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The Corporate American Slavery Business Review

The Coupon Slave

The easy part about making the transition from cemetery sales to advertising sales was not being paid for anything.  It did not matter at all where I spent my time.

Technically I was still employed at the cemetery.  Because I refused to quit and my sales manager Sandra apparently had no power to fire me nobody was authorized to take me off the payroll.  Since my draw balance was over $3,000 the cemetery had everything to gain by keeping me employed and paying for my health insurance in full.  If I ever did sell anything they would subtract my commission from the outstanding balance, most likely without cutting me a paycheck because $3,000 commission checks are highly unlikely unless you can find a sucker to buy a family plot for over $40,000.

The current upside for me was that I was now collecting $186 a week in unemployment benefits because the cemetery refused to pay me and I kept my health insurance free and clear.  This outraged my co-worker Victoria.  She didn’t do anything about it, but it disgruntled her to no end.  She earned a draw/paycheck somewhere in the neighborhood of $300 a week before taxes and health benefits were deducted, likely leaving her with about $200 every week and had to adhere to the rotational floor schedule she earned while I, not having sold enough to qualify for floor duty, was banished to the cemetery and anywhere else I cared to venture to find customers willing to purchase pre-need funerals and cemetery lots.  This, of course freed up my time to seek out other work and accept a commission sales position for the online coupon website start-up BuyTampaBay.com.

Alesia hired me based on my obvious enthusiasm for sales coupled with my years of experience selling yellow page and direct mail advertising.  I would be her first employee.  I knew Tampa Bay better than most and could navigate it without need for a map, knowing how to canvass and approach the Mom and Pop retail businesses who would buy coupon advertising, while skipping over the larger corporate anchors and franchises who would likely be a wasted effort.  Without any hourly wage or draw I agreed to a couple days of training to learn the product and process in order to become the superstar she needed. Alesias’ grand scheme included hiring multiple sales people and having those first on board, at that time – me, become sales managers and run territories.

The product was simple enough.  A website with coupons. Somebody searches for a deal or a business in their zip code, voila, there we were, first page on the search engine results every time you needed something that had anything to do with savings or coupons.  Genius.  Not really.  There were plenty of other sites already doing the same thing.

Alesia had moved here from Ohio with her husband so he could take a great job at an aerospace company, I believe he transferred with his company, so his position was relatively secure.  Alesia had years of experience as a yellow pages advertising sales manager with some experience in digital advertising.  She felt we were cut from the same cloth based on our backgrounds.

In my training Alesia acted as if she needed to sell me at all times on everything she was doing. Her ambition and passion for the project was obvious. At every objection she showed me why it would work. “Because people want to save money” became her refrain.  I could see the yellow page and coupon marketing tactics rising from sales meetings of the past like spirited sirens chanting “Save money.”

It occurred to me rather quickly that BuyTampaBay would not last. I could not put my finger on how the death nails would be driven into its coffin, if I would be one or if I would even be around to see it happen, but I knew from the start that it was the beginning of another business that would someday end sooner than intended. Alesia was not to blame.  She was right.  People want to save money.  But they don’t want to clip coupons and there was no convincing her of this.

People just want low prices, or to feel like they are getting a deal.  They don’t want to try new things that everyone else hasn’t tried and said how much they like it already. Nobody wants to be the guinea pig.

Enticed with a 60% commission on all sales and a bountiful override structure for the sales team I would one day manage, Alesia boasted a projection that this model, in addition to the renewals, would pay me at least $60 – 70,000 in my first year and that in two or three years we would rule the market with the most enviable of coupon websites everybody would love.  Soon we would branch out to Orlando, Gainesville, Miami, maybe even start franchises in other states. No reason not to be ruling the world and having our name on a stadium within the decade. Except that people don’t use coupons.

That is not entirely true. Somebody uses coupons.  Just not anybody I know.  I don’t clip coupons because I don’t like being told what to buy and where to shop.  Going out of my way to save any amount of money at all tends to be a hassle and more times than not when using a coupon I felt a bit shortchanged and just wished that I had forgone the savings altogether and just done what I wanted. That is why I don’t use coupons. Coupons exist and people do use them. In the grocery store it is inevitable that I see the person before me in line saving 20 cents.  Double on Wednesdays. There are TV shows dedicated to the extreme coupon users.

I watched one once.  It was sad.  The Couponer had her family running around the store emptying shelves of prepackaged foods that, to me, equated to a pile of garbage.  No fresh fruits or vegetables. Only canned, jarred or bottled.  She bought the cheapest cuts of meat in giant packages that were already frozen and enough of it to require a massive freezer space in the home. Cereal that would last for a year.  Time enough to get sick of it long before the expiration date or hope it goes bad, filled with weevils or taken by mice. She bought cases of soda pop. Cases of bathroom tissue. Cases of fruit roll ups. Jars, squeeze bottles and cans of condiments and barely anything worthwhile to put them on.  How much salsa does anyone really need? And what good is it if you don’t buy chips?

The sad part about this shopping excursion was how the children begged for things the Couponer would not buy. They were not asking for junk food either. Mom was filling the chain of carts they pulled through the aisles with plenty of junk food they did not want.  A little girl asked for fresh peaches or bananas as they skirted the produce section.  She was told “No. If we don’t have a coupon for it, we don’t buy it.” Canned, processed and soaked in water was good enough for her brood. No need for nutrition when you can save money and eat garbage for free.

The Couponer brought her quarry to the checkout. Several carts stacked high with nationally recognized brands, all sporting nutritional labels that double as health warnings, were rung up by the cashier, several baggers and the watchful eye of a store manager to the tune of hundreds of dollars. Then the coupons were applied. Ka-ching, ka-ching, KA-CHING BABY! The Extreme Couponer had lived up to her title and won this round with a cash payment for everything in the neighborhood of ten dollars. It was a sickeningly amazing sight. They pushed and pulled the carts out to a vehicle they could barely fit everything in. Children sat on boxes for the ride home. The little girl wished they had bought something she liked.

The Couponer lives blissfully. The Couponer, whether in the extreme or one ticket at a time, steps to the cashier proudly producing what they see as money in the bank. For a select few, who must live frugally, only buying what they need when they need it, a coupon can be a gift to help them get through until the next paycheck. If they really need an oil change, hair cut, cheap pizza or a discount on a repair a coupon is a good thing.  But most people don’t really need coupons. They buy what they want, when they want it, whether they need it or not. Those who get sucked into coupons on a regular basis or to the extreme do not know that they are slaves.

Only a handful of advertising executives and marketing experts understand the human psyche well enough to know how to create a slave. Drug dealers are pretty good at it too. They start with “Have a taste. You will like it. It’s free.” Before you know it, you are spending your money on something that you didn’t know existed to begin with by sacrificing something you would enjoy more if you had just spent the money on it. Oh, if only there were a coupon for that.

The smaller Mom and Pop businesses and upstarts like Alesia are no match for the corporate heavyweights who comprehend the coupon slave and how to chain them. The coupon is a vehicle to sell something else the slave needs. The oil change is cheap, but you need a gasket and an air filter. The haircut is only $8 but you need way more than a haircut. The spaghetti sauce is buy one, get one and it goes best with these kinds of noodles and you are going to need a lot of noodles to use that much sauce.  None of that other stuff is on sale, so pony up. A corporate store has both the experience and the inventory to fully take advantage of the coupon slave. Mom and Pops’ Couponers come in to use their coupon and that’s it. They are not there to test out a restaurant to see if they like it enough to be a regular customer for months and years to come. They just want to eat something and save money right now. They don’t want to pay full price for a massage and won’t return without the half price coupon. They won’t ever need full price printing services once their start-up fails and they have nothing else to print. But Mom and Pop and Alesia will not be deterred. They will scrabble to gain ground on every dollar blowing along the sidewalk before them.

There is a place for Mom and Pop and Alesia.  Not every small business withers away. Statistically it is only the majority. The average life span of a business is less than seven years. Like a dog or ferret, some live longer than others and the exceptional last for decades.

The ones that do are those who know how to make slaves. It would be interesting to see if Alesia could do it.

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