By January 2005, Phi had worked his way up to sales trainer for a cell phone retailer, and he got me a job. He was making good money. Hustling in the mall, he made over 60 grand in 2004. We were only 21.
On one of my first days on the job, he came to my kiosk to do some training. He was demonstrating the greet, that oh-so-disgusting practice used to lure customers. I had always thought that it was the product of overzealous salespeople, but it was part of the job description.
Phi spotted a young girl walking alone. I swear he was licking his lips. We debated for a moment whether she was 18, presumably because he wanted to ask her out. But he only wanted to sell her phones. Phi stopped her with some cheesy line and chatted with her for a few minutes, and the girl seemed infatuated. He transitioned the conversation to phones and asked to see hers.
“Oh, wow. I thought a pretty girl like you would have a matching phone. Here, try holding this one.” He put the brand-new pink RAZR in her hands. “Oh, that’s hot,” he gushed. “I like what I see now.”
The girl was 18, but she was on her parents’ plan. Phi went into a grand speech about independence and becoming an adult, capping it off with a classic line: “Break from the shackles of childhood into your new life!” I almost started laughing.
The girl contended that it sounded great, but she couldn’t afford a new phone. The master of manipulation didn’t hesitate, declaring it was her lucky day. “We’re holding a raffle for free RAZRs today,” Phi exclaimed.
On a Wednesday. In February. Right.
The girl’s eyes lit up as he slipped her the credit application. The two-by-five-inch photocopied forms looked shady: copies of copies, they were faded and simply said “Application” at the top. The girl paused at the place where she had to enter a Social Security number.
“You’re not going to run my credit, are you?”
“Nope,” he replied.
Reassured, she handed over the slip. Of course, Phi entered her info, achieving the answer he was looking for. “5 Lines APPROVED — $0 Deposit.”
“Oh, my God, you won a prize! Now, you didn’t win the RAZR, but you get five of these [phones] for free,” he said, feigning excitement.
He made almost $200 in commission on that sale and got a date with the girl, too.
As summer approached at Plaza Camino Real, the spicy Latina quit. I was surprised since she was making a killing at the booth. The mall was also known as Devil Dog Mall — Marines from Camp Pendleton shopped there. The Marines were sucked in by the Latina’s short skirts and tight blouses, and she easily fooled them with her simple cons. Many of them were barely 18 and from towns with populations in the low four digits. Of the other customers, about three-quarters were Spanish-speaking. As the only one in the kiosk who was fluent, she mopped up there, too. It seemed almost easier with Hispanic customers. Instead of lies, she insisted that there was something lost in the translation.
“You don’t get it,” she told me. “You’re a güero. Mexicans take care of their own.” Yeah, sure.
She outsold the next-best rep two to one, but she claimed things weren’t what they used to be. Soon after she quit, she got a new job on a cruise ship to Alaska peddling gold — or something like it — to the passengers.
Danny, who had been the assistant manager and my best friend in the kiosk, took over. He was different from every other slick salesman in the mall. He wore big glasses that made him look like the Verizon guy, even though we weren’t selling Verizon. He didn’t wear the black or red power colors that everyone else was wearing. He was self-deprecating, goofing around with customers, and telling jokes that put them at ease. They thought he was their friend.
They were right. He was everyone’s friend, the most popular guy in the mall. We started hanging out a lot, drinking at Peter D’s, our favorite dive bar, every night after work, all summer long. It was a place where we could unwind and let down our guard. A few shots of Ten High, my favorite cheap whiskey, did the trick.
One night at Peter D’s, after my fifth shot, I told Danny I didn’t think I was going to make it.
“I can’t trick people,” I told him. “I’ll show ’em the deals and tell ’em what I think. But I just won’t lie. It’s not in me.”
He lingered over his glass before beginning his rebuttal.
“It doesn’t have to be deception. Just paint a picture for them. Highlight good stuff. Minimize bad stuff. Hell, just keep ’em entertained. They’re mostly idiots. They’re gonna get one from someone. Why not you? And why not two?” He was laughing, but it made sense. “We’re just giving the people what they want.”
Things started to click as I was rounding out my first year. I was getting a lot of Be-Backs, as we called them. We used the derogatory term for customers who’d say they’d “be back,” essentially a lost sale. But mine kept returning to the kiosk. My low-pressure, informative approach was winning them over. I was pulling in the older crowd, who were less likely to make impulse buys. But when my customers did make purchases, the commissions were richer. I’d sell them multiple phones for their families, and the deals were more likely to stick. Some of my colleagues’ old tricks were wearing thin: the consumers were wising up.
I developed a reputation and became successful. I became assistant manager, working for over a year at Plaza Camino Real under Danny. Then I bounced around a bit to audition for a promotion. In 2006, I spent time at Westfield North County Fair in Escondido and National City’s Westfield Plaza Bonita, which had the biggest booth in our district, before getting my first shot as general manager. The general manager’s job meant going from minimum wage and sizeable commissions to $40,000 a year and four-figure bonuses.