What Radio Shack taught me: Lessons from a rookie salesman

Photograph by David Paul Morris — Bloomberg via Getty Images

Over the past week, as it became clear that struggling electronics retailer Radio Shack would need to file for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, tech workers and entrepreneurs have come forward to explain how much the store meant to them. After all, Radio Shack offered a seemingly endless supply of electronic doo-dads, making it a veritable oasis to any curious tech mind.

I owe Radio Shack a different kind of debt of gratitude. The retailer gave me my very first real paying job, in 2000. At 17, a year shy of what they preferred, Radio Shack hired me—for $5.15 an hour plus commission, if I sold enough—as a sales associate at their Northport store, a sleepy enclave on the north shore of Long Island. On Thursday, the 94-year-old corporation filed for bankruptcy and announced that it will likely be closing a sizable portion of its 4,000 stores. Here are a few things the company taught me during my first entree into the working world.

Knowing that you know nothing

My first days on the job made for an exercise in infuriating ignorance. Sure, I could program my parents’ VCR and get them connected to the Internet, but I didn’t know my way from nickel cadmium to lithium ion. I knew so very little about the many, many different cords and adapters and other electronic parts that were packed into this small storefront space.

At first, I tried to bluff my way out of my predicament, giving customers what I thought they needed. That was a disaster. After a few botched sales and subsequent returns, I decided I needed to try a different tack: embrace my ignorance and start asking questions to just about anyone, even customers. I figured they’d be better off with a novice salesman who knew he was a novice and was willing to admit it. After a while, I started to become more comfortable with the twinge of pain that would always come when I knew I didn’t know the answer. And by that time, I gradually began to know some of the answers.

Standing up for what’s yours

At 17, I was the youngest salesman at the Northport Radio Shack. And I was shy by nature. Put simply, I was not going to be the one charming customers just as they walked through the front door and sending them home with plenty more than they had come in looking for. Some of my coworkers had a habit of simply stalking the entrance of the store, just waiting to swoop in on arrivals. I’d spend most of my time toward the back, unpacking boxes, fixing up the store, or minding the counter.

Thankfully, I had an ally, in an 80-some-odd-year-old gentleman coworker named Ed. I heard his son was some Radio Shack executive, and I got the feeling that he was deposited at our store because some unseen relative simply wanted him out of the house for a little while. It was probably his last job.

Ed saw my colleagues slyly push their way into more sales, and he gave me a good shove. “Get out there in front. Don’t stand back here with an old man like me,” he told me. It was my first on-the-job assertiveness training. Unlike the classroom, rules of equity are rarely, if ever, enforced at work. I had to step up if I wanted to be treated better. I moseyed my way up to the front of the store for a while, maybe worked with a customer or two, slunk back, Ed would give me another push, and the cycle would repeat.

The pricelessness of silence

As a rookie salesman just starting to know my way around the cordless phones and coaxial cables, I was awash with new information. And I just assumed that customers would want to know what I knew too. So when I would pitch a curious browser, I would give them all the details I had in my arsenal. By the time I was finished describing all the features of an answering machine or the difference between a 900 Mhz and 2.4 Ghz phone, all I would get in return was a polite, bewildered smile and no sale.

After a few stumbles—okay, maybe more than a few—I realized the enormous value of silence. Most customers, I slowly learned, simply want to know that they are in good hands, that they can trust your judgment, and that whatever they came in to purchase won’t break as soon as they plug it in at home.

So I started to use my words sparingly, introduced just a small set of options to customers, and waited, patiently, for them to think their way through what they wanted. Quite often, customers reasoned that they needed or even deserved the higher priced product. They sold themselves. Now, if only Mariah Carey’s “All I Want for Christmas Is You”—a holiday favorite my store kept on endless loop during the season—could have been silenced as well.

The uncertainty of our paths

My course had been set, I thought. I had just one year left of high school and I would then be a college student, probably in New York City. I was a decent student and I felt certain that I would have several different professional options in the coming years. I took it all for granted. My time at Radio Shack threw the silliness of my certainties into stark relief.

My boss, the store manager and an emigrant from Iran, said that he had trained to be an engineer in his home country. He would often talk about the affluent life he led in Iran, and how he possessed one of the very first car phones in the country. I don’t think he imagined he would be working in retail on Long Island. The manager’s deputy, a skilled, patient teacher who was brilliant with customers, was born with nerve damage that left one side of his body with limited functioning. He walked with a perpetual limp, which affected his confidence. He would wonder if he’d ever get his own store to manage.

The subsequent disappointment when things don’t go the way you planned can take a heavy toll. I had one middle-aged coworker who had just lost an engineering job and had come to Radio Shack as a last ditch effort, just to bring in some money to pay the bills. He struggled to learn the ropes. He would often show up to work looking disheveled and lost. I wonder how he felt asking a 17-year-old like me for help with the cash register in front of a customer. He did it anyway, though. And I’ll never forget the smile on his face when he landed another engineering gig and gave his notice.

My coworkers—smart, talented, ambitious grown-ups—had been thrown off what they thought was their rightful course. I got my first glance of career setbacks and the different ways in which people respond to the pain, from anger, impatience, resignation, and resolve.

Radio Shack gave me the gift of knowing what it means to have a job, from the taste of success of a first big sale, to the satisfaction of knowing more at the end of the day than when you started it, to realizing that there is no such thing as a preordained career.

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