The soft sell

During my school vacation days my Uncle Ralph, who kept a country store that sold everything and anything, would have me for a week or two, and I was early exposed to the philosophies of customer relations by an expert. Uncle Ralph lived over the store, and it was not unusual for him to be awakened in the small hours by a customer who wanted, maybe, five pounds of sugar. Uncle Ralph never murmured or repined. To him, a customer was the whole reason for his purposes, so he would dress, go down and open the store, and cheerfully perform. ''Sure,'' he would say, ''I lose a little sleep, but I've got a friend who knows where to come next spring to get a new double harness, a mowing machine, and twenty-five rolls of barbed wire.''

Memories of Uncle Ralph's store caused me to notice long ago that self-service chain store people, like joggers and motorcyclists, seem always grim. And the customers, too, their moods set by doors that open for them, the loneliness of an aisle of washday detergents, and the lack of downright hearty good nature. The minute a customer stepped into Uncle Ralph's store, he got whatever was for him the proper greeting to welcome him and promote good feeling. There was one man my uncle always grabbed warmly by the hand, shook violently, and said, ''How long you been out?'' There was a woman he always saluted with, ''Aha! Miss Garbo is back!''

In those days flour came as part of a larger purchase. The millers made you buy bran, middlings, shorts, cow- and hen-feed, horse oats, and then so much flour. The shipments would come in an ''open'' boxcar by rail. When a car was due, Uncle Ralph would drive down to Oakland Junction in his Model T and paste a big banner on the boxcar:

This Car Contains Flour

For R. E. Gould

This was true, but it also contained flour for every other storekeeper in Somerset County, and as the freight train moved through town after town up the valley, his competitors were not pleased with this strict compliance with truth-in-advertising. But the banner did amuse everybody else, and Uncle Ralph sold more flour than all the other stores put together, until one day his banner said:

This Car Contains Flour

For R. E. Gould


During the later years of his storekeeping, Uncle Ralph foiled chain store efforts four times. A store would appear and make use of the ''loss leader'' to attract customers. B & B soap, say, would be offered at six cakes for a quarter, far below cost. Everybody would stock up on B & B soap, at the same time making other purchases with the chain. Then, the next week, Uncle Ralph would have a window full of B & B soap at two cents a cake. Nobody needed B & B soap that week, so he didn't sell enough below cost to bother him, but his stunt did make customers mistrust the chains. Uncle Ralph would say that even on his bad days he could think faster than a chain store manager who had to write to Boston for instructions. Of the four chain store attempts, the longest success was four months before Uncle Ralph whittled them down.

One of my small chores when I visited Uncle Ralph was to bag sugar. Bulk sugar was put up in one, two, five, and ten pounders, and I'd do enough at a time to last a few days. ''Always look up and speak to everybody, and never let a customer see you take sugar OUT of a bag! Always put in less than weight, and then add enough with the scoop to balance - makes 'em feel we're generous.''

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