SEATTLE — My sole intention in applying for a catalog sales job was to earn extra money. As a freelance writer, there are times when the financial benefits of steady work outweigh the freedom of self-employment. It never occurred to me that my part-time employment could hurt anyone.
A 10-day training period with a prominent clothing company corrected my naive assumption that I could walk in and immediately begin answering phones and typing up sales orders. Each day in training I learned dozens of codes for an archaic computer system that must have been designed by the Rubik's Cube creator.
Two weeks later, I was ear-to-ear with customers nationwide.
I quickly learned a noteworthy sales truism: All people are created equal. And it wasn't the Constitution that granted them equality. It was credit cards. Everyone I spoke to had two or more charge cards. Whether they worked for minimum wage or made hundreds of dollars an hour, in the world of plastic cards they were all rich. No one canceled an order because his or her credit card was maxed out. They simply reached into their magic wallets and pulled out another one.
It didn't take long for me to realize those little pieces of plastic had created a culture of shopping addiction, and I was the enabler. I not only took orders for items customers wanted, needed, had to have, I also lured them into making extra purchases. Company policy required me to pitch at least two sales items per call. If I failed to make those extra sales, my sales team and I lost our chance to win coveted prizes, privileges, and kudos in the ongoing competition with other teams.
The fierce competition gave me a double helping of guilt. I felt guilty when I fed customers' shopping addictions by offering them weekly specials. And I felt guilty when I didn't push sales items and my team lost to rival sales teams.
By the end of the second month, I was torn. After receiving two weeks of paid training, I felt an obligation to the company to stay on the job more than a few of months. I'd spent numerous hours off the clock memorizing the fabric content and thread count for clothing and bedding products in four separate catalogsand learning the exact wording for sales pitches. Although I still wanted the steady paycheck, morally I had a hard time fulfilling the key job requirement: sell more.
Customers' calls were randomly routed through hundreds of sales representatives occupying the top floor of a building. Still, several customers called so frequently I began recognizing their voices. It became obvious that these folks were easy marks. When I mentioned a sale item, I was almost guaranteed an extra sale. The only problem was that I hated myself for taking advantage of their addiction. Instead of pushing "shopaholics" to buy more, I wanted to counsel customers about their spending habits.
Any distinction between chronic shopping and other less socially acceptable addictions dissolved as I sold hundreds of dollars worth of clothing to the same people week after week.
Driving to work I fretted about my customers' credit-card bills and tried to rationalize my role in their addiction. But I found no comfort in anonymously enabling consumers whose insatiable habits were probably ruining their lives.
Finally, I could no longer take it. Giving up the benefits of a steady paycheck, I quit.
The shopaholics are probably still making their daily calls and charging fortunes on their plastic cards. But at least I'm not the one feeding their addiction.
• Colleen Foye Bollen is a freelance writer and writing tutor at the University of Washington.