My First Job: A blast that taught me some customer fundamentals

Everyone remembers his or her first job. Mine was working at a fireworks stand in Ruston, Louisiana. The first time I met the owner of the stand was when he drove into my neighbor’s driveway in a brand new Porsche. To a teenage boy in a small town, this was quite impressive. When I asked him what he did for he living, he told me he was an elementary school physical education teacher. While I was young, I already understood that PE teachers didn’t often drive around in Porsches. I realized his side business of selling fireworks must be pretty lucrative. That was enough for me to ask for a job.

The fireworks “stand” was an old 40-foot trailer like you might see being pulled down the highway. Customers entered from the middle and all the fireworks and prices were listed on a big display board in the trailer. One evening a gentleman walked in and begin ordering numerous items. As he named an item, the owner of the stand wrote down the price on a brown paper bag, and I retrieved the fireworks from the shelves behind the counter.

DiscountAs the customer was about half way through his order, he commented that he should get a discount for ordering so much. I was a little surprised when the owner readily agreed to a discount. He had always told me not to discount the price since we were the only stand in the area and if people came in they rarely left over price.

We didn’t have any sort of calculator so I watched as the owner, in front of the customer, tallied up the prices on the bag and came to a total. He said the total is $44 but since you bought so much I will give you a 10% discount and call it $40. The customer seemed quite happy that he had negotiated a good deal and took the fireworks and walked out the door.

Once the customer was at his car I turned to the owner and said, “You didn’t do the math right on that one.”

He said, “What do you mean?”

I said, “You added one extra $4 dollar item more than the man purchased.”

A wry grin came across the owner’s face as he said, “I have been doing that for 20 years and you are the first person who ever caught me.”

Now some people might say he cheated the customer, but I don’t agree since the customer paid the same price as everyone else. Now the owner could have just told the man that he didn’t give discounts, but that might have caused the customer to buy less or even leave. In the end both sides were happy with the transaction, and that is what was important. I would never intentionally try to mislead a customer, but I would look for ways to make everyone happy in a transaction. How people feel about a transaction is often much more important than the objective facts.

This reminds me of a story my brother told me about going to a car salesman friend of his to buy a car. He asked his buddy to tell him what kind of car he needed. The salesman responded, “I would go broke selling people the car they need, what do you want?” In business it is most important to figure out what the customer wants!

Photo Credit: kyeniz via Compfight cc

Related article:

My First Job: What Unloading Beer Taught Me About Leadership (LinkedIn)


  1. Ok, if you start selling fireworks, I’m going to keep a close eye on the tallying up part!

  2. Interesting story. My first job was at the age of 13 and it was a paper route in Lubbock, Texas. My second job was when I was 17 and worked at a pizza joint for my jr and sr year in high school. I remember being excited to work on my 18th birthday and I could serve my first beer to a customer. I’ve never had more than a taste of beer in my whole life (I’m a red wine gal), but it was fun to pour one out of the tap for a customer!

    I don’t agree with the tactics of your fireworks stand boss. If that customer took a look at that receipt later, they might feel “jaded” or “made a fool of” as the trust they might have had in your boss would have waned if/when they realized they did not really get a discount. They might have felt happy in the moment thinking they were getting a deal, but building & maintaing trust (even if it’s based on firework season) is a long term deal and the next year they might drive the extra miles to go somewhere else or be inspired to open their own firework stand. If he could rationalize that behavior as being “ok” it makes me wonder what else he could rationalize…

    Many or most people may not care, but in my experience the true “tribe” builders and some of the more vocal “word of mouth” advocates might…

  3. Thanks for sharing that! I definitely see your point. I would never use that tactic, but it did teach me a lesson or two!


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