Confessions of a Door-to-Door Salesman

Developing a positive attitude selling vacuum cleaners in the '70s served this go-getter well later in life.

Demonstrate, demonstrate, demonstrate! Those motivating words were coming from our instructor, and were directed towards me and a half dozen other young men gathered at the rear of a narrow storefront office on Water Street in St. John’s. The year was 1971, and although I had already established my own cleaning business, I needed to supplement my income to provide for my growing young family. Selling Electrolux vacuum cleaners door-to-door presented an exciting challenge to me.

Because I had listened intently to those words of my instructor, for many years to follow it often meant food on our table. Let me give you an example. One day, I stopped at a drive-in restaurant. The owner invited me in, but I was disappointed that there was no carpet to be seen anywhere. Even so, those words kept going around in my head: demonstrate, demonstrate, demonstrate. So, I removed the vacuum from the box and put all the parts together, explaining the best I could how each attachment worked. Looking back, 50 years later I can still see that lonesome Electrolux vacuum sitting in the middle of the room looking like it had been abandoned in the middle of the Sahara Desert.

You wouldn’t believe the customer’s next words: “How much?” To my surprise and delight, I was able to write “Paid in Full” on his receipt. This was a second surprise because most people back then just made payments of $10 or $15 a month.

Another instructor taught me a positive slogan: “If you try, you might; if you don’t, you won’t.” Those words proved true over and over again. At first the householder would say, “I’m not interested, I have a vacuum cleaner,” but if you could persuade them to see it demonstrated, one out of three would buy the Electrolux, the “Cadillac” of vacuum cleaners.

Kudos and Mishaps

When I moved my young family to Winnipeg in 1975, I continued selling Electrolux door-to-door for two years. Not long after our arrival, I went out selling one day, got lost and sold two vacuum cleaners. At our “revival meeting” the next morning I was the centre of attention. The sales leader said, “Look at Prince, a goofy Newfie, just arrived from Newfoundland, goes out yesterday, gets lost, sells two vacuums! What’s the matter with you guys?” But let me tell you, although I was the good guy that day, I was not given such high honour on other occasions.

One of my first trips out in the country was in springtime, when I was introduced to the “joys” of Manitoba gumbo. The customer’s house was at the end of a long driveway. I barely got off the main road when all four wheels disappeared into that muddy, greasy mess. After walking about a mile, I found a garage, and its owner came to my rescue. With much difficulty, he managed to tow me back on to the main road again. How could I make such a mistake? Well, don’t forget, I grew up on The Rock; I had never heard of Manitoba gumbo.

At the time, other companies marketed their vacuum cleaners the same way, door-to-door. I recall how I would sometimes squash the competition. One particular model was big, heavy and noisy, so I would tell them it would make a good anchor for their boat; what they actually needed was an Electrolux. In fact, I remember taking one such competitor’s model on trade, with a price tag still dangling from the handle. Yes, being a vacuum cleaner salesman you have to have a sense of humour and be able to shoot a lot of propaganda.

We not only sold vacuum cleaners; the Electrolux line also included a “floor conditioner” that would strip and wax floors and shampoo carpets as well. The first time I demonstrated the conditioner by shampooing a lady’s carpet. I thought to myself, “This carpet is really looking good,” but then I just about fainted when I realized that I had put wax stripper in the tank instead of rug shampoo. The lady was very pleased with the job I had done, and why shouldn’t she be—after all, she had the cleanest carpet in town! Let’s hope that years later, when the rug disintegrated, the kind vacuum cleaner salesman was long forgotten.

Good Memories

It can be a little discouraging if you go a week without selling. I was having such a week when my sister, Anita, and her husband, Dave, came to visit us from Pennsylvania. One evening, Dave offered, “I’ll come along and keep you company.” We drove out to Selkirk, where I‘d had success on other occasions. Dave said, “I’ll go for a walk while you make some calls.”

Well, at the very first call I made, a friendly school teacher and his wife invited me in and I made the sale. In the meantime, I had the left car doors locked and poor Dave was fighting off swarms of mosquitoes. However, when he heard I had made a sale, he soon forgot the bites that were covering his mangled head. I guess you can understand why he was, and still is, one of my favourite brothers-in-law.

My loyalty to the older model Electrolux made in the ’60s and ’70s is still part of me. In fact, on an early Saturday morning you might find me dashing from one garage sale to another to try to find an Electrolux that I or one of my buddies sold nearly 50 years ago. Over the years, I’ve probably owned, for my cleaning business, over a hundred of them. Sometimes, people will remark on the age of a vacuum I’m using, saying, “Boy, that’s really old; my grandmother had one like that.” I’m happy to reply, tongue in cheek, “I made my first million with one like this!”

When you’re young and have little mouths to feed at home, you would do just about anything to provide for them. I’ve had a successful business all my life, but the positive attitude taught me in my younger years selling vacuum cleaners door-to-door was a great contribution to that success.

I’m getting older, but my memory’s still sharp. My wife and I will be driving down a street and I’ll point to a house where I sold an Electrolux, and over there another one. She politely says, “Yes dear,” but she’s not quite so long-suffering when we drive by the office and I tease her by saying, “I think it would be neat to sell Electrolux again.”

“Do you want a divorce?”

We have a good laugh and I keep driving because, after 56 years of marriage, I know I’ve got a good woman. As we head home for a cup of tea I think of the favourite words of a well-known sports announcer here in Winnipeg, the late Jack Wells: “And it turned out nice again!”

Next, check out 10 classic TV shows that could only have been made in Canada.

Originally Published in Our Canada