Mesa Musings: A diamond was this boy's meal ticket

In December 1969, I was hired as a temporary holiday employee at Sears, South Coast Plaza.

I was a senior in college, and needed work because I'd just been laid off by a building supply store.

I suspect that I was hired into Sears' jewelry department because of my superior retail sales background, and also because I didn't have a neck tattoo. My "background" consisted of hawking paint, wallpaper and spackling paste. Jewelry was an alien world for neophyte Sears Employee No. 1455. He didn't know a carat from a carrot!

Frankly, I wasn't terribly motivated to sell jewelry, but needed the fat $2.50-per-hour paycheck that would cover my college expenses, and room and board.

The department manager was a Sears diehard (an enthusiast, not a battery!) who, upon my posting to her department, made it her mission to transform Sears Employee No. 1455 into a sales phenom.

What she failed to recognize in assessing 1455's capabilities was that he lacked certain basic sales competencies, such as: ability to problem solve (how does one solve a problem that one simply can't see?); ability to persuade (1455 couldn't persuade a duck to jump into a pond, even if its tail feathers were on fire); and, ability to "upsell" customers to more expensive items (1455 rang up sales that customers handed him, never suggesting "want some tea to go with that crumpet?").

The most important spot in the Jewelry Department was the Diamond Counter. That counter was patrolled by two full-time male employees in their 40s who were on commission. Those "lifers" didn't appreciate a salaried part-timer short-circuiting their lucrative commissions. At the diamond counter, they felt I should stand back and let them have at it.

"Don't let those guys intimidate you," the manager urged one evening. "If you have a customer who wants to buy an expensive diamond, sell it! So what if a full-timer doesn't get the commission? The transaction will look good in your sales totals."

Because I was a full-time student, I worked evenings and weekends. Whenever I accompanied a customer to the diamond counter to view our selection, it was certain that one of the full-timers would lurk in the vicinity, ready to pounce like a cheetah on a feckless wildebeest.

The guys ended up not liking me much because I fended off their efforts to poach my diamond customers. Heck, I had a daily quota to make, and one diamond was enough to put me in the black for a week. I wanted to keep my job because, frankly, I'd gotten used to eating.

I did so well during the '69 Christmas season that the department manager kept me on after the New Year.

I remained in Jewelry for all of 1970 — until I graduated from college in January 1971. I then took my communications degree to the world of public relations.

Actually, during 1970 I lightened up a bit and began to toss chum into the water for the two Diamond Counter sharks. What does it matter, I reasoned, if I sell a $750 diamond or not? It's no skin off my nose if I hand off a sale to a full-timer and let him collect the 50-buck bonus. He has a family!

When the summer of 1970 rolled around, my department manager considered trimming the department's staff, and my job was on the line. Thankfully, the full-time guys put in a good word for me, calling me "a valuable asset to the department." OK, that was a stretch, but, thanks to the guys, I kept my job.

While I worked in jewelry my future wife, Hedy, was employed by the store's credit department. She was 19, and a real knockout, and I don't know how I missed her! We knew many of the same people but, as far as we can recall, we never actually made one another's acquaintance at Sears.

We ended up meeting three years later, and marrying two years after that.

A warning to those who bought a Sears diamond during the Christmas shopping season of 1969 from Sears Employee No. 1455: the statute of limitations has elapsed!

Also, you can't accuse him of trying to "upsell" you.

JIM CARNETT lives in Costa Mesa. His column runs Wednesdays.

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