Death of a Sales Force

Did you hear the one about the downsized encyclopedia salesman?

By LAURA MILLER



Myron Taxman is the last of his breed. For 28 years, he's been a Encyclopedia Britannica salesman, and has served as the company's area manager in Chicago. But now Britannica, after being purchased by Swiss financier Jacob Safra, is ending its decades-old practice of home-selling its multi-volume reference work. While other publishers continue to send their sales troops out to face the rigors of the residential front, what many consider the classic encyclopedia will now be available only via direct mail, broadcast advertising and online marketing. Taxman spoke with us from his home in Skokie, Illinois, about the end of an era.

Did you ever sell door-to-door?

No, only by appointment. People requested information, so we'd stop by and explain what we had. But even as a manager I always made calls.

Did you bring a whole set of encyclopedias with you?

Oh, no! Just one volume. Recently, we were bringing the CD-ROM, which was a hot item.

What did you like about selling Britannica?

From the start, generating that sale was instant gratification. I would usually sell to 50 percent of the people I saw. And it was an easy sale, for a product that costs well over a thousand dollars. The family was excited about it; sometimes the kids would be there. It was really an emotional thing; I'd build up a rapport with the family. When I was a kid, I really wanted an encyclopedia and talked my mother into it.

How did you do that?

I was good salesman even then!

What was difficult about the job?

Sometimes you'd get into situations when one spouse would want the encyclopedia and the other one wouldn't, and then I'd be in the middle of a family battle. Usually it was the wife who wanted it. Women are more into the education of children. I'd try to mind my own business.

Did people ever get into a fight in front of you?

Oh, yes. One time the husband wanted it and the wife didn't. He said, "I really want this for my kids." I asked him if he wanted to talk it over with her first and he said no. So we're writing up the order and the next thing I know, I see an egg flying. I think she was aiming at him -- a raw egg -- but she hit me. It rolled down my suit and the man was very embarrassed.

I assume they had to buy it from you after they hit you with an egg.

Absolutely.

Do people really buy more than one set?

Yes, people who have a smaller set, and there are collectors. I had one man who decided he wanted one set for the first floor of his house and one for the second because sometimes he was upstairs and sometimes he was down, and he didn't want to exert himself.

Did you ever walk in the door and immediately think, "Oh, no"?

"What am I doing here?" Oh, yes, I had a lot of those. In one situation it was a Polish family that had only been in the country for six months: a sparse little apartment with virtually no furniture. I was sitting on one of those swinging lawn chairs -- that was their living room sofa. A little drugstore TV on a box. The man says, "In Poland we always wanted Encyclopedia Britannica. I bet you think we are crazy, but we want it." Then he walked into the next room and came out with some hundred dollar bills for a down payment, probably out of the mattress, and bought it.

What was your strangest experience?

A man from a very poor Hispanic family who lived over a store in Waukegan. He wanted Britannica for his family, but he had a pretty menial job, no bank account and no credit. I told him he'd need at least a fourth of the total in down payment. So he goes to the other room and comes back with a coin. He begged me to take it to Chicago and sell it for the down payment because no one would give him anything for it there. I thought it was crazy, but he pleaded and I figured if it didn't work I'd bring it back, what's the difference? Keep him happy. I took it to a rare coin company and it turns out it's a $20 gold piece. They gave me $250 for it -- that was 20 years ago -- and that was enough for the down payment. He was thrilled to death, and I got my commission.

What do you think of CD-ROM encyclopedias?

The big problem with computers is when they first came along, people bought them for their kids instead of encyclopedias. Then the kids wound up using them mostly for games. We've started to get back some of those people. With a book, you have browsability, portability, more than one person can use it at a time -- so many factors.

Do you have a favorite Britannica entry?

Some of the guys do, but I never did. I like to show people that we have street maps of London, Paris and other major world cities, and some of the biographies. A lot of famous people have read Britannica from cover to cover -- Hugh Downs has -- but I haven't.

What would you estimate is the percentage of the Encyclopedia Britannica that you've read?

About 20 percent. I'd only read it if there was something specific I was looking up, or people called me with questions. There's a lot of information there: 44 million words.

How do feel about having your job phased out?

Not too thrilled. I found out the day before I left for two-week vacation. What happened is what's happened to so many corporations around the world. We were bought out. The company that bought us thought they could save a lot of money without these 500 sales people and just sell the things direct. It was tried before, but they were never really successful doing it a different way.

I lot of customers liked the sales calls. They wanted someone to come out and show them what the product was. It's not an inexpensive item to purchase.