Show and sell: the life of a housewares hawker

Every year millions of "tire kickers" cruise the aisles of home shows, eyeing kitchen counters and roof shingles, solariums and saunas.

Some will have encountered Bob Read and Charlie Abbate.

Charlie sells stainless-steel Kitchen Craft cookware made by the West Bend Company. Bob pitches Euroshine brooms and mops for Mandalay Marketing.

Unlike exhibitors, whose main job is to show products and answer questions, these two hope you'll make a purchase. Their livelihoods depend on it.

They travel the home-show circuit, serviced by the 2,000-plus-member Trade Show Exhibitor Association. Independent contractors like Mr. Read and Mr. Abbate may seem like throwbacks to a bygone sales era, but they're still central to the success of trade shows, which remain highly efficient commercial forums.

The work is not without trials and tribulations, and Read and Abbate know them well. In fact, Read says he is so weary after five years of often-lonely, physically taxing work that he has decided to retire from road work.

When the Monitor found him, he was in the first hours of the four-day North American Home Show, facing workdays of nine-to-12 hours at Boston's Bayside Exposition Center. To make any money at a smaller show like this means soloing, which he says is much harder than working with partners "one up, one down" – alternating hours spent on and off duty.

There is very little time for Read to visit with Mr. Abbate, who is stationed at a double-wide space over on aisle 2300.

Abbate lives in Pine Beach, N.J., with his wife and two children, and Read, a bachelor, resides in Chicago. As students they studied drama together as undergraduates and graduates at the same New Jersey and Illinois colleges.

Both are comfortable in their professional roles. "From our acting training, we're familiar with doing the same script again and again," Read says. "But while the words may be exactly the same, the audience is always different."

On this particular afternoon, with a storm brewing outside, the show aisles are nearly empty. Still, three men raptly watch Abbate's hour-long cooking-and-product demonstration at the Kitchen Craft booth, where most of the 20 folding chairs are empty.

None of these prospects look the type to buy a shiny new set of pots and pans, but Abbate long ago quit trying to size up customers by their appearance. He once sold a set of cookware to a shabbily dressed man who turned out to be an electrical contractor.

In Boston, an untidy fellow pulled out a wad of bills to purchase his cookware.

Fifteen minutes later the same customer returned. "Hey, Charlie," he interrupted, "I decided to fix my truck instead. Cancel my order." After a momentary pause, he broke into laughter, explaining that he was kidding.

"But sometimes they're not kidding," an unfazed Abbate observes. Either way, he takes it in stride. He realizes plunking down $1,200 for a cookware set can be a big stretch, so cancellations happen.

Read explains that "pitching" not only helps sell products, but brings needed entertainment value to home shows.

One strategy used to create a buzz is to make a 2-for-1 offer early in the day. Paying customers then serve to advertise the product by carrying it through the crowd.

Working on a commission basis, Read has to work fast. He constantly mops up green liquid from linoleum and sweeps pet hair from carpeting during his four-minute demos. When unable to get to the gym, he says, this makes for "great exercise, especially the broom."

Read was taught to hand out a few products for people to inspect. But when some mistook them for giveaways, he dropped the practice. It was awkward to approach people about returning the merchandise.

On a really good day, he says, he might sell several hundred brooms and mops at $20 each. As with real estate, sales are a factor of location.

His preference is a quiet crossroads corner. Unlike some colleagues who "can handle the noise" and don't mind "slugging it out," he likes a more laid-back atmosphere where, using a microphone, he doesn't have to shout.

Building a crowd, he says, energizes the pitch. If traffic is light he invites everybody who walks by to witness a demo. If that doesn't work, he starts showing his wares, even if nobody is listening.

Abbate uses a sign on his pot-and-pan-populated stage to announce when the next show begins. Two rows of folding chairs welcome the foot-weary. He likes to work with the sounds of Glenn Miller playing in the background.

"A lot of people like it, and I've never had anyone offended by it," Abbate says.

His strategy is to create an environment that people want to be part of. A framed photo of his children is displayed along with his wares. Appearance, he says, is very important, so he makes sure he is meticulously groomed and keeps his booth spic-and-span.

Abbate spends about 2-1/2 hours setting up, and as long packing up at the end. Plus, he devotes about an hour each day of the show to getting ready to cook and serve about six to eight meals.

At a show in Reedsville, Pa., a member of the local Lions Club once presented him with a plaque for having an exemplary booth. The only problem was that the presentation dragged on too long – and Abbate lost his audience.

Abbate calls himself an amateur gourmet and enjoys singing the praises of the cookware.

For a weekend show, he usually buys all his groceries ahead of time. "When people see you with 25 cucumbers, 25 zucchinis, and six red cabbages," he says, "they ask, 'Do you have a restaurant?' "

Sometimes he forgets to plug in his electric skillet. "Halfway into the show I open the skillet and say, oops, I guess we're not cooking chicken today," he says.

When he first started pitching cookware, he also occasionally forgot to turn off the pan with the vegetables. "People would say, 'What is that smell?' " The bloopers appear to be a thing of the past.

Abbate says many consumers are "very, very skeptical. They've been infomercialed to death." At some shows, he says, he struggles just to give away paring knives.

Customers, he finds, may sit through a cooking show one year, size up his performance and products, then come back the next year to make a purchase.

Abbate gives out his phone number to make for a more personal transaction, and is happy to field calls, even though a cookbook and videotape that come with a purchase contain all the information a buyer would ever need.

Abbate says most of his cousins are doctors and attorneys, but he says he enjoys what he does, makes just as much money, has complete control of his finances as an independent contractor, and has more time at home with his family – six weeks off in the summertime and six weeks off during holiday periods. "So if people look at what I do in kind of an off way, in the back of my mind I say, 'Well, that's all right, but they don't really have the full picture."

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