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Is Your Mother Home?

September 4, 2010

Is your mother home? the salesman asked a small boy sitting on the steps in front of a house. “Yeah, she’s home,” the boy said, scooting over to let him past. The salesman rang the doorbell, got no response, knocked once, then again. Still no one came to the door. Turning to the boy, the fellow said, “I thought you said your mother was home.” The kid replied, “She is; but this isn’t where I live.”


When I was in university, I worked through school and during the summers to earn money for tuition, room and board. One summer, my boyfriend at the time, Ernie, sold vacuum cleaners door to door and I would occasionally go along on the sales calls with him.  He’d pick a neighborhood, knock on each door, and in the houses he was invited in to, he would cart in a vacuum cleaner and a bag of dirt.

He had the sales pitch down pat, often appealing to the wife’s desire to have a clean carpet, especially if she had young children.  Onto the carpet he would dump the dirt, and have the house owner vacuum up half with their machine, and the other half with his demo system. Inevitably, the couple would be stunned at the difference in cleaning power, and having then haggled on the price, would buy the new vacuum. Ernie would start at $700 and could go as low as $350; he pocketed the difference. If the family couldn’t pay $600 or $700, no problem; Ernie had an installment plan for that.  That summer, Ernie earned enough to pay for a full year of university.

Singer set out to sell sewing machines in Yugoslavia, but it had several hurdles to cross. First of all, the sewing machine was a pricy purchase, more than what most Yugoslavians could afford or even made in a year. Secondly, many of the villages were located in remote regions, away from the large showroom style stores in major cities that Singer liked to sell from in the US. And finally, these were complex machines that were relatively difficult to learn, and required ongoing parts and labor.  How could Singer afford to target customers in all these remote villages?

International Singer Ads

A Singer sales manager in Glasgow, Scotland figured it out: he began to recruit sales people who lived in the villages. He would train them centrally in the larger cities, and then they would return to their villages and sell the machines to their friends and neighbors, going from house to house by horse drawn carriage, with a sewing machine in the back wagon. The salesman would knock on the door, and bring the machine right into the person’s home, and teach them how to use it right then and there. Both Pauline’s mother and her husband Jerry’s mother bought sewing machines from Singer this way.

Singer came up with the first installment purchase plan, which they called the “Impoverished Family Plan.”  They raised the price of the machine, and then sold it to lower income families, spreading out the payments over time.  Families would often sell a cow or other livestock in order to come up with the payments.

Sewing in the Caroline Islands

At first, the sales person was responsible for the sale and for the collection of the payments. Within a year or two however, Singer realized that the salesperson was having a difficult time asking their friends for the money, and past due collections soared. So a second role was established: that of the collector. The collector’s job was to make house calls every two weeks to the purchasers to collect the money.  The salesman would also continue to make house calls, selling thread, bobbins, needles and other parts, as well as servicing the machines. This two man sales team worked much better and both sales and collections went right up.  Profits, however, plummeted.

Singer began to scale back its door to door sales efforts, opened smaller stores in larger towns, and offered training classes, competitions and other similar sales efforts to maintain a close relationship with its customers to maintain customer loyalty.  By this time, Singer had achieved market domination, and was responsible for over 80% of all sewing machine sales in Eastern Europe.

And so we have the Singer Sewing Machine Company to thank for door to door salesmen, the idea of the installment payment plan, Pauline’s lovely dresses and Ernie’s education.

Singer Around the World; 1906 sewing machine, Singer ad

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. Stan permalink
    September 4, 2010 4:49 pm

    Fascinating…. reminds me of a landlord that I had in Cape Breton who had made his millions selling refrigerators to villagers who were perfectly happy with their ice holes and ice storage. Same technique as Singer though and made his millions until Prohibition era when he started to run the liqour down the east coast to the New England states.
    I still think those salesmen in Eastern Europe were more than Singer employees:)
    Thank you for the fascinating and well illustrated stories.

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