June 1st, 2020


The death of the shoe salesman is long overdue

 Virginia Postrel

By Virginia Postrel Bloomberg View

Published Dec. 11, 2017

Another storied occupation is on its way out and the replacement is neither robots nor foreign workers. We're witnessing the death of the shoe salesman.

Macy's earlier this year said it would convert more shoe departments to an "open sell" format, where customers serve themselves from stacks of boxes. J.C. Penney is experimenting with the format. It's the way sales have long worked at stores like DSW and TJX Co.'s Marshall's and T.J. Maxx.

From Victorian-era evangelist Dwight L. Moody to comedian Kevin Hart, selling shoes has been the original calling of many a sweet talker. Before World War II, it was a common and respectable middle-class job, as demonstrated by Depression-era news accounts of men fallen on hard times who'd previously drawn "a good salary" selling shoes.

Over time, however, popular culture has come to treat shoe salesmen as pitiable and comic. "If you ever have a choice between selling shoes to young ladies and giving birth to a porcupine that is on fire, look into that second, less painful opportunity," advised the late comedian Richard Jeni, who did a stint selling shoes when he was 17.

The combination of demanding customers, grotesque feet, and eagerness for commissions makes for the shared discomfort that often fuels humor. Its most famous representative is, of course, the put-upon misanthrope Al Bundy of the sitcom "Married ... with Children," with his corpulent clientele and thwarted sexual fantasies.

In fact, the job is an anachronism, a holdover from the long-gone days when most merchandise was kept away from customers. It hasn't even caught up with 20th-century norms, let alone 21st. Consider two department store shopping experiences.

1) You're looking for some new trousers. You wander through the apparel department, flipping through the racks to find your size. You select a few pairs, and a sales associate asks if you'd like to start a fitting room.

You agree and continue looking, picking up another pair and a sweater that catches your eye. When you're ready, you try everything on, decide what to buy, and check out. The salesperson may help you find a size or suggest a matching shirt, but self-service is the rule.

2) You need new shoes. You start looking around and spot a promising pair. A sales associate swoops down and asks if you need help. You aren't really ready but worry about missing your chance, so you say yes, you'd like to see these in your size.

The associate disappears into the back room, while you continue to look and find a couple of pairs you like better. After what seems like an eternity -- How many blocks away is that warehouse? -- the associate re-emerges with the bad news: They don't have the first shoe in your size, but here's a different size, which doesn't fit, and another, similar shoe -- which you hate. You ask to see the models you found while waiting, and the process starts all over again.

No wonder so many shoe shoppers prefer online retailers with easy returns. Outside of specialized boutiques, the shoe salesman (or woman) isn't an amenity but an obstacle. Eliminating the position may give future comedians less material, but it promises to make customers happier.

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Virginia Postrel, a Bloomberg View columnist, writes about commerce and culture, innovation, economics, and public policy.




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