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The Almost Free Encyclopedia

By David N. Hollander

The crowd of office workers and salespeople were very quiet when the Saturn blasted off. They had turned on the black-and-white Japanese television set only seconds before the countdown gave up, and there wasn't much feeling of tension-is there anyone in the whole country who has not been jaded by a series of manned launchings?

And they watched only the first few seconds of the flight, each of them getting their hundred dollars' worth in a hurry, before they drifted back to work. If their breasts swelled, you couldn't see it. But neither did they moan that the space program was stealing food from their mouths, or aiding in the drain of capital from the inner city.

Far from it. These people were growing wealthy, a little, from the space program from the first American on the moon. One or two of them were even making enough money to send their kids to Harvard, had they wanted them to go, had they been able to get in.

The space race, like heart transplants and war, is good for the encyclopedia business, and these people were in the encyclopedia business. A big selling point of the Collier's Encycpedia these folks sold is that the 24 volume set includes complete schematic diagrams of the moon flight (not to mention Czechoslovakian street fighting photos). So the Colliermen liked the moonshot, the way businessmen were once rumored to like the War, and the Colliermen went out to sell that day with especial eagerness-all but one, and he was a spy.

Moonshots are good for the newspaper business, too. But moonshots are not a dime a dozen, and one of the newspapers in the city was planning ahead. An expose of Collier's Encyclopedia sales, as well as being a "genuine public service," would be good for the newspaper business, the newspaper thought. although not so good as a moonshot. So they sent a spy after Collier's.

And in the newspaper office, everybody got to watch the launch on six huge American color televisions, and the spy was pretty pissed off that he had to watch it in black-and-white.

"Hello, my name is ... I'm completing some combined opinion work in the area. But I am required to speak to both you and your wife. Is she in?"

It's very muggy in the Ohio Valley on summer evenings. A person either sits in his living room and swelters from the heat or sits in his air-conditioned living room and sniffles from his luxury. In either case, he is not delighted to have a college-age kid, smiling sincerely but dripping with sweat, cluttering his front porch and ringing his doorbell.

Some of those people manage to send the kid away in a hurry, often with truly marvelous excuses, but sometimes the vestiges of civility in our culture soften them up enough that they listen past the "is she in?" Sometimes they listen far enough to hear that they can get a set of Collier's Encyclopedia for free, and then, sometimes, their cars perk up.

Door-to-door salesmen for Collier's have vigorously claimed for years that they are not selling anything. The salesman's pitch is that his company is willing to give away an encyclopedia valued at $559 in exchange for a testimonial letter to be used "in future sales drives."

Like all Collier's salesmen, I memorized that sales pitch, all fifteen minutes of it, when I spent four days in training and two days on the job as an "advertising representative" for Collier's-all the while working undercover as a reporter for the Louisville Times.

Collier's is a respected encyclopedia, recommended by authorities and used by many schools-among them Harvard. The las time you cribbed from an encyclopedia in Lamont for a last minute paper, Collier's may have been your baby.

The problem is in the selling. The company's use of a "give-away" offer to sell its product has caused many complaints from customers and agencies.

In February, the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) ordered P. F. Collier, Inc., to stop its "lengthy and blatant use of deception" in selling the encyclopedia. The FTC had studied the case for-nine years before making its decision.

Collier's has appealed the case to the U.S. District Court of Appeals in Washington and while the court action proceeds, the FTC ruling is not in force. The penalty for disobeying the FTC order, if the order is upheld by the courts, would be a fine of up to $5,000 for each violation.

A spokesman for Collier's legal department at the national office in New York declined to comment on the company's grounds for appealing the FTC decision while the appeal still is before the courts.

Collier's "unlawful" sales presentation, the FTC said, "included the solicitation of testimonials, the offer to place the basic volumes in a home as an advertising premium and the request for a ten-year commitment by the purchaser to keep the set up to date by purchasing Collier yearbooks at a nominal cost per day."

The sales presentation I was taught at the Louisville office of Collier's included all those features.

But a spokesman at the Collier's national sales office in New York said the current appeal of the FTC decision is "an academic case because we've made extensive changes in our sales presentation." He declined to discuss the changes.

The company's public-information director, asked if the unnamed changes had nullified the FTC objections, replied, "Have you stopped beating your wife."

"The sales presentation, in our mind, is an ethical one," she said, but added that "it would not be appropriate" for her to comment on specifics. "To my knowledge we are not using that method [the one criticized by the FTC] now."

Her knowledge, at least concerning practices in Louisville, is woefully in complete. And a Collier's regional manager, in charge of sales in one-sixth of the nation, was in the local office during my training and even attended some of the sessions at which we practiced our sales pitch.

"First, Collier's will place the big 24-volume library here in your home as a direct advertising premium," the salesman is trained to warble, smiling all the time. "It would be yours to keep. The nationally advertised price would be marked 'paid in full' and charged off to our advertising."

The family must write a testimonial letter after receiving the encyclopedia, the salesman says, but the letter and permission for Collier's to use it "completely pay for" the encyclopedia.

"Secondly, we will further obligate ourselves to keep your library brand new up-to-date" through yearbooks and a reference service, the salesman continues. The reference service provides families an opportunity to write in questions to Colliers, but it is very rarely used, according to Collier's supervisors.

"The company does ask you to maintain the production cost" on the yearbook and reference service, the salesman goes on, but that is only a matter of "roughly a dime a day."

That's the catch, and it's a big one. The "dime a day" -for ten years-is $588.98, actually more than 15 cents a day. Ten payments of $4.95 for the yearbook can be paid annually, but the balance-about $540-must be paid within three years.

As icing on the cake, Collier's throws in 30 volumes of "classics" -including a 20-volume mutilated version of the Harvard Classics-and a bookcase, your choice of dark or light wood.

But the deal is only for "advertising families," the salesmen are told to say, "two or three families in each area." These are families whose testimonial letters may be used in future sales campaigns.

In fact, a telephone call to the Louisville Collier's office inquiring about buying an encyclopedia produces an identical offer for the same price-without the requirement of a letter praising the encyclopedia. The Boston office of Collier's offers the 24 volumes for $339.50, but also offers the combination deal for the same base price-$479.50-as in Louisville. Additional tax, interest, and yearbook charges push the total about one hundred dollars higher.

Of course, when it comes down to signing the contract, there is no mention that the purchaser is doing anything other than buying the items listed. The testimonial letter is not mentioned at all.

The purchaser must, however, sign a separate card. "I will cooperate with you in your program and express my opinion of Collier's Encyclopedia. You may use my name as a Registered Owner," the card says. It places absolutely no obligation on Collier's.

THE SUITE containing the Collier's classroom and offices, on the ninth floor of a downtown Louisville office building, seemed like a movie mockup. Footsteps of bosses shuttling through the outer office and past its permanently vacant secretary's desk echoed the through the vaguely uninhabited rooms.

But the classroom, used for training sessions and daily peptalks, was garishly adorned with morale-boosting sales paraphernalia. A huge football player charged at us novice salesmen from a sales poster. A sign reading "Carnaby Street," Union Jacks, and a map of London conspired to spur salesmen to that 110 per cent effort-and a trip to London for the nation's leading salesmen. Lucky supersalesmen who had earned trips in previous years smiled fixedly from the walls.

A bizarre job interview opens the wonderful world of Collier's to the outsider. "Your job is not to sell," the interviewer told me. "We want to give these to people who would buy a home library within a few years anyway."

"When it is released for sale next year," the interviewer went on, the encyclopedia would bear the endorsement of "many of the nation's leading educators-John Wayne, Ronnie Reagan, Mayor Daley, Dick Nixon, maybe even old Hubert." President Pusey suddenly seemed a benevolent educator.

The encyclopedia is already on sale now, of course, and the interviewer's little deception was only one minor incident in a major war Collier's wages against its own employees. Several complained to me that they had been cheated out of their wages; it didn't happen to me, but then I didn't stay around long enough to get paid-anyway, I didn't sell any encyclopedias.

Another training session. Every day, again and again, one salesman is selected to play the role of salesman and two others play Mr. and Mrs. Jones. And everybody has to act excited by the show although they have heard it dozens of times.

A blonde Mama Cass is supposed to give it today. She'll smear her smile all over the poster-encrusted room; that's how she sold five sets and earned $500 last week.

"Oh, I don't want to do it." she whines. "I'm no good."

"Get your ass up here," the boss barks, poking at her chair. And she goes.

Later, after the training session, a married girl in the class tells the spy "I'd never let anybody talk to me like that." She never comes back to the office again, so the spy couldn't go to the Moonwalk Party she had said she would invite him to. He was sorry to see her go.

But Collier's wasn't, particularly. The company desperately needs attractive, stylish, very aggressive kids, but luckily there is a never-ending stream of them climbing the ladder of success who need money and are willing to do almost anything to get it.

Almost all of them seem to end up at Collier's at one time or another-like the assistant city editor of the Louisville Times, who sent the spy after Collier's. The assistant city editor had peddled encyclopedias for two weeks once, and hadn't been able to sell a single set.

Collier's relies on a bastardized version of psychology to sell its goods. To most of the prospective salesmen who were in training with me, the sales pitch we were supposed to give seemed rude and obnoxious. We were naive enough to be amazed that it could sell anything. But a student who worked for Collier's in 1968 is convinced he has an explanation:

"You have to keep the upper hand. Most of the people you sell to are scatterbrained and stupid."

But they're not so stupid. Almost everybody manages to prevent the insistent Colliermen from getting in his door, despite a sales talk designed to make it as difficult as possible for a family to turn down the company's "offer." A person who started listening, liked what he saw, and remained silent when told the cost of the books was only "small change" gradually became committed to buying. The

smart ones didn't listen to a word.

The family is drawn into the talk with questions constructed to make it difficult to be negative. Positive answers are "commitments."

"It would be foolish to have a set like this and not keep it up to date. Right?" the salesman asks. "You could use a service like this in your home. Right!" The commitments pile up.

Does anyone really believe the sales pitch?

"Sure looked like they did." a former salesman said. "Some people just look at the encyclopedia and have to have it. Once you've gotten all those commitments from them, there's just no way for them to back out."

My group's field manager, who drives to the area to be canvassed, told us one night that she had just "written an order" -the euphemism for "sold" -for a family which she was convinced did not want and could not afford the books. But they were psychologically trapped by the commitments and did not back out.

Applicants are told the workweek is 40 hours, 2 to 10 p.m. weekdays. But, as one fellow salesman told me, "After they get you through training and you learn all the shit, they tell you it starts at 12:30" -and the usual hour for ending the work day is midnight. About six hours of required work each Saturday makes the total normal workweek about 65 hours.

The first hour of each workday is another pep session with its numbing presentations. Then there is time for lunch on the way to the area to be covered. Around 4 p.m. canvassing begins.

"SEE THAT man there working on his car? You go up to him and say, Hello, my name is ..."

My time had come, and my field manager was sending me out into the world to give away encyclopedias-for nearly $600 a set. The man was cleaning junk out of his car's trunk and he jumped, startled, when I walked up.

"Hello, my name is ..." We shook hands, and he obediently trotted off when I asked him to get his wife. Boy, I thought, this is going to be easy.

"To further introduce myself, I'm with Collier's, the former publishers of Collier's, the American, and the Woman's Home Companion Magazines...."

Then the man interrupted. My instructors at Collier's hadn't told me what to do when people interrupted.

"If this is about encyclopedias, you might as well not waste your time," he said. "I sell Britannica part time."

So it goes.

The subdivisions I worked were almost as horrifying as the Collier's sales pitch. There were flags everywhere-on poles, stuck on cars, even pasted to front doors. There were even more yapping dogs than there were flags. And at least three of the streets seemed to be named "Waco."

As befits the name, they had absolutely no shade.

By eight o'clock on the first night my head was swelling to the size of a 24-volume home library from the sun and lack of liquid-of course there were no stores. And my fingers had started to lose feeling because my 15 pound display case was cutting off my circulation.

I would have loved to have given the developer of the subdivision a free set of encyclopedias for $600. Instead I wasted an hour of working time walking, in the streets because there were no sidewalks, to a shopping center for a Coke and a glass of lemonade. Collier's wouldn't have liked that.

It was easy for the spy to find the doorbells, because they were all at the same place on the houses. None of the people seemed angry at his intrusion, maybe because most of them keep him out of their houses. He couldn't even tell their truths from their fictions.

"We have a sick child."

"I don't think you had better talk to my husband just now. He's trying to install a new air conditioner we ordered, and it came in the wrong size, and he's awfully irritated."

"We have company." (The spy heard that one dozens of times; the company usually had come from out of town.)

"Talk to me now? Are you crazy? This is the middle of the rendezvous!" The spy knew that one was true, because he could hear Walter Cronkite sputtering in the man's living room. And because girls playing Monopoly on their front porch had abandoned their game in a hurry when their mother yelled that Mike Collins' voice had come on.

The managing director of the Greater Louisville Better Business Bureau, Joe D. Proctor, feels that sales pitches like Collier's will be changed one way or the other.

"I think the time has come," he said. "These companies are acutely aware they are going to have to change their operations, or have their operations changed for them by legislation."

One student who actually sold some encyclopedias for Collier's told me he doesn't think laws alone can make much difference, since the prospective customers seemed to expect the Collier's approach as a matter of course: "It gets you a little disgusted with people in general."

The spy returned safely from his assignment, back to the newspaper office with its hundreds of square yards of carpeting. Apollo 11 was coming back, too, and everyone crowded around the six huge American color television sets for splashdown.

But the bosses wouldn't let them turn on the sound, so they watched the festivities on a silent screen: Nixon flapping his arms around like a man possessed, the three astronauts inside their glass cage on board the ship, grinning like monkeys in a wonderfully exotic zoo.

And the people in the newsroom, delighted to have the astronauts back, talked about how all-American they looked.

"Neil Armstrong has the most typically all-American face I have ever seen." one said.

"I'd match John Davidson with him any time," another replied.

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