Opportunity which Should be Utilised
The woman who visits local shops and stores on a periodical shopping expedition, and occasionally makes purchases at city shopping centres, has but a slight idea of the mechanism of organised commerce behind the scenes. She would probably be astonished to hear that among the more recent developments of industry - American in origin - is the institution of women as commercial travellers.
Yet it is easy to understand how increased facilities for travel, the multiplication of articles of necessity and luxury purchased by women, and the capacity numbers of women show for business, have induced the woman possessed of certain qualifications, and especially of the liking for an outdoor or active occupation, eventually to find her way to work of the kind.
Consider, for instance, the underclothing department of a big drapery shop or departmental stores. A woman is naturally better able to enter into the merits of a particular corset, or contrast the attractiveness in cut and style of this or that under-garment, or look with a woman's eye on the likelihood of this ready-made coat and skirt, or that baby's bonnet, finding purchasers.
Just as a woman customer prefers to make certain purchases out of sight and hearing of the man shopkeeper or shopwalker, so, too, it is better for the woman whose duty it is to sell such goods to order them of a wholesale house through a woman commercial traveller. Of course, many retail houses send up women buyers periodically to wholesale firms in producing or distributing centres, but numbers also order through commercial travellers, whose broughams, packed with cardboard boxes, are so familiar a sight at the entrances to drapery establishments.
Evidently, the woman qualified to obtain orders for a wholesale firm selling goods of this kind should preferably have had experience in a retail house, and it is usually the one who has shown exceptional business capacity along a certain line who is singled out to travel for a firm.
Perhaps a representative of the firm has come into contact with her in visiting a shop in some provincial town, and recognised her suitability. He sees she is quick-witted and physically strong, that she can speak chattily and persuasively, that her business acumen is undoubted, and her personality attractive. She seems the very woman who would be of value to his firm, and so it happens that she transfers her services to it. Or attracted, perchance, by the opportunity
Woman's Work for travel and change after being confined to a shop, a woman seeks employment under a wholesale house.
Moreover, engagements are made through agencies. There is at least one agency in London which introduced some fourteen years ago a system of extending trade on American lines, and bringing into contact employers and employes. It recognises that many women have innate business capacity, though they may have had no special business experience. They are taken on trial for one month, receiving a salary from the start. In the office they are initiated into business methods, and as soon as possible sent out to test their capacity. Thus it is soon discovered whether a woman has the qualifications for success, and in this way many a widow - not too elderly, of course - has been introduced to suitable work. Middle age is no barrier, so long as a woman is strong and energetic.
One very successful commercial traveller remarked to the writer that she took up the work because her health was suffering through confinement indoors, but she soon found it improve when leading a more active life. Her plan was to stay at least one week in a town and "do" it thoroughly, visiting all large and small houses likely to give her orders.
"One needs energy and strength for that," she remarked. "It would not do to omit a shop situated in the outskirts of a town because it could not be reached by tramcar or omnibus. You must be prepared for plenty of walking.
"I clearly and fully set forth the merits of the article I wish to sell, contrast it with others on the market, and state prices. Really, I would rather lose an order than induce anyone to buy of me for other than purely business reasons."
Looking at the speaker, a woman of fine presence and very attractive personality, one could but feel with her how much the individual character of any commercial traveller must have to do with his or her success. This one quickly understood the person with whom she had to deal. She had a pleasant manner, and was well and unobtrusively dressed; also tactful to a degree, with a bearing that would grace a Court.
It will be interesting to a woman contemplating a career of this kind to know what business arrangement is made between employers and the women who work for them. As a matter of fact, various arrangements are made, and the range of profit is exceedingly elastic. One woman will work for a small salary - too small, in fact - even as low as 10s. a week, and a small commission on orders obtained; another will receive 30s. a week and a higher commission; while a third works for a very good fixed salary.
Sometimes a salary is augmented by a small commission on orders worth more than a certain amount. Usually, a salary and commission are paid to one who travels for goods for which there is a steady demand. Naturally, when she is concerned in pushing the sale of a new kind of article, and has the responsible work of creating a demand for it, a traveller is more highly paid. A canvasser travelling in a small way may, on the strength of obtaining half a dozen orders for an article, order from the wholesale house the complete dozen, and take upon herself the risk of selling the rest of the dozen.
While comparing the methods of payment of commercial travellers, it is well to point out the desirability of being paid a fixed salary, as indeed is the custom with the men who are most successful in this business.
Unless she already has a large connection, a woman who works on commission alone may find it a hard matter to earn even her bread-and-butter, and she will be disheartened again and again when she fails to obtain a single order after hours and days of effort. A fair arrangement is to pay a salary and a commission, the former being a reward for time and energy expended, the latter a reward for the result of work done.
Then there is the question of out-of-pocket expenses. In making an agreement with a firm, there should be a clear understanding concerning expenditure on fares and sundries. There may be a fixed daily allowance, in addition to reimbursement for fares, enough to cover cost of meals and incidental expenses, or this allowance may be sufficient to cover all personal expenses, including fares, hotel, and meals. There may be heavy samples, such as typewriters, to look after. These considerations show the need for a clear understanding of what the proposed payment by the employing firm is intended to cover, and a wise woman, before committing herself, will certainly obtain the opinion of one who has had experience of similar work.
But though a salary is desirable as a solid basis to her income, payment by commission is a keen incentive to effort, and fair to both parties. When a traveller knows that all orders, received from customers living in the district she has covered, are accredited to her, the incentive to get orders and to interest people in the goods of the firm she represents is very strong.
A conscientious worker makes it her business to know everything of interest about the goods she wishes to sell - where they are made, how they are made, every use they fulfil. She will not disparage the article made by a rival firm, but rather emphasise and expatiate upon the merits of the one she advocates.
In her rounds she gauges the popular taste, and reports the results of her obserwoman's Work vation to headquarters. She is far too diplomatic to press upon any business firm an article she sees reluctance to buy. Curt-ness and unpleasant rebuffs she will rarely, if ever, encounter; no efficient business man or woman can afford to indulge in them, but she will so transact any business that, after booking an order and being bowed out, her customer is in no doubt that the order given is a good stroke of business on his part. A woman usually prefers to keep out of the commercial hotel patronised by her male confreres. At present, her occasional presence in the coffee-room creates a mild excitement; naturally, therefore, until she has become too familiar an object to rouse comment, she prefers some quiet hotel or boarding-house near the central railway-station or business quarter. There she is generally glad to spend the last hours of the day in peace, for her work is always arduous. In rain and sunshine, cold and heat, the traveller must be prepared to set out on the round planned overnight; and as the day draws in, it is not to her own cosy home she returns, but to a strange room and bed.
Among what would appear to many women as drawbacks should also be mentioned the wear and tear of railway travelling, which is more or less exhausting to the nervous system. That fact, no doubt, explains why the experienced commercial traveller previously mentioned spends a week at a time in one town. There are people who delight in change of scene, and are never tired of exploring towns and speeding over the country in a railway-carriage. A woman with these proclivities stands the better chance of success "on the road," provided she has the qualifications previously named.
One of the duties devolving upon her at the conclusion of the day's visits is the making-up of her accounts and the writing of business letters. She is in frequent communication with the firm she represents, and has to begin work the following morning clear of arrears. A woman keen on her work cannot afford to dissipate her energies on evenings spent in amusement. Next morning she needs all the clearness of mind and keenness of faculty she possesses to meet smart business men and women, and, in competition with others, induce them to buy her commodity or commodities.
Sometimes she is concerned in obtaining orders for one article only; for example, one woman representing a corset manufacturing firm made a practice of visiting boarding-houses during the season, and exhibiting in one of the bedrooms the article she wished to sell; while another, travelling for a baby-linen firm, might exhibit at once several kinds of goods at business houses only. In the former case she would be called a special saleswoman or a demonstrator, and her sphere of operations would include influential possible buyers in private houses as well as in business ones.
Some firms employ young women to demonstrate their proprietary article, at exhibitions, and pay anything from 30s. to £3 a week or more, according to requirements. Such work is obtainable through the Labour Exchanges, and by application to the heads of firms.
It may be worth remark that a commercial traveller has an opportunity of picking up bargains in the way of curios during her peregrinations - china, glass, cameos, rare pictures, etc. In this way a valuable collection may be formed.