I was walking down Newbury Street in Boston this morning — for those of you who don’t know, it’s the heart of the downtown overpriced shopping district in the Hub — and saw a chalkboard sign advertising a sale at one of the boutiques:

  • “EVERYTHING ON SALE!!! (except jewelry and new items)”

I guess “everything” doesn’t mean what it used to. I was raised under the impression that it meant “every thing”, not “some things”. But this seems to be a trend in retailing; a “sale” intended to lure you into the establishment with discounts galore — except on the very item(s) that you in fact wish to purchase.

Carol and I stopped in a little home furnishings store while meandering around during the Memorial Day weekend, lured in by their “It’s Our Annual 50/50 Sale!” sign. Half of the items in the store, those marked with a red “X” on the tag, were 50% off their regular price. The store was filled with some lovely restored furnishings — desks, tables, chairs — along with some kitschy-to-downright-fugly wall hangings and other smaller accessories. Well, you guessed it: the small-and-fugly portion of their inventory had all the markdowns; the nicer stuff was all still full-price. Honestly, if just one retailer had the gumption to put up a “Big Discounts on the Crap We Couldn’t Manage to Sell All Year!” — I mean, I’d certainly be lured in by that and would likely cough up a few sheckles as well.

Years ago I worked in retail jewelry and there were certain items that never went on sale; Rolex watches being the marquee example. Or, at least — these brands were never advertised as being on sale. We’d place print ads and display signs promoting 30% off birthstone-of-the-month jewelry, or have a sale on older Seiko or Bulova inventory, but nothing in writing regarding a discount on the fancy watches. However, if we really needed to close the sale, at the very last second we could casually mention, “I can offer you 20% off on this particular watch.” I suppose if the shopper turned out to be a Rolex rep we would have lost our authorized reseller status, but we were discreet and handled it like when hookers ask the guy in the car, “You’re not a cop, are you?”

One day, a prosperous-enough-looking fellow came in and said he’d like to see the watch on display in the front window — a stainless steel and 18K gold men’s Rolex. I retrieved the watch and, in good salesperson fashion, immediately draped in on his wrist using the classic high-touch approach. “You can feel the quality / It looks great on you / I see very few people wearing this particular watch” (which was true, since it was the only one we had in the store) — all the stuff salespeople say to get you believing you absolutely MUST have the item. The customer admired the watch for some minutes, trying to look unimpressed but breaking into an ever-widening grin. Finally, he nodded and said, “I’ll take it!” Wow – I’d finally sold a Rolex! A nice commission for me for a few minutes’ work. “Terrific! You’ve made a great choice. Step right over here and I’ll get this written up for you.”

As I pulled out a sales slip (for you younger readers, a “sales slip” was two pieces of paper; no touch-screens involved. The top sheet had a self-carboning backing that you’d write on using a “pen”, which is like a stylus but has ink in it. The top white copy went to the buyer as his receipt, and the yellow carbon copy stayed on file to haunt you when it came time to account for items during the annual store inventory.) The customer asked, “How much did you say this was?” I hadn’t — another rule in sales is to never mention the price of the item unless asked. Having now been asked, I replied, “It’s six thousand dollars.” Pause, silence… He then asked, “Can you offer me any kind of discount?” I offered a measured “Hmm…” and then displayed my “you’re killing me here” face-and-tortured-vocal-tone and offered him the discount, saying, “While this is normally ‘six’, I can offer it to you at 20% off, which would make it ‘forty-eight’.” His smile became Cheshire-like, now that he’d gotten the deal, and he said “OK” again. I’d cleared that pesky buyer’s remorse hurdle. I returned to my slip, indicated the discount and was just finishing up when he casually inquired, “Can you do anything about the tax?” People were always looking to avoid paying sales tax on high-ticket items; not an unusual request and there was a bit of an almost-legal shimmy I could do to sidestep the additional 5.25%. I agreed to handle the tax issue, finished writing up the slip, and said, “That will be forty-eight hundred dollars. Would you prefer to write a check or put that on a credit card?”

Suddenly, the smile left his face. He looked contemplative for a few seconds and then inquired if he could leave a deposit on the item and come back later to pay the balance. “Of course,” I replied. “How much would you like to leave?” He said, “Is five dollars OK?” I paused, put down my pen, looked at him and, with what I hoped was a compassionate expression, said in a slightly-lowered voice, “Was there some confusion about the price of the watch?” He let out a big sigh and said, “Yes… I thought you meant it was forty-eight dollars.” He apologized for misunderstanding and quickly left the store. I went to void the slip and then it struck me — this shithead wanted to beat the tax on a FORTY-EIGHT DOLLAR PURCHASE?? (For those of you who are math-deficient, that would have been an additional $2.52.) I guess it was a self-fulfilling prophecy — anyone who thought a Rolex would sell for $48 likely felt exempt from his societal obligation to offer tax payments intended to support the public-transit bus he rode in on.

My retail sales and jewelry careers are long over, although I maintain my empathy for the salesperson’s lot in life and always respond warmly to those who do the job well. Which, in my experience, is all of them*.

*(except for most of them, particularly at Best Buy)