Why sell, when you can buy?

By

Yesterday I received my order of Girl Scout cookies. When I opened the door, a girl threw out her hand and unceremoniously announced, "That'll be $7." I gave her the money and took possession of my Thin Mints and Samoas. (I'm a sucker for Samoas.)

What impressed me about the young saleswoman - who was all of 11 years old - was her professionalism and, well, assertiveness. I recalled how, more than a month ago, she had solicited my business by rapping on the door and, as soon as I opened it, thrusting the order sheet at me with the cry, "You want Girl Scout cookies, don't you?"

How could I say no?

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Kids who sell things door to door are a special breed. They certainly have something I never did - that moxie that endows them with a type of fearlessness that's stoked by every sale they make.

As a child growing up in the New Jersey of the 1960s, I also put in my time as a door-to-door salesman, but usually under duress. When I was in third grade, the school gave us cartons of chocolate bars to tout as a fundraiser.

After selling the requisite first couple of bars to my parents - at the inflated price of 25 cents apiece - I was girded to go out into the wider world. But I was immediately disillusioned when the first door I knocked on brought me face to face with a woman who laughed and said, "But I'm on a diet!"

My parents, as well as a caring aunt - none of whom were on a diet - took mercy on me by purchasing the rest of my stock. I was 12 before I was willing to take my wares on the road again.

I had seen, in a comic book, that one could earn wonderful gifts (make that WONDERFUL GIFTS!) by selling Christmas cards door to door "in your spare time." Well, I had spare time, didn't I? And one of the wonderful gifts just happened to be a bow-and-arrow set. Suddenly, my eyes were aglow with the idea of shooting targets in my backyard. I filled out the diminutive order form in my cramped script, and, scarcely a week later, a large package arrived on my doorstep.

I unpacked 25 boxes of Christmas cards (replete with sequined landscapes and Scottie dogs sporting plaid scarves and tam-o'-shanters) and, as per tradition, immediately sold a box to my parents for $1.25.

Then I read the fine print. I would have to sell an additional 75 boxes in order to reach "the first level," which would, in turn, make me "eligible" for a wonderful gift, but "not necessarily" the gift of my choosing. Rather than a bow-and-arrow set, I might be able to get - gulp - a pair of hand-knit mittens.

Well, I just didn't have the ambition to beat the pavement in the hope of acquiring a pair of mittens. The result: My mother sold the cards to her friends and acquaintances. But she didn't avail herself of first-level privileges, and she advised me not to fill out anything I saw in a comic book.

I am now the father of two sons, and they don't have the moxie either. But I know they didn't get their lack of a killer instinct for salesmanship from me, because they're both adopted.

When my older son, Alyosha, was 10, he came home with a school fundraiser packet that involved selling magazine subscriptions. I did my duty by purchasing a Newsweek subscription, and then watched forlornly as he went door to door in our neighborhood, proffering his subscription sheet, meeting rejection at every turn.

But the last door he knocked on, just before the sun went down, was a hit. The grandmotherly woman bought a subscription to "Private Pilot," of all things. It was an act of mercy. She didn't even have a car, much less a Cessna.

Alyosha has moved on to college, but I still have a 9-year-old in the nest. Anton dutifully brings home his school fund-raising items - wrapping paper these days - and comes at me with all the enthusiasm of the recent convert.

I find that, if we just let the sales package lie on the kitchen table for a few days, his zeal wanes to the point of forgetfulness. At that point I quietly slip a donation into his envelope and place it in his school backpack.

This seems to satisfy everybody: Anton has a sense of contributing, the school benefits, and neither of us has to go against our natures by trying to sell the unwanted to the nonbuying.

But unwilling to sell does not mean unwilling to buy, and there will always be room in our house for Samoas.

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