfortable stiffness and is glad to see the salesman go. I have seen this, or thought I saw it, often and often in my own case. I could not get the dealer to be friendly with me while I was in his store, but perhaps I met him in the hotel and found him cordial and sociable.
The retail dealer who had invited me to take a glass of beer with him had been rather stiff in his own store, but the moment he turned the key in the lock he seemed to throw away his coldness and became very talkative. We sat down at a table and our beer was brought.
I doubt if any traveling man ever became a drunkard, because of the drinking necessary to be done among his customers. A little of it appears to be really necessary. But this little would lead no one to excess. The men who drink to excess are those who patronize bars with other traveling men, and who drink alone. The temptation is great. Every hotel has its bar; all introductions and intimacies have to be sealed with a drink, and the man who does not feel bright, or fancies he does not, has a row of bright bottles beckoning to him to "brace up" with a glass of their contents.
I do not wonder that the pulpits and all thoughtful people cry out against the drinking of liquor. Every traveling man's experience, the tales he could tell of the financial and moral ruin of men from drinking, and men who are usually the most intelligent and who ought to be the most influential, are all in the line of the injunction to taste not the accursed stuff. I say this after years of experience; I felt it on my first trip, but I was so anxious to ingratiate myself into the good graces of every man I wanted to sell to that I drank with customers when asked, and when it seemed wise invited them to indulge with me.
Do you say that the foolishness of this was that I must continue it each trip and do more each time? No, you are not correct. I had less occasion for it the next and each succeeding trip. I was able to meet the men on a different footing after the first trip, and I had but little use for liquor as an engine to help business.
A man must needs, too, be very cautious in inviting men to indulge. If it is done in any way so that it appears to be to help make sales it will do more harm than good. A certain class of traveling men will invite a merchant to go out and get a drink as if they were offering him a new paper collar, or to pay for his having his boots blacked. Their manner seems to say, "I must buy you a drink and then I'm going to stick you on an order." They disgust where they expected to please.
Yet, as I have said before, men seem to come close together over a glass of beer. My friend had positively refused to buy a dollar's worth from me, and I had put him down as rather a surly fellow, but as we sat there over our beer he chatted about himself, his business, and his partner, as if we were old friends.
"I have been seventeen years in trade," said he, "and we have been tolerably successful. I began with $1,500, and I suppose I am worth $35,000, but I work fourteen hours a day, and I have to carry all the responsibility on my shoulders. My partner waits on customers when he is in the store, but when he wants to go out driving or to go anywhere else, he goes. I never let him do anything but he makes a bull. He contracted for advertising the other day, $300 worth, in a paper that will never do us three cents' worth of good. We have the meanest kind of competition here; every wholesale house retails, too, and retails a good many goods at wholesale prices. They buy in larger quantities than we do, and of course can buy cheaper, and they look upon their retail profit as so much clear gain. I am tired of the business, and if I could sell out I would get into the jobbing trade."
There it was. The man who wants to sell out is one of the most numerous men that exist. But it was my business then, and it has always been my business since, to listen sympathetically to all such tales, and to promise to have an eye out for any possible purchaser.
"We don't do much in your line," he continued, "because men don't come to a stove store to buy revolvers, but if I don't sell out I'm going to do some wholesaling, and see if I can't eventually work up into wholesale exclusively."
This was a much more promising opening for me, and I led his fancy over a bed of roses to the not distant day when he might put up that fraudulent sign—"No goods at retail." And I was reminded of a very cheap pistol that we had that I would sell him at 52 cents, which he could job to any country dealer at 75 cents. I don't know if it was the beer or my eloquence, but I sold him fifty then and there, and added some other goods to the sale, so that my evening was not wholly wasted.
I saw him not long ago. He is still retailing at the old stand and still grumbling about his partner, but we have been the best of friends since our first evening together.
As I ate my breakfast the next morning I overheard two men at my table talk about trade, and I quietly listened.
"It only takes a little thing to help out a line of goods or to kill them," said one. "Nimick & Brittan got out that burglar-proof attachment on their locks and just kept themselves going by it."
"Is Brittan on the road now?"
"Guess not. The Big Three, Brittan, Rashgo, and Bond, work some kind of a syndicate, though, and make a good thing out of it. I met Brittan twenty years ago or so. He was a hard worker, good-natured, understood human nature and was a success. He represented several concerns, and used to make ten or twelve thousand clear a year. Finally he got into the lock factory."
"Most traveling men are crazy to get into something."
"Yes; that's so. We think if we had a shebang of our own we'd just make things fly; but we miss it oftener than we hit it when we do get the factory."
"You're right. The man on the road with a good trade and a good salary has a pretty good thing of it."
"Well, some men expect to strike it rich by silver stock. Do you know Al Bevins?"
"The sleigh-bell man? Yes, I know him well."
"Has he told you about the silver stock?"
"He has been investing in Deming's—"
"Oh, d—n Deming! He's a nuisance with his silver stock."
"Yes, but he gets the boys in all the same. Henley has bought a lot in Providence on the strength of his investment, and Deacon Hall, of Wallingford, will buy out Wallace when his dividends come in. Bevins says it's better than sleigh-bells, and Al knows how to run a factory."
"Still, some of the men at the factories are born idiots. You can't teach them anything. If the managers were compelled to make one trip a year they'd find out a good deal. Here's my ax trade. I've been cussed from one end of the trip to the other. My orders for October shipment were billed about January 1. And it's the same way year after year. I swear, I often wonder that I get any orders at all! They damn me in February, and yet they give me new orders in May. But it is sickening to hear the same story over and over, year after year."
"What excuse do they offer at home?"
"Oh, it's never two years alike. One year the streams dry up; then the foreman is discharged; then they booked too many orders."
"A little thing happened that riled me when I was last home. A customer ordered a certain spoon, using a special number of his own, on the 18th of May. I was in the shop late in June, and the shipping clerk asked me what spoon that was! Here he had held the order six weeks before he took steps to find out what the man wanted. I gave him a piece of my mind."
"Talking of spoons, do you ever run across Kendrick, of Mix & Co.? I traveled with him a few years ago."
"He sticks close to the factory. There is an instance where the traveling man took the management of the factory to good purpose. I don't believe there is a better-managed business anywhere. Kendrick has become a deacon in the church, with a weather eye out for fast horses."
"Talking of spoons reminds me of Father Parmelee, of Wallingford. Do you know him?"
"Who, Sam? Yes, indeed."
"We were in Detroit together, and the way Parmelee talked William Rogers was enough to drive a man crazy. He's just chock full of William Rogers, and I'll bet he'll want Rogers on his plated grave-stone."
"Parmelee is one of the kindest-hearted men on the road. I never heard him say a bitter word against any one; I never knew him to bore any one; I never heard a merchant speak other than kindly of him. He travels for a big house, but they probably do not know how much of their business in the West is due to Parmelee's push and tact. He has been a long time traveling, and I always like to meet him."
When the two men went away I ruminated over what they had said, and I laid up several points for my own use. I was especially glad to hear them praise other traveling men. It's a mighty good sign of any man to find him generous in his praise of others. I thought this all over as I started down the street to find Shull & Cox and try to sell them 100 bull-dogs. I caught their sign and marched boldly in, wishing there was a law on the books that would compel every dealer to give a salesman an order whether he needed goods or not.
A young clerk was at work near the door, so I asked if the buyer was in.
"That's him over there with that drummer."
"Is it Mr. Shull or Mr. Cox?"
"That's Shull; Cox won't be here for an hour yet; he don't get up till the school bell rings."
I saw the young man was talkative, so I prodded for more information. "Who is that drummer?"
"I don't know his name; he's selling revolvers from More & Less, of New York."
This was fun for me, and I wished I was out of the way, and out of the town. I concluded that the best thing I could do would be to interview some one else immediately, and I started off at once.
I think a man often does better work when he is spurred on by anxiety. I had seen More & Less's man in the store across the street, so I determined I would do my best at Bingham's and not get whipped out of the town. Mr. Bingham met me as if he wished I was somewhere else, but I was too eager to sell to care very much about his manner. I told him my story as well as I could, and insisted that if he needed anything in my line I could do him good.
"I don't need anything," said he, "but what is all this talk of the M. H. & Co. revolver?"
"It is coming into prominence," I said, "and Jim Merwin gave it a big boom in Cleveland the other day. McIntosh took him before the Police Board, and they say Merwin outdid Buffalo Bill. McIntosh says the Chief of Police took a Smith & Wesson, and Merwin a M. H. & Co., and each tried to shoot the other with empty shells, Jim grabbed the Chief, emptied his revolver of the shells and rammed the pistol in his ear until the Chief yelled for mercy. Merwin gave such a war dance that they had to call out the fire department to cool him down. He secured the city's order for an outfit for the police, and M. H. & Co. stock has gone up since then."
"Do you sell them?"
"Yes, at factory prices."
"Pho! All you men talk factory prices."
"I mean factory prices."
"Well," said he, "I'm going to buy of Simmons after this; he beats the factories. His New England man—"
"His New England man. Didn't you know he had opened a Boston office and now drums New England?"
"I hadn't heard of that."
"Oh, yes. St. Louis is going to run the country on hardware hereafter and on guns. Simmons' New England man says they do a big business there; dealers buy bills of $8.87 down. Their New York office isn't open yet, but it's coming; they want Sam Haines as manager, or J. B. Sargent. They do things up big down there."
"How many M. & H. revolvers can I send you?"
"Don't want any now; just asked out of curiosity."
This was discouraging, but I opened my price-book at A, and called his attention to every item in it, but to everything received the same answer, "Got it." I began to get desperate.
"Look here," said Bingham, "you seem to be excited, young man. I like to see a man work, but if a fellow don't want anything, he don't, and that's the end of it. I never bought a dollar from your house, and your prices are no better than others."
But I wanted an order. Whether he needed goods or not was no concern of mine; I wanted an order and I was determined to get one if such a thing were possible. Finally I struck Flobert rifles. "Look here," I said, "I have a special price on Flobert's target rifles—$2.10 by the case—but I will give you a cut even on that; I will make them $2, and now I want you to give me an order."
"Two dollars," he said, as if turning it over in his mind; "$2, eh? I've a mind to go and see Madley with you."
"Who is Madley?"
"He's a clothing man, and chain lightning about offering gifts to purchasers. He has run cows, watches, pianos, and lager beer; maybe he'd take hold of rifles."
"Very well," said I, "let's us go see him. What price shall I quote him?"
"You needn't do any quoting; I'll make prices and you expatiate on the goods."
We started down the street to Madley's, and I was introduced to the gentleman, a fussy, garrulous little man with an extremely red face. Bingham opened the ball, and I never listened to more talented drumming than he did that morning.
"Chris," said he, "this young man is offering target rifles at a cut price that knocks anything ever known. The boys have been buying them very freely of late, and they are popular. I fancied they might hit you as a gift with a boy's suit. If you can handle them I don't want any profit, but am getting other goods from him, and you can ship with my goods."
"What are they worth?"
"Well, you have as much of an idea of the worth of a rifle as any one else has; suppose you were going to buy one for your boy, what would you expect to pay?"
"I don't know anything about them."
"Oh, you've got some idea and I want to get it, for you will not be very different from the average man in your estimate of cost."
"Oh, d—-n it, say $10; but I can't handle any such goods."
"We don't ask you to at $10. But that is about the average idea regarding price. Now, Chris, this man's price is $3.12."
It struck me this was getting mighty close to "cost!"
"Eh, $3.12! How the devil can they make it at that?"
"Oh, they make it. How they do it is none of our concern. It would make you a very popular gift and the boys would go wild over it."
Madley turned to me. "Is that your bottom price?"
"I gave Mr. Bingham my very best figures."
"How many have you got?"
"Any amount you want."
He called two of his young men, and after a conference with them came up to Bingham and said: "Bingham, I can't afford to let you make a profit on these rifles. You wouldn't come up here if you were not making something. The idea is a good one, and you may send your boy up and get the best suit of clothes I've got, but I'm going to figure on rifles before I order."
"All right, Chris, go in." He turned on his heel to go out, and I followed. When we were on the sidewalk he said: "I don't give it up yet, but I can play bluff as well as he can."
"You asked too much advance, I am afraid."
"Oh, I know him. I'll go for him by and by."
And he did. I called in the afternoon and took his order for 100 rifles, and he showed me a written order for them from Madley at $2.62. To these he added several other items, making a very nice bill. I have always noticed that, however much a man did not want any goods, the moment you get him started there is but little difficulty in then getting his order for some of the very things he told you he was not needing.
During this time I had no fear of the other salesman. My prices were down so low I cared for no one, but I concluded I would go back to Mr. Shull's, and see if anything was left for me there. He happened to be at work at the shelves, which is a place I like to find a man at, and I explained that I was in early in the day but saw he was engaged.
"Yes," said he, "I had a gun man here all forenoon. He sold me all I needed in your line. He says bull-dogs are going up."
"I had not heard of it."
"What are you selling at?"
What should I say? If he had bought I didn't care to quote a special price, and I did not want to name a high price, for that might give him a bad impression of the house in the future.
It is a difficult place in which a salesman finds himself, this quoting prices to a man who has just bought. The temptation is always to name a very low rate, perhaps even to go below your lowest selling price, for the purpose of making the man feel that you would have been a better man to buy from, but this is a two-edged sword, and I have not cared to handle it. I concluded it would pay here to be frank.
"It is possible there is some advance of which I don't know," I said, "but my price has been $2.75 to $2.85, according to quantity."
"That's what I bought at."
I opened up on rifles, found him entirely out, and showed him my order from Bingham for 100.
"What in Sam Hill is he going to do with 100?"
I did not enlighten him. I said: "Oh, every lad buys a target rifle nowadays."
"What price do you get?"
"Two dollars and ten cents by the case."
"Case? How many's a case?"
"I don't want any case. If you want to send me a dozen at that you may."
I wanted to, and got his order for another item or two, and left him, feeling I had done pretty well.
This showing one merchant the order you have taken from his neighbor is one of the easiest things in the world to do, but it is not always a trump card. Still, it has a powerful influence in a majority of cases. The best buyer who lives has times of doubting if his judgment is infallible, and he is glad to brace it up by comparing with the judgment of others. This he is able to do through having salesmen tell of the orders given by other buyers, and be he never so smart, he very often falls into their traps.
If you are a buyer you are, possibly, looking at a Russell knife, listening to Booth's eloquent description of the way they are hand forged, elegantly ground, and how Oakman inspects every blade and then wraps it up carefully in Ella Wheeler Wilcox's last poem. The pattern you have in your hand pleases you, but you wonder how others will look at it. The question is not, "Do I like it?" but, "Will it sell?" You are inclined to think it will, but just then your eye falls on scores of patterns on your shelves that you thought would go like hot cakes, but they have disappointed you. Perhaps, after all, your best way is to wait; but just then Booth opens his little book and shows you where Bartlett ordered 100 gross; Buhl, 50 gross; Ducharme, 25 gross, and Blossom, 10 gross (but he puts his thumb over this last hastily), and you tell him to send you a few. As I said before, I believe the best buyer is more or less influenced by being told what others are doing, and with the smaller trade it is constantly used to sway their decision.
Is it right?
I do not know. I am not writing of the ethics of business. I know that traveling men use the order taken from one buyer to influence another, and that it often has great influence, although I think the buyer is not wise who acts upon such information. Even when he is told the strict truth regarding the orders given by others, he ought to know his own stock and trade so well that he could depend upon his own judgment. But most of us like to lean on some one else, and when we are hesitating and learn that our competitors have decided thus and so, it is easy to fall into line and buy as they did.
Sitting at the breakfast table of the hotel next morning a gentleman opposite looked up pleasantly and asked:
"Are you selling goods, sir?"
"Guns and sporting goods."
"Yes? I'm a little in that line myself." And he handed me his card.
HOPSBY, COCKLEY & CO., 20 Warren Street, New York City.
"My name is Cockley," he added.
I had heard of him often, and was very glad to meet him, though I would have been still happier if he were not selling the Norwich revolvers. I always had a feeling that I stood a poor show when I was in direct competition with other salesmen in my line, and I never felt quite comfortable with them.
"How is trade?" I asked.
"Well, rather dull on the road; but they write me it is booming at home. We have a large South American trade that the elder Mr. Hopsby, being a fluent Spanish scholar, and author of that well-known work, 'Spanish As She Is Walked,'looks after, while young Mr. Hopsby looks after his father and me, and it keeps him busy."
"You have a good many lines beside pistols?" I asked.
"Oh, yes; pistols are a side issue. I sold Deming 1,237 Waterbury watches, and Blossom a car-load of can-openers. I sell Pribyl here a ton of nail-pullers at a time. Did you ever see the Waterbury watch?"
"I have not seen it lately."
"Then take these two; no, put them both in your pockets; I always give a man two, so he can check off one by the other. A Waterbury watch is one of the greatest blessings in the world. Babies can drop them; boys can throw them at each other, and women can use them as stocking-darners. Mr. Hopsby drops one into the contribution box every Sunday, and expects, in the course of a few years, to provide every young African with a time piece."
I didn't get it quite clear in my mind whether Cockley was guying me or not, but he looked as if he were simply trying to be sociable.
"Have you been long on the road?" he asked.
"No; this is my first trip."
"That so? You look quite at home. I remember my first trip; it was in New England, and I was selling sewing-machine needles. Mr. Hopsby took me around a corner before I started and, presenting me with a nail-puller, told me he was afraid he was doing wrong to send me out, I was so young; but that I was to remember that the only way to prosperity was in getting orders. It hadn't struck me in just that light before, but the more I thought it over the more I believed he was right. The first man I tackled was a pious-looking deacon, and I began to whistle 'The Ninety and Nine' as I went toward him, so that he might understand that I was a Bible class scholar. I worked over that brother for two mortal hours, and finally got mad. 'If you only played billiards,' said I, 'I'd lick you like thunder.' 'You can't do it,' said he, and in less than ten minutes we were at the table across the street. I was just more than walloping him, when suddenly I remembered the tearful injunctions of Mr. Hopsby. I let him beat me three games, and then sold him $60 worth of needles."
"You have been on the road a long time?"
"Twenty-two years come Valentine's day."
I looked incredulous.
"Oh, I began young. Chris. Morgan, George Bartlett, Sam Parmelee, Charley Healey, and I started on the same day. We now leave New York Saturday night, give Cleveland, Monday; Toledo and Detroit, Tuesday; Fort Wayne and Indianapolis, Wednesday; Chicago, Thursday; St. Louis, Friday; Cincinnati, Saturday; and are in New York for business the next Monday morning."
"That is fast traveling."
"Yes, but we have the trade educated up to it. We tell them 'no bouquets,' 'no parties,' but just orders. We telegraphed ahead to Toledo, the other day, so that while the train waited twenty minutes for dinner I sold three bills."
The was all said so honestly and so pleasantly that I had to believe he was sincere, but at the same time I knew it wasn't strictly correct, and I felt more and more uncomfortable.
"How do you like this hotel?"
"Pretty well; I'm not very particular."
"You will be when you have been ten or fifteen years on the road. Hotels are a large part of your life. I left word at the Julian House, in Dubuque, to be called at six o'clock, the other night, and about four I heard some one pounding away, so I asked what was up. The musical voice of the watchmen came back: 'It's now 4 o'clock, and I'm going off watch, so yees has two hours yet to sleep before 6 o'clock.' Now that struck me as a family arrangement, and I'm going to have it extended to other houses."
"There's something about hotels I don't like," I said.
"What's that? The whisky? It is poor here, but you will find it better farther West."
"No," I said, "I'm not much interested in the whisky. What I dislike about hotels is the loneliness."
"Yes, that's so. For that reason I like to travel with a party. I get Brother Little, he sells Pillsbury flour, and is a first-rate player on the harmonica, and Al Bevins (the talented sleigh-bell artist), who plays on a $2 music box, while I play on a double police whistle equal to any man in America. We take possession of the parlor and invite the landlord's family in, and, I tell you, we make it home-like! How would you like to try a little concert here to-night?"
I begged off most emphatically, and said I must go for business. "Hold on, we'll go together. Do you know any one here?"
I confessed that I did not.
"Neither do I; so we can be of great help to each other. I'll introduce you, and then you can introduce me."
I felt as if I stood a good chance of getting into some kind of a scrape before I got away from him; but off we started. We were going down the street when Cockley struck an attitude and pointed to a sign over the way:
"I told you I knew no one; I was joking. There's a friend's. Let's go over and see Bewell. He'll be glad to see us and give us the whole town. He was in New York this spring, and we had a good time together studying up art. After he had once seen the game piece in Stewart's it was impossible to keep him away from it. I never saw men so devoted to aesthetics as he and Joe Gildersleeve were. He said the best way to see the picture was through a glass of rum and molasses, and he looked at it in that light about thirteen times a day."
I followed him in with some fear of a joke being played on me, but his manner changed at the door, and we met Bewell as if we were all deacons. He gave Cockley a very warm reception, as if thoroughly glad to see him. I concluded I was in the way, so with a promise to call later, I betook myself to another house. I did not meet Cockley again for many months.
I thought him over when I had time, and was not surprised that I had always heard him spoken of as being a very successful salesman. The half-hour that we were together had made me like him, and the way that he went into Bewell's store showed me that he knew when to be dignified as well as when to be jolly. I especially liked the way in which he spoke of his partners; in my way of thinking this is one of the signs of a broad man. The small, petty-minded fellows are sure to have a complaint to make of their house or buyers or partners. In following Cockley's steps since I have always heard him pleasantly spoken of by merchants and travelers.
I found the store, to which I took my way, a large wholesale hardware house. I observed as I entered that one man was very angry about something, while he talked to another whom I took to be his traveling man. I did not care to bother him until he was through, so nodded a good morning and took a chair. I soon found the man was angry over allowances the traveler had made in the previous week, and I was much interested and strongly in sympathy with him.
"What did Labar say about the goods he returned?" he asked, as his eye caught that name in the list in his hand.
"He claimed that he ordered dish-pans and that we sent rinsing-pans, and that the brushes were moth eaten."
"What did you tell him?"
"I said as little as I could."
"I wish you had told him that he was a contemptible cur. A man who will lie over $4.80 worth of goods, after keeping them in his hands ninety days, and seeing you twice meantime without saying a word, is a mighty small man. He knew from the price what the pans would be, but he never thought of any such excuse until after we drew on him for his long overdue bill. Of course our kicking does no good, because other houses will sell him until they have similar experiences with him, and it will take a good while to go around. If I was as mean as some of these whelps I'd shoot myself. Did Simpson pay up?"
"He paid the balance of the bill, but would not pay interest; said that we were the only house that charged interest, and he should never buy of us again."
"The miserable little liar! I don't suppose a house is in existence that lets a bill run five months after due and does not add interest. When are you going out?"
"On the next train."
"Well, try and collect the balance due from Stone, but don't sell him another dollar; there are decent men enough in the trade, let the mean ones go. If he does not pay, get the name of a reliable justice and we will send a sworn account to him. But don't sell him again."
"They're good as wheat."
"I know they are good in the sense of being responsible; mean men usually are; but it is not a question of their responsibility; they are tricky and untruthful, and their idea of being smart is to lie over goods and prices and compel a deduction. Give them the go-by. Well, good-by; don't worry over trade; do your best and we will be satisfied."
As his man started off he turned to me with, "Well, young man, you look as if you wanted to sell me something."
When a merchant says to the traveler, "Young man, you want to sell me something?" it is a notice to come at once to the point and state your business. It is not the way we like to proceed. We prefer to pass the compliments of the day, talk about business, and approach gradually the special branch of trade to which we are devoted. But Mr. Clark's "Well, young man," was like a whip, and I had to at once open out with my little story.
"We don't want anything in that line," said he, with decision. "We are full of guns and ammunition. It's a beastly business. I wish I was out of it. Here is a card quoting Pieper's 'Diana' gun at $32; mine cost me $38; now, how the d—-l does this concern sell at $32?"
The "Diana" gun was well known to the trade as one having all the modern improvements; the rubber butt-piece had Diana's head on it and hence the name; but Pieper sent over one lot of about two hundred guns of the common quality, and this "Diana" butt-piece was on them; they were sold by Pieper's agent to a gun house as common guns, at about $28, but this house promptly sent out its daily postal card quoting the "Diana gun" at $32. This was the story as told to our house, and I explained it to Mr. Clark.
"That may be just as you say," said he, "but a business that is full of that kind of tricks is a good one to get out of."
Just then a clerk came in and handed him a slip of paper, which I recognized as a special report from the mercantile agency. He excused himself while he read it. "This beats the Turks," said he to me. "I never knew a time when it was so difficult to get reports of the standing of retail dealers that you could tie to. My man sends in an order from J. C. K., Burlington, and he says: 'This man has a nice stock of goods and his neighbors say he is worth $5,000, and is good for anything he buys.' Dun does not quote him at all, so I asked for special report, and here it is:
J. C. K., Burlington, has been in business here since 1880; came from Kokomo, where he failed and paid 40 cents on the dollar; is married, age about 42, habits good. Claims to have stock of $2,200, and to owe not to exceed $600. Is doing fair business, but his personal expenses are rather high, and it is said he is close run for ready means. Thought safe for small amounts, but bill should not be allowed to lapse.
"Now this and my salesman's report don't tally very closely. Here is another case. My man sells John Johnes, of Dubuque, and writes: 'He has a grocery well stocked; says stock is worth $3,000, and no debts. His neighbors say he is sound as wheat.' But when Dun's report comes in it says:
Is a married man. Been in business alone and with partners for several years; means limited and estimated worth $500 to $800. Is regarded as an honest man, and it is believed he will do for a limited line.
"Now I don't like an honest man who is worth $500 to $800, according to Dun, but who tells my man he is worth $3,000."
"You can usually depend on Dun, can't you?"
"Yes, I think they sin on the right side; they are apt to make a man out as bad as they can. Here is one of their reports, as an instance:
F. Keef, saloon and grocery. He appears to be doing a good business; is in debt, but to what extent are not able to say. Had some claims against him here, but think he will pay. Has some energy and push in business. Has no real estate so far as known, and not considered sound financially.
"You would not care to sell a man on such a report, would you? Yet that man is one of the best paying men on our books."
"Do not your salesmen call on the banks?"
"Yes, I suppose they do, but let me tell you that banks are the biggest liars in existence. They often say a man is good when they know exactly to the contrary. My man sent in an order from L. Loeby, of LaGro, Kentucky; he wrote, 'Loeby is a sharp buyer, and said to be good. I called at the bank and they said he was A No. 1, and good for anything he buys.' Well, I got a report from Dun, and here it is:
L. Loeby, LaGro; age 35; married; been in business two years; fairly temperate and fairly attentive to business; character and business capacity moderate; it is said doubtful as to honesty; means in business, about $1,000; no real estate; on the $1,000 above listed as his means in business the bank here holds a chattel mortgage of $600; he has a large family, and of late he has not been paying his bills as they fall due.
"You can see why the bank quotes him A No. 1. The more goods he gets the better is the value of their chattel mortgage. I have stopped putting much faith in what banks say about men."
"Are not the mercantile agencies almost always sure to find something against a man or a firm?"
"No, sir; they have to give facts as near as they can get at them, and if there is nothing against a man they can not give anything against him. Take this report:
Darby & Chase, groceries and commission, Delphi. E. J. Darby and W. H. Chase compose the firm; seem to be men of good character and business capacity. They are thought to be worth $10,000 to $15,000.
"That report probably gives the best general opinion in that community regarding that firm. Their character and business capacity are good, and they are prospering, evidently. But the mercantile agencies omit to tell us some very important points about men. A man may be financially all right, and yet be an undesirable customer, or one who ought to be handled with great care. Every report ought to tell whether the man is a smart Aleck or not; if he is mean about returning goods; if he makes unfair claims; if he is a chronic reporter of shortages; if he allows bills to run long past due and then refuses to pay interest, or exchange on drafts; all these points ought to be covered."
"Are you much bothered by such men?"
"Every wholesale house is; no matter what line it is in, or who it is, the wholesale dealer has more or less of just such men to deal with. I know a retailer who invariably reports a shortage; he lies, of course, but he is fool enough to think he is making money because he beats every house out of a dollar or two every time he pays a bill. Here is a man whose bill was due November 30; I draw on him by express (his town has no bank) February 23, and add 25 cents to the draft to cover the cost of getting the money to me. I make no claim for interest although I have as good a legal claim for it as for the principal, but he refuses to pay my draft, and in a few days sends me his check on a country bank for the face of the bill. It cost me 25 cents to collect his check, and I paid 25 cents to the express company on the returned draft, so I get 50 cents less than my bill and lose the use of my money nearly three months after it was due me."
"Why didn't you draw through the nearest bank the day the bill was due?"
"I didn't want to be so sharp with him; I felt kindly toward him, and supposed a little leniency would be appreciated, so I only sent a statement asking for remittance. And this is the way he repays me!"
"Probably you gave him a piece of your mind."
"What good does it do? The drummer from my competitor will call on him, and if the dealer starts to run me down he will help him at it. We put up with things of this kind until the average retailer fancies he is real smart, and the meaner he is the smarter he will be considered."
"But isn't it your experience that shippers do make mistakes, and occasional overcharges are made?"
"Certainly it is; not very frequently, but occasionally such things happen to us. But I don't write the factories as if they were pickpockets, and as if these errors were intentional. In thirty years' experience I never knew a house refuse to correct an error, and while I want all my discounts and extras to which I am entitled, I don't want one cent more than that. If I do not pay bills when due I expect to be drawn on, and have to pay the cost of the draft. If interest is demanded I pay it, and if it is not demanded I feel grateful to the house for letting me off."
"I think gunsmiths a mighty touchy set of men to deal with."
"They're no better and no worse than any one else. My neighbor told me last night that he had just received notice from an Iowa customer that he would not take a bill of dry goods, just sent him, out of the depot because they were charged one-half cent too much. He claimed the bill was one-half cent a yard on everything higher than the price agreed upon between himself and the salesman. The house is one of the most reputable in the State; the salesman is one of fifteen years' experience, and the prices are the same as he made to others in that town and all along the route. He says the retailer kept no copy of the order and goes entirely by guess. He does not write to ask the house if there is a mistake or not, but shows his smartness by announcing that he shall refuse to receive the goods."
"What will they do with him?"
"Keen said the man owed them $700 on a past due note that they were carrying at his request; he said they would compel him to pay it up clean at once, and never go near him again. I hope it will bother him right bad to raise the money."
I apologized for having taken up so much of his time, but said I would be sorry to go away and not have a small order to show for it. I called his attention to Flobert rifles, interested him in them, and finally secured his order for a case. As we were finishing our talk a happy-looking pair came in the door, and I took up the morning paper while Mr. Clark went forward and greeted one of them, a Mr. Healey, very cordially, as if he were a very old friend, and then Healey, his eyes twinkling, said:
"Mr. Clark, let me introduce my friend, Mr. Fuller. He is known far and near as 'And Forged Fuller, and he is also the owner and patentee of that celebrated washing compound, Fuller's Earth."
Clark laughed heartily as he shook hands with Fuller, who said:
"I may say that my trade mark is 'Paragon;' heverybody hasks for it—"
"Yes," broke in Healey, "and nobody buys it!"
"I may say," said Fuller, placidly, "that Mr. Healey is wrong; I frequently sell a few. It's my trade mark, and known, I may say, in England as well as here."
"Yes," said Healey, "Fuller lives on both continents, and brings the steel over in his grip. We have our examples at the hotel and shall be glad to have you come up there. Fuller don't care whether he sells or not; he is rich and traveling only to keep down his flesh."
Mr. Clark made an engagement with them and they went away. As they passed out he said: "There goes one of the most genial-hearted men on the road. I have known Charley Healey for about twenty years. He came out here representing Hilger & Son, and built up a good trade for that firm. Hilger could not have done it in a thousand years. Then that firm and Wiebusch consolidated, and Healey looked after their Western business. I never met a buyer who was not his friend, and I imagine most of them are, like myself, heavily in his debt for courtesies extended to us, not by way of business, but as if he were under obligations to us. I say to you that a good many houses never suspect the debt they are under to their traveling men, but look upon themselves as the great magnet that draws trade, when nine out of ten dealers care nothing whatever about the principals and buy entirely out of regard for the salesman."
I had heard many men speak in the same terms of Healey before, and I hoped I should meet him at dinner.
As I bade good-by to Mr. Clark and thanked him for the order given me, he said: "Somehow you do not seem like a stranger."
I thanked him for that compliment most sincerely.
Sunday to the commercial traveler, if to no others, is preeminently a day of rest. If there are stores open during week days he feels that he ought to be at work, and if he gives himself an extra half-hour at noon or evening his conscience pricks him. But upon the Sabbath there is nothing to be done by way of business, unless in getting from one town to another, and it is his rest day.
I slept so late (I admit that I am always lazy whenever I dare be) that I fancied I would have the dining-room to myself, but I had plenty of company. The hotel where I was had an excellent reputation on the road and was a favorite place at which to pass Sunday. I was fortunate enough to meet here a hardware man from my own city whom I knew well, and who had traveled long enough to know almost everybody.
"How is trade?" was, of course, his first question.
I had no bragging to do over my trade, for, it must be confessed, I was not sure that I had sold even half what I ought to have done. So I said, "My trade is only so-so."
"Well," said he, "I guess that is about as much as any of us can say. Times are tight. Goods are so infernal cheap and cost so little that if you sell a man four or five pages it don't amount to anything in dollars and cents. I was just telling White here—by the way, let me introduce my friend, Mr. White; sells notions for Haff & Walbridge, New York. I was just telling White that I took a big order from a house yesterday, one covering six pages of note paper, and each item calling for fair quantities, and it amounted to $92. A few years ago it would have footed up $400."
"It is so in every line," said White, "everything is down, but we have new lines every season, and keep up trade by having novelties."
"What a chain-lightning genius Haff is!" exclaimed my frend. "I remember when he traveled for Howard & Sanger; good-natured, voluble, energetic, and uneasy as a lump of mercury. Suddenly he blossomed out as an inventor, and he's kept on inventing ever since. I've been surprised that the man who is father of so many children has not invented a better nursing-bottle or colic exterminator. What's your last novelty?"
"Ye gods! Base balls! Well, you've got a mighty good man to fight against."
"Taylor, of Bridgeport. I don't know when I've seen a man of more push than he. I believe he patented or invented the ball that Warner makes, and they placed him in charge of the ball department. He just has balls on the brain; tosses them in his sleep; takes them to church and plays catch with the tenor, and keeps two balls in the air while he drinks a cup of tea. That kind of a man is bound to succeed."
"Is the base ball trade a large one?"
"Yes, it amounts to a good deal of money. Every notion dealer in the country carries more or less of them in stock. The ball that sells for a nickel is bought by the barrelful; such a ball is sold to the jobbers at 28 or 30 cents per dozen, and to the retailer at 35 to 40 cents. Balls that retail at 10 to 25 cents are the best sellers, but a few good balls go in every bill."
"How high do they run?"
"The best sewed balls retail at $1.75 each, but the ordinary 'league' ball retails at $1.50. Such a ball is sold to jobbers at $7 to $9 per dozen, except Spaulding's; he keeps his pretty stiff because he gets them into the hands of the National League, and a certain class, because of that, will buy them and no other."
"Is there any choice in the different makes?"
"Very little. Certain dealers get balls made with their name on and advertise them as being superior to anything made, and very often the manufacturer cannot sell his own brand in the territory where these are. You know people love to be fooled."
As we went away from the table, we met a gentleman whom my friend introduced as Mr. Hart, of Bradly & Smith, brush manufacturers, New York. Hart evidently was an old timer on the road, and knew the brush business like a book.
"Trade is fair," said he, "but New York has to compete with brush factories in every city now, whereas, twenty years ago, we had it our own way. That was the time when my firm ran the Methodist Church and laid out Asbury Park, N.J. It was easier to make $50,000 a year then than it is to make $5,000 now."
I was struck with a point he made against a buyer for a large jobbing house. Some one had said that they bought in good quantities, as compared with one of their competitors. "Yes, they buy in larger quantities," said he, "but give me the other men. I sell them both, but here is an incident which tells the kind of big buyers your friends are. A year ago I had a new leather-back horse brush that I was selling at $9 a dozen. I showed it to B.'s buyer and it took his eye at once. 'What is the best you will do if I take a quantity?' he asked. 'I would like to sell that at $9, and if I could do it I'd push them.' I knew there was a good profit to us at $9, even where we sold in small lots, so I figured that in quantities we could sell at $7.50. How many do you suppose he ordered?"
"Well," said my friend, "knowing that it's mighty hard work to sell a $9 brush nowadays, I should say six dozen would be a good order."
"Yes, so it would; I expected he would order six or eight dozen, but he ordered twenty dozen."
"The deuce he did! Did he sell them?"
"I was there yesterday and he had sixteen dozen and a half on hand. I don't call that very shrewd buying."
Sitting in the smoking room was a tall, slim, Yankee-looking sort of a man, who smoked in a nervous way, and when he talked seemed to speak with great earnestness. He was introduced as Mr. Rockwell, a cutlery manufacturer of Meriden, Conn. Somehow these Meriden men are all alike. They are great pushers in business, wire-pullers in politics, and in season and out of season stand by each other. If Wilcox and Curtiss and the Rockwell family were only guaranteed fifty years more of life they would own the State of Connecticut. Rockwell was discoursing upon pocket cutlery, and as it was a subject about which I knew nothing, I took a back seat.
"American manufacturers," said he, "not only have to fight against poor foreign goods, but what is worse, they have to fight against them under American names and labels. Thirty years ago if a man got up a fancy brand he put 'Sheffield' on it; now this is changed; everything has to have at least an American name. The result is that American goods are damaged by foreign trash, which, having an American brand, is supposed to be American-made. A farmer buys a knife branded 'Missouri Cutlery Shops,' thinking he is getting an honest, home made article. The probabilities are that it was made in Germany, and is of the poorest quality. It does not give satisfaction; so he damns American goods and goes back to his old IXL. And when he gets a poor IXL knife, as he very frequently does, he swears it is bogus."
"That's so," said one of his friends. "I often hear men sighing for the old knife of their daddies."
"Why, here is a sample of the man in this letter. Let me read a few lines. After mentioning our advertisement, he says:
Now I have been hunting a good knife for twenty years, but too much "protective tariff" having shut out competition, we now only get such "pot-metal" cutlery as monopolists choose to give us; nice handles with hoop-iron or cast blades, not as good for $2 as the old "Barlow" knife boys could buy for a "bit" forty-five years ago. If yours are good I will be glad to get them, but if they are a cheat, I will call on you with a shot-gun, on my way to Canada, where I will then have to look for a good knife.
"That man," continued Rockwell, "believes what he says, probably, but a man of 45 who knows so little ought to be shut up in an idiot asylum. If we could have a law here as they do in England, permitting no goods to be labeled or branded as American-made unless they were made here, such a man would hang his head with shame at his injustice to home manufacturers."
I liked to hear Rockwell talk; he had a way of giving a sentence in a crisp, sharp way, and then half shutting his eyes for a moment, as if he was waiting to see what the other fellow would say and be ready with an answer.
My friend spoke of him with great enthusiasm, saying his house had done business with him for many years, and looked upon Rockwell as one of the most growing men in the trade. In talking with him afterward about pocket cutlery, he said to me: "No cutlery factory in this country is paying a penny to its stockholders; we are looked upon by the free-traders as coining money, but our men are averaging twice the wages of the English, and three times those paid by Germany, and the labor is about eighty-five percent, of the cost of the pocket knife. The leading American makers turn out good goods, far above the average English or German; but the consumer is not able to tell whether he is using an American or foreign-made knife, because of the habit of branding everything with American names, and we have to bear the curse."
"Why is it that Meriden people hang together so?" I asked.
"Do we?" he asked, laughing. "Perhaps it is because they're all such good fellows. The rich men there, and there are a good many of them, have always been ready to help any enterprise that came to the town and could make a fair showing. You will find the same men stockholders in a great many different companies; their salesmen help each other, and they are closely united socially. They work together and love their city."
I don't know any better eulogy to deliver upon a body of business men.
Later in the day, a rather warm conversation near us drew us toward five or six men who seemed to be growing excited. A traveling salesman appeared to be giving a manufacturer some good advice.
"You men," said he, "seem to think you do a very smart thing when you go to these big buyers and give them an extra 10 per cent., but you don't seem to be capable of learning that in doing this you are cutting your own throats. Only a few months ago I was talking to Simmons. 'I don't like these low prices,' said he, 'nor to have everything down so close to cost; we can't get extra discounts as we can when prices are higher; the most we can get now under ordinary circumstances is 2-1/2 to 5 per cent.' 'How much do you think you ought to get?' I asked him. 'Ten per cent., at least,' said he."
"But he doesn't get it," said the manufacturer.
"Oh yes, he does, on a good deal of his stock. He must get it on your goods or he would not be quoting them at the price we pay you for them. We paid you $3.60 for the last lot we bought, and I saw a quotation from him on your goods at $3.62. He is no fool; he does not sell goods at cost. When I saw his quotation my price was $3.60 and will be $3.60 until we clean your goods from our shelves, and it will be a good while before any more of the same brand ever go back there again."
"But that is all nonsense," said the other, "he buys the goods at exactly the same price your house does."
"Then it is time we quit them. If we have no protection on your goods we want to drop them."
"That's pretty tough," said the other, half disposed to be angry. "I have no control over your prices; I sell your house as I sell him; I advertise the goods so that the jobber could make a profit if he would, but if he won't I cannot compel him to do it. The jobber has no idea of anything but to beat his competitor in buying and then beat him in cutting the price. Nothing counts in business but a 'cut.' I don't know where we are going to."
"Well," said my friend, "suppose we go to dinner."
A number of traveling men around a Sunday dinner-table, when they feel sure it is going to be a good dinner, is about as entertaining a company as any business man would care to be in. Jokes are necessarily plenty; stories fly about freely, but the man must be very thick-headed who does not pick up bits of information that he is the better for knowing.
At our table were represented knit goods, groceries, cutlery, hardware, crockery, and guns. When the the jokes had flowed about, and firms were being discussed, I heard the dry-goods man say: "Yes, sir, if I wanted to point out two of the longest-headed men who foresaw the coming change in doing business I would mention Butler Bros., of Chicago and New York. I used to sell them notions when they were in Boston, and they were nice men to do business with. It's harder to sell them to-day, for the buyer has grown hardened and cuts to the quick." "They were the 5-cent counter men, were they not?"
"Yes, 5, 10, and 25 cent counter goods was their hobby, and it beat the great horn spoon to see how the thing spread. Every little cross-roads store had its 5 and 10 cent counters, and manufacturers and jobbers cut in prices to cater to it. Of course it could attract attention only by offering bargains. If a dealer put on his 25-cent counter only such goods as he had been selling at 25 cents, no one would have patronized it. The point in his mind was to attract attention by the bargains he could show. He could make a fair profit on the whole lay-out, but perhaps one-third of the stock was sold very close. Under ordinary circumstances a dealer paying 20 cents for an article would sell it at 30 to 40, but now it went on the 25-cent counter."
"But it hurt regular trade."
"Yes, it did to this extent, that it led men to dabble in things not in their own line. The dealer was apt to do the most cutting in such goods as were not in his regular line. He was inclined to be stiff on his own goods, but say he was a dry-goods dealer, it did not hurt him to cut on tin dippers, wash-basins, wooden-ware, etc. So when the hardware men followed with their cheap counters they were most inclined to cut on notions, and in fact the cheap-counter business has very much to do in the mixing up of trades and the demoralization of prices."
"Don't you think it was the basis of department stores?"
"Yes, I do. Men saw that their small line of crockery, or tinware, or stationery sold well, and they increased the assortment, and finally led up to the 'department' idea."
"How is this 5-cent counter business managed? I mean, how are the sales made?"
"Largely in assortments; for instance, if you pick up advertisements of the houses making a specialty of such goods, you will find that they offer assortments for a certain amount of money. They give the goods in detail; the dozen price of each article, the quantity sent in the assortment, the cost to the dealer, and the total retail price. Of course if the dealer is just starting out in such goods the entire assortment is what he wants, but if he is in it already the list enables him to buy just those things he needs. You'd be surprised to see the profit there is in these things, even in the present hard times. For instance, I saw an assortment of 5-cent goods consisting of 167 dozen articles which would retail, as you can figure, for $100.20; cost to the dealer, $60; profit, $40.20, or 67 per cent, on the investment."
"Let's go into the 5-cent business," said the cutlery man
"Better start a knife-stand on the street. Do you make goods for street-men?"
"No; they handle the cheapest Dutch trash."
"Where do they get it?"
"In New York and Philadelphia. Seven or eight years ago some street fakir got hold of a showy two-blade penknife at about $2 a dozen. He took his stand on the street and they went off readily at 25 cents. The business seemed to spread all over the country like wild-fire, and especially during the fair season. Jobbers in the inland cities were cleaned out of stock they looked upon as dead and worthless. Of course, as soon as this demand was felt houses began to prepare to supply it. At first the fakirs were willing to pay $2 per dozen, but when new stocks came out cuts were made and the prices steadily went down."
"What do they pay now?"
"These 25-cent tables do not cost, on an average, $1.50 per dozen knives. They get out a very handsome-looking two-blade knife, in bone or ebony handle, for $1.32 per dozen; a good-looking jack-knife for $1.40 to $1.75; pearl handle penknives for $1.75 to $2."
"Are they worth a cent?"
"Not to cut with. They sell by the eye entirely; handles and blades are well finished, and they seem to be worth a good deal more than the price asked for them."
"We had quite a run with some of these men on revolvers," said the hardware man. "We had a wood handle 32-caliber that cost 85 cents—a good pistol. A seedy-looking fellow bought two or three hundred from us. His plan was to go into a shop, saloon, or store, and in a confidential way tell the boss or clerk that he was dead broke and would sell his $5 revolver for $2.50. At that time the average gunsmith was asking $3.50 to $5 for a common revolver, and he sold enough every day to make him good wages."
"Thank goodness!" said the grocer, "we don't have these snide affairs in our line."
"No, people have to give your goods away. It's samples of soap, samples of tobacco, samples of tea, samples of baking-powder, etc., etc., from morning till night. It's a mighty mean line that has to be given away."
"This giving away," said the crockery man, "has made a big hole in our business. Some one suddenly discovered that crockery would be a taking thing to help work off poor goods. Of course, the home jobber benefited by it for a very short time, and then the New York importers stepped in and took the cream. Baking-powder men, coffee-grinders, tea houses, and others sent out crockery, and people, got so much of it for nothing they had no excuse for buying any."
"I doubt if it really hurts us much in the long run," said the Meriden man. "Here was a baking-powder concern in Ohio that offered a set, consisting of fifty-one pieces, of silver-plated ware with every case of their own goods. If you had read their advertisement you would have been sure that Rogers never turned out any better goods than these they were giving away. But the fifty-one pieces cost them just $7.50! They used a good many thousand sets. The table caster was worth about 70 cents. You can imagine the quality! Now, I hold that in the long run cheap stuff will help good goods. People who have it will get disgusted with it, and will replace it with reliable ware, while if they had never had the trash they would not have had their own consent to buy the better goods."
"Perhaps the most wonderful thing about business today," was said, "is the amount of information given in circulars, price lists and advertisements. I can remember twenty years back where a price list simply gave you the briefest statement of the article, sometimes the size, but oftener not, and the price. Nowadays an ordinary list is a mine of information. I remember having reached the conclusion that one of the things particularly needed was a circular for the consumer about the way to strop and take care of a razor. I could not find a syllable on the subject in any English or American price list. I wrote to four manufacturers for points, but received the briefest of replies and no practical help. I sat down to write the circular. Did you gentlemen ever try your hand at such a job?"
No one had.
"Then I just want you to try it once, and you will believe what I tell you, that it will be about as tough a job as you ever undertook. I had been selling razors for ten or twelve years; I had talked with barbers, as you all have; I had heard customers talk; I had heard shrewd remarks and silly remarks; I had heard manufacturers occasionally drop a hint, and now I was to sit down and evolve out of my memory and experience a circular on the subject that would be of benefit to every one handling a razor."
"How did you make out?"
"Well, perhaps the best answer to that is the fact that our firm sends out the circular to-day just as I wrote it eight years ago. But I started to speak of the large amount of information you find in circulars and advertising nowadays. Advertising is much more of a science than it was. Pick up a decent trade paper and the ordinary advertisement is full of shrewd points for those handling the goods, that cannot help being of immense value to retailers. And I can call your attention to this: these advertisements, these shrewd ones, are always written by men who have been traveling salesmen. Such men know the points that ought to be brought out."
"Yes," said the dry-goods man, "how is this, cut from the advertisement of a list of five-cent counter goods. Don't you believe the man who wrote this knew the soft side of a retailer?" And he read:
HOW TO DO IT.
Bundle up some of the unseasonable goods that are taking up valuable counter space, and put them away on the shelves. By this economy of space, and with the possible addition of a temporary counter, you have gained room enough to admit of the introduction of a "5c, 10c or 25c counter." The next thing to do is to send to some reliable jobber for a bill of staple household sellers, with which you can mix hundreds of articles from your own stock; then send out a little circular ("dodger") to the over-anxious inhabitants, telling them of a few of the articles to be found on your "Cheap Counter," and they will respond as readily as though you had sent them free tickets to the circus. It matters not that they have not seen one of these counters before, there will be the same rush—the same scramble for first choice—the same telling of friends about bargains bought; and instead of sitting around waiting for the advent of spring, you will have pocketed a nice profit from your cheap counter, besides having worked off any amount of odds and ends that might have been in your store five years, and would have remained five years longer had not this modern wonder made an exit for them.