Monday, February 20, 2012

Cream-filled Contraband

What satisfying my eighth-grade sweet tooth taught me about sales & marketing.

Remember how downright awful school cafeteria food was? I do. Even attending very well-to-do schools in Massachusetts didn't stop the tater-tots from tasting like ass. My children tell me the quality or taste hasn't changed much from the midday school menu–even clear across the country–so hopefully the following tale won't inspire any of the following hi jinks.I had a lot of time on my hands before getting on the school bus in the mornings. I was always the last one to be picked up and my not-so-friendly fellow school bus riders didn't let me sit anywhere good, constantly trying to discourage me from sitting next to any of them.


There was however one nice advantage, being the last one picked up, I could stop off at the convenience store across from the bus stop. I could take (at the time anyway) a couple bucks and gorge on several days worth of junk food awesomeness–potato chips, cupcake (hostess), Twinkies, candy and the holy grail of middle-school snack foods–soda!

I'd spend between $1- $4 a day on junk food (I know, far from healthy) and it was awesome! It was the one point in the day where I felt I had something over all the others–friend and foe alike–that gave me control over what was an otherwise life completely OUT of my control.
When you're popping open a Coke in the lunch hall 3-4 times a week and knocking back Snickers, cupcakes and deli-wrapped sandwiches in middle school, well, people begin to take notice. It wasn't because the the kids couldn't get those things, it was because they couldn't get them at school. After all what parent in their right mind gives their kid Milky Way bars and Cheetos for lunch?

Everyday, kids would ask for a sip, a bite, offer "I'll trade you" bribes or ask, "how can I get some"? So I did what any enterprising young American kid would do–I started taking orders.

In no time, business was booming.

With a modest mark-up I would deliver practically any treat–cans of soda (then .50¢ for $1), .10¢ lollipops went for a quarter, and Hostess cup cakes? A .60¢ three-pack would go for $1.25. These kids had money–I had product. Simple supply and demand dynamics. At the time I was clearing roughly $30 a week–not much by today's standards, but at age 14, in the 80's–that was insane money! Customers were happy, demand was high. Most orders were paid-in-full, all up front. Some kids asked for six-packs of soda–I charged $5, making $2.50 profit on each! Kids who couldn't pre-pay? No problem, an additional service charge – a credit account if you will – would be offered, paid on delivery. Soon, I needed a ledger, a bigger back pack and customer retention programs like: "Hey order between now and fourth period and all orders are 10% off!" or "Tell you what, I can see you're in a quandary between the Ring Dings and the Ho-ho's, buy both and I'll toss in a Tootsie Roll for free." Sold.

Eventually however, all rides must end. One day, my bus was late, and I got to school just before homeroom began. Now to illustrate this properly, I had two sets of customers, the morning munchers (MMs) and the lunch-timers (LTs). The MM's were always better because they would commonly have pre-paid for their treats and would usually have orders–with money in hand–for the next day or two.

So here was the scenario; roughly 14 kids from all three middle-school grades, standing in a nice neat line at my homeroom desk, all with money in hand, like they were at a check-out counter, patiently awaiting my arrival. I stroll in, giant back-pack full tummy teasing treats, soda, sandwiches and candy, strung over my shoulder. Just as I begin shoeing people away, the homeroom teacher comes in; "What's going on?" "uh, nothing" I say wryly. At this point, Mr. Summergrad knew me well enough then to believe that. "What's in the bag? Why are people waiting at your desk with money in their hands?" Without missing a beat I say; "I'm a very generous person, Mr. Summergrad, I lend people lunch money when they need it and these good kids just wanted to get it back to me." [cut to scene of all 14 kids scattering] "Let's see what's in the bag..." he said.

Minutes later I was in Vice Principle Shay's office receiving a long-lecture about intolerable behavior, two-day suspensions, calling my Mom, blah, blah, blah. My treats-for-tykes operation was shut down. I was forever banned from doing my year-round paid Santa impersonation. Not however, before I learned some valuable intel. First, people will pay almost any reasonable price for what they want. Second, being the local go-to guy had it's perks. Lastly, my enterprising nature was not only a hit with the girls, but also impressed some of the schmucks who wouldn't let sit next to them on the school bus.

Honestly, for that kind of end result, the whole ordeal was worth every moment of Mom's lecturing–and couple of new friends is a happy ending to almost story, don't you think?

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