An Uncle's Advice On Customer Relations

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The greatest wonder of the modern world is that I grew up to be the honest, sincere, righteous, dignified, genteel, and upright gentleman you now behold. I owe this to my teachers and parents, who held me under rigid discipline 50 weeks in every year.

The other two weeks I came under the influence of my Uncle Ralph, who kept a country store and thought the nicest thing he could do for a favorite nephew had to do with trout brooks. I shared this opinion and was joyful every summer when his letter came asking if I would care to join him ''for a week or so'' before school resumed.

My parents were properly doubtful if my uncle's lifestyle was compatible with leading their firstborn in the right directions, but figured that a mere two weeks couldn't ruin their pious foundations. From my 10th summer, or so, I would ride on the choo-choo, my uncle would meet me at Sumerset Junction, and we would ride in his Model T into the land of Great Adventures. My Uncle Ralph ''spoiled'' me with two weeks of planned neglect of the verities and admonitions. In short, I had just the most wonderful time possible.

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Uncle Ralph had neither chick nor child, and lived in a bachelor nook over his general store. My accommodation was a bed in the storage room by the stock-storage elevator, surrounded by cases of canned goods that represented 2 percent for cash in 10 days. Uncle Ralph explained the gibberish of his cost-mark, and I could see for myself that his tinned lima beans set him back $1.20 for a case of 24 cans. He sold them for 11 cents to his valued customers, or two cans for a quarter.

Except at sales. Prices went up for his sales. He said at a sale everybody expects lower prices and he might as well take advantage of that. He said the whole secret of a successful grocer is to understand human nature and take advantage. He said anybody who will eat a lima bean when there are other kinds deserves to be punished. I knew he was right because I helped at the counter and saw people paying a quarter for two cans of lima beans.

One August, just before I arrived, a leaking water pipe flooded his stock room, and it made a horrible mess. The water washed the labels off all his cans, and a mush of soggy labels had to be removed before I could use my bed. The insurance man laughed and asked my uncle why he hadn't had a fire. The insurance paid for fires. The worst thing was that without a label, nobody knew what was in a can. You couldn't tell asparagus tips from Queen Anne cherries. My uncle offered me ''a surprise'' every meal. He'd open a can and that was the surprise. The next week he had a ''Surprise Sale.''

In his advertisement in the weekly Bulletin, he told how the leaky pipe had removed labels, and there was no way to tell what was in a can. ''Hold a Surprise Party!'' he urged. ''Open a can and find out!'' And the sale was a big success.

After the sale my uncle said, ''Human nature! You can always depend on it. People like to be swindled if they think it's a bargain. You wait and see how many customers go to the trouble of coming in to tell us they got a $2 can of ripe queen olives for 6 cents. We won't hear a peep from anybody who got a 5-cent can of Ben Davis applesauce for 6 cents. Test me out!'' He was right.

But my uncle's misdirections did not cause me to disregard the better advice from my parents. I am glad, today, that my probity attests my zeal to choose the better route.

I realize, too, that my uncle, although a darb at showing me where the darling trout were nesting, did sometimes err in his observations and conclusions. As when he became postmaster. In those days, a fourth-class postmaster was paid a token pittance but got 120 percent on his stamp sales. That is, when he sold a dollar's worth of stamps, the government paid him $1.20, over and above his token pittance. Accordingly, my uncle put in a newsstand and arranged for a supply of every magazine and newspaper he could think of, on consignment. If he didn't sell his papers, he returned the whole publication, not just the ''heading,'' and didn't have to pay for it. He did, however, return them first-class mail, special delivery, insured, and return receipt requested, so it cost him something like $22 to return a copy of The New York Sunday Times. His 20 percent was better than selling the Times. But this didn't work out.

The next year, the Postal Service notified him that his increase in stamp sales had automatically elevated his fourth-class office into a third-class office, and henceforth he would be paid a salary of $28 a month and no percentage. He resigned. Then he had a big conference with himself about what would be a good moneymaker in the space no longer needed for the newsstand and the post office.

''Never,'' he told me as he was teaching me to bag sugar, ''never let the customer see you take any out.'' Sugar came from the refinery in hundredweight cotton bags, and we'd weigh it out in one, two, five, and 10-pound paper sacks, to be ready for customers. The weight was guessed at, then the bag was set on the scales and corrected to be exact. My uncle said, ''Customers are funny. Let them see you take sugar out, and they think you're cheating them. If they see you put some in, they think they're getting something for nothing. So if you over-guess, set the bag away until the customer isn't looking. Don't ever give away one single grain of sugar, you hear?''

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