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Service in a Store Stocked With Stress

Seasoned Salesperson Aids Shoppers

By Michael Barbaro
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, December 24, 2004; Page A01

Here at 3 p.m. in aisle No. 3, amid the flat-panel TVs and TiVo systems, is a glimpse of the chaos that Best Buy employees must navigate in the days leading up to Christmas:

A young man is trying to persuade salesperson Aileen Menson to let his parents buy him a 34-inch flat-screen TV over the phone, using their credit card -- a violation of Best Buy rules. During the negotiations, Menson's manager pulls her aside. A woman is on the phone trying to cancel delivery of a 24-inch liquid crystal display TV that is already loaded on a truck. As Menson tries to solve these two problems, an impatient customer demands her attention.

In two days, Aileen Menson sold $20,000 worth of home theater equipment and crisscrossed the 44,000-square-foot Best Buy at least 25 times. (Juana Arias -- The Washington Post)

"Can't you help me?" she asks Menson in a huff.

In the run-up to the holidays, people often gripe about clueless, inattentive and rude salespeople. But the view is rather different from the sales people's vantage point, especially during the holiday rush, when shoppers are most frazzled. Of the 24 million retail employees in this country, most are paid less than $9 an hour, according to the Labor Department. They often work eight-hour days, sometimes late into the night, with few breaks. They are on their feet constantly.

Best Buy allowed The Washington Post to spend two days with one of its salespeople, a 29-year-old home theater department supervisor at the Tenleytown Best Buy store in Northwest Washington. In a little more than 16 hours, she sold about $20,000 worth of home theater equipment, answered about 250 questions, shook nearly three dozen hands and crisscrossed the 44,000-square-foot store at least 25 times. She dealt with dozens of customers, priding herself on being able to pick out the serious buyers from the browsers.

She lugged around DVD players, dusted off TV sets, printed out price tags and crawled behind a TV onto a shelf to retrieve a remote control that had fallen behind it. All the while, she smiled and asked customers if they "have gotten everything they need for their gift-giving needs." And she never sat down.

One shift starts promisingly enough. Matt Prossen, 26, walks into Best Buy looking for a television. He tells Menson it is a combination birthday and Christmas gift from his parents, who will pay for it.

"I want this one," he said decisively, pointing to a sleek, silver 34-inch Phillips Magnavox high definition television. A worried look immediately appears on Menson's face. There are none on the shelf. She heads to the stock room but finds none. "We can look at another TV and split the difference in price," Menson suggests.

But Prossen isn't interested. "Can you sell the floor model?" he asks. Menson checks and finds out that she can, and she will cut the price about 10 percent because it is not brand new.

But now there is another problem. Prossen's parents want to pay for the TV over the phone. Menson said store rules prohibit such sales. The buyer must be in the store. Prossen keeps pressing, but Menson won't budge. "I don't think I am being unreasonable," he said. He considers taking the matter over her head. "How long have you worked here?" he asks Menson.

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