Tuesday, December 7, 2010

The Lotion Sniper


I spend little time in malls. The exception of course is when I’m doing my Christmas shopping. Recently I went to the San Francisco Centre on Market Street and as I navigated the curving escalators, I ruminated on two things.

First, I thought about how I used to be annoyed at the layout of these escalators: instead of lining them all up, so you could make an uninterrupted trip to the floor of your choice, the up- and down-escalators are staggered, so when you reach a new floor and want to go up another, you have to walk 180 degrees around to the next up escalator. The idea, of course, is to take you past as many shops as possible. I used to be put off by the sneakiness of this, but with so many modern technologies making our lives more sedentary, I now applaud the mall designers for forcing us to get more exercise.

Second, I made up my mind that this time I would keep a close eye out for the lotion sniper, and would make damn sure he didn’t get me again. What, you haven’t encountered the lotion sniper? Well then, read on!

Sniper Strategy

Lotion snipers only seem active during the holiday shopping rush. They seem to rely on their prey—shoppers—being dazed by the Christmas music playing in the stores. This music is particularly disorienting when three different stores are playing three different versions of the same song in a ten-minute period. I found myself catching lyrics of “Sleigh Ride” that I’d somehow missed as a kid, like “Giddy-up, giddy-up, giddy-up it’s grand/ Just holding your hand.” As a somewhat romantic teenager, wouldn’t I have found this line compelling? How did I miss it? Meanwhile, the song seemed longer than ever before, with one version having a stanza I was sure was new: “Your thighs are nice and loamy/ The egg nog’s foamy tonight/ Let’s ditch those fuzzy knickers/ Amidst my snickers and sighs!” (Okay, I made that up. I don’t remember what the new stanza actually was.)

So while we shoppers are all dazed with music and the whole holiday shopping frenzy, the sniper expertly scans the crowd for an easy mark, which I guess would be anybody who’s not talking on a cell phone or gossiping with pals. In other words, somebody like me who’s minding his own business.

Once the sniper has you on the hook, he or she commandeers your wrist and begins an elaborate demo of three different skin products. Of course you won’t know in advance how long and complicated this demo will take, which is how you let yourself get roped into it in the first place. The sniper keeps up a constant patter laced with fancy words like “antioxidant,” “exfoliate,” “toner,” “embrocation,” and possibly even something utterly nonsensical like “Naugahyde.” (That last one isn’t a real example; I haven't paid close enough attention to remember them all.)

Lotion imbroglio

The skin care demo goes completely against my modus operandi when shopping, especially during the holidays. My goal is to be surgical: enter a men’s clothing store, go straight to the sale section, see if anything decent is heavily discounted, buy three of four of whatever I like and think my brothers and father will like, and get the hell out. I’ve never understood how people can go shopping for pleasure. But the skin product sales pitch is hard to endure even when I’m not in a hurry. It’s just a tragic waste of time all around. There is zero chance of me buying any product from these people. Whatever human failings I possess that make me such a natural victim for lotion snipers, these failings are overshadowed by my essential cheapness. All that chatter about tight skin and oily skin and dirty skin and dead skin makes it hard for me to think as I try to prepare the statement that will quickly snuff out his hope that I’ll buy anything. It gets awkward.

Perhaps it’s how I was brought up. I’ve lived more than half my life in California, but I grew up in Colorado, which may have given me certain characteristics of Midwesterners. If I were from New York City or Detroit, I might not think twice about putting the guy in a headlock and saying, “Three seconds, break neck. One, two….” Larry David, or at least his sitcom character, would put the guy down at length with consummate rudeness, making bystanders both laugh and wince. But I just somehow don’t have the heart.

I’ll never forget something that happened at The Cosmopolitan, a restaurant near my office where I once had lunch with my colleagues. The waitress was describing the special in typically overblown frou-frou foodie terms (“suffused with a parsnip emulsion and dressed with a cranberry truffle salsify” or some such) when she caught my colleague smirking. To our astonishment, she got so flustered she started to cry. “I’m just trying to do my job!” she sobbed before storming off, without having taken our orders. You’d think a waitress would have thick skin, but you never know. Could it be the same with lotion salesmen?

So I give such hucksters their audience, unable to refuse their demo. Once on the hook, I’ll writhe uncomfortably until the guy has said his piece, and then I’ll bicker politely with him over his rejoinders to my objections. Really, the only graceful way out for me is to never engage in the first place.

Ensnared again!

Despite my resolution to avoid the sniper this time, I somehow managed to fall victim once again. What happened was, I saw a woman standing in the aisle with a giant tray of juice samples. I’m a sucker for free juice. Naturally, I reached for my free sample, but just as I did, a guy appeared from behind her. “Hi, how are you?” he said with a big smile. Dammit! It was a trap! I’d been set up! This was a new tactic this year: two lotion snipers working together, like hyenas.

Unwavering in my resolve, I said, “You’re just giving juice samples, right? I’m not trying out any lotion!” He said, as if taken aback, “Lotion? No, of course not! Have some juice. This juice is from the acai berry, which—did you know?—is the richest source of antioxidants there is.” Relieved that he was just hawking juice, I let down my guard a little. Big mistake.

“Where are you from—what kind of accent is it you have?” he went on. He himself had some vague, non-specific European accent, probably fake. (For some reason lots of rip-off artists I’ve encountered have these odd accents, like the quasi-Euro guy in Chinatown who sold me a $25 Casio watch for like $60 back in ’91. As I talked him down on price he kept saying, “Hey, don't do me no favors!”) The sniper’s question about my supposed accent appealed to my curiosity because I’ve actually had a number of good honest people, over the years, ask where my accent is from. It’s a real mystery to me why I should be thought to have one. Some think I have a slight British accent, which is of course false, and one or two say Dutch, which is probably a guess based on visuals. Of course, I should have recognized right off that I’d spoken only a dozen words to this guy—on what basis could he hear an accent to begin with?

But this guy was smooth. Somehow, when he said, “Hey, I wanna show you something,” I failed to say “Oh no you don’t!” Perhaps I had the unhealthy curiosity of a rubbernecker at a car wreck, or maybe on some level I thought I could learn something from this guy about the craft of selling. Most likely I felt, on a subconscious level, as though I were already involved in a dialogue it would be rude to cut short. (Of course it’s not really a dialogue; he might ask a question, but it’s only an input into his script, to be parroted back to me later to perpetuate the illusion of conversation.) Before I knew what was happening, I was rubbing some damn salt scrub into my hands over a bowl, while the sniper waited patiently with a spray bottle to rinse them.

The artist

What did this guy look like? I’m having trouble remembering. My overall impression was that he reminded me of The Artist Formerly Known As Prince, so any memory of his actual appearance is supplanted by a stock photo of The Artist. He had an exceptionally friendly demeanor, so that he could make insulting insinuations without making me angry. “Did you shower this morning?” he asked. I said I had. “You can’t just shower once a week—you have to shower every day!” he said. “And that rash on your throat? That’s from shaving. This product is second to none in making the skin relax. It will totally rejuvenate you. And blackheads?” He gestured along his nose and below his eyes. “It will completely get rid of your blackheads!” He wasn’t a big guy; how did he know I wasn’t going to say, “Who are you saying has a rash and blackheads? Why, I oughtta…”?

Meanwhile, he had flat-out lied to me. He said he wasn’t hawking lotion! So what was this? Oh yeah: a three-part total skin care regimen. I suppose neither the exfoliant nor the revitalizer nor the moisturizer was technically a lotion. But he’d moved completely beyond that part of our interaction. “Your hands get so dry, working all day for” [here there was a tiny delay as his mental machinery recalled a data point it had extracted from me earlier] “…Blascorp.” I wanted to say, “Oh, yes, Blascorp is notorious for drying out its employees’ hands.” But instead I listened politely. He was so enthusiastic about how much dirt would be removed from my hands, I was expecting to see something like the wastewater from a Rug Doctor.

What I could have said

It’s hard to think when a well-polished shtick is flooding your brain with information and you’re carrying out this weird operation with three different substances on your hands. It would be understandable not to be able to think of anything to say, but this wasn’t really the case this time. I thought of plenty of elegant ways to short-circuit the sales cycle—but I couldn’t bring myself to use them. This guy is just trying to make a living, after all, and is probably paid entirely on commission; he hadn’t really done anything to give me license to be a jerk to him. So when we got to the end and he asked which product I liked best, I wordlessly pointed to the last one, which had made the inside of my right wrist as smooth and shiny as plastic.

“Look, I’m not asking you to buy all three,” he said. “That tub there, it’s such a highly concentrated product, it’ll last you a whole year!” I thought of saying, “What are you saying, pal, I can only afford one? I thought you said this was a three-part regimen! You think I’m cheap or something? Am I not worth it?” But this would have given him a fresh opening and I was really trying to wrap up. I could have said, “It’s actually rather unsettling how smooth the skin on my wrist is now. And it’s even more unsettling that you’re the first person who has ever rubbed lotion into my wrist. My mom never even did that. I need to go somewhere quiet and collect myself.”

When he said, “Imagine your wife rubbing this into your feet!” I could have said, “I’d rather not. My wife hates my feet. She says my toes are too long. I try not to even let her see me barefoot.”

At the end I said, “I’ll think about it.” He hated that, of course. “Why come back later, after our promotion is over, and pay more? Fifty dollars is just not that much money; why not do something nice for yourself?” To which I thought to reply, “Hey, you said yourself, this isn’t just oil and lanolin here. This is a sophisticated product. Before I buy a year’s supply I need to wait a day and see if my sample gives me a rash or something!” Or I could have gotten dark and said, “Do something nice for myself, huh? Well as a matter of fact, I have a deep-seated self-hatred that makes it impossible for me to spend any money on myself. I’m actually not worth it. I really believe that. And it’s a sore subject, I wish you wouldn’t bring it up.”

Perhaps my most honest reply would be, “Who says I want smooth, healthy skin? Smooth, healthy skin is an affront to my masculine dignity! Do I look like the kind of guy who exfoliates and gets manicures? It’s bad enough my hands have become so slender and girlish from office work. I used to be a bike mechanic! I used to have big, meaty hands, grease-stained, with a smashed thumbnail, and I was proud of them!” But I just couldn’t. What if this guy does get manicures? What if he’s miserable enough as it is, stuck in a mall all day listening to Christmas songs, trying to get people excited about $50 skin creams? What if he’s supporting his poor sick mother?

“I’ll think about it,” I repeated, taking up my shopping bags and shuffling off, head down as if a chopper were overhead. I made it to the down escalator and didn’t look back.

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