I received an email today. In it I was asked if I remembered a certain salesman who used to call on our family’s business. The fellow in question was identified only by the firm for which he worked.
I remembered neither.
For all I knew it could have have been Willy Loman working for an unnamed company, selling who knows what.
It strikes me now that many Willy Lomans called on our company. A few worked for GE, P&G, Lee Jeans and other giants, but most worked for little companies you’ve never heard of.
The country was covered by thousands of small distributors selling everything from toothpicks to toboggans as well as every type of electrical appliance, garment and everything in between. They employed tens of thousands of salesmen to call on hundreds of thousands of small retailers that served both urban neighborhoods and rural towns. Instead of city streets lined with hip looking bars, cafés and boutiques and Main Streets that look like Colonial Williamsburgh wannabes, there were stores that sold all the stuff you needed. And they needed the distributors that employed the Willies to provide them with life’s necessities, as well as an occasional impulse item. And of course large manufactures had cadres of super salesmen – Big Willies – to call on the distributors.
It was a gloriously inefficient system that employed hundreds of thousands of ordinary people in respectable jobs.
Bored yet? Well, here’s where I’m going: Where the hell are all these Willies working today, or have they just died out and their fossils litter motel parking lots? I see some of these guys in Home Depot and Lowes selling kitchen cabinets. A few are hustling appliances in the regional appliance chains. A handful actually try to beat the algorithms as they hit the headquarters of Walmart, Target and – who else? I guess some embryonic ones are the “geniuses,” “leaders,” and “team mates” in the Apple stores (by the way, where do old Apple “geniuses,” “leaders,” and “team mates” go? To call centers where their wrinkles won’t scare anybody away?).
The fact is, there really is no place for a Willy Loman to work today. These guys had thick skins; they could handle rejection and crappy bosses, but they were not doormats. They were independent, resourceful, minimally educated. They made great use of “everything they learned in kindergarten.”
Are economy hasn’t caught up with the massive displacement of the Willy Lomans. It’s pretty hard for an intelligent, honest, ordinary guy to earn a living these days. Even the used car lots are becoming “algorithmed.”
Glad I’m outside the tent. It doesn’t smell so good in there today.