A Mission for Commision

At the Harvard Square Radio Shack, urgency is the word of the month. Sales associates hammer into every potential customer

At the Harvard Square Radio Shack, urgency is the word of the month.

Sales associates hammer into every potential customer a mantra of “four packs for under eight dollars,” repeating the line multiple times and pointing to the conspicuous battery packs placed beside the cash register.

This is the time of year when college students arrive in search of speakers, ethernet cables and wireless routers—the time of year when every sale counts.  In the words of one associate, who asked that he only be identified as Joe, the month of September is Radio Shack’s “Christmas Time.”

“Associate” is a poor and understated way to describe Joe’s job title. He is actually a critical component of the company’s cunning back-to-school sales strategy: a temporary relocation of super-employees to Radio Shacks near college campuses. Two, including Joe, were assigned to the Harvard Square location. This elite squad of finely tuned selling machines—the Swiss Army of customer sales—fights to the death for efficiency, revenue and commissions during the high-traffic month of September.

Joe’s voice simultaneously evokes a Will Ferrell peppiness of a male cheerleader but also the resigned self-assured swagger of a sales veteran. When asked where he stands among other associates, Joe systematically responds, “I am the twenty-ninth highest paid associate in the district. Out of 180 employees.” Is he certain? “Absolutely,” he says.

It is not as though Joe can sit in the storage closet rewiring his transistor radio all day and expect to maintain such a ranking. Radio Shack requires “a lot of training,” ensuring that all associates are qualified to challenge his Top 30 status. To simply get on the sales floor, one must pass four competency tests. Once an employee makes it to the floor, his supervisor can subject him to as many as 22 additional written examinations. According to Joe, a passing score “generally falls [within] the 80 to 90 percentile range.”

Shaped by the rigorous application process, Joe estimates that “99% of the time” he knows all the essentials of a given product. “After five years, stuff just kind of clicks,” he says, modestly.

His “genuine love of technology” makes it easy for Joe to stay updated. His independent technology research, coupled with his five years of experience, allows him to rapidly assess a customer’s purchasing situation. “When I get a customer who comes in all irate, and because of what I do, and because of what I say, they get that bag in their hand, and they leave happy—that’s my favorite part of the job.”

In a week, “Christmas Time” is over and Joe will move on to another location within the district. If he continues his swift ascent up the sales hierarchy, other career opportunities may come his way. However, Joe plans to remain loyal to his employer, no matter how sweet the temptation. “I see myself staying with Radio Shack part-time, even if I move into a different field. I love it. I love relating directly to the customer. The combination of tech support, retail sales, and customer service all at once—there’s no other job quite like it.”