Tell us a bit about yourself!
I’m 64 years old. In previous lives I was an ESL teacher and before that had a 20 year career at a newspaper. Two years ago I moved to La Crosse, WI. to be near my daughter and her family. I moved with no job lined up in La Crosse, thinking that with all my experience, I’d be sure to find one. This city has a large Hmong population, so I figured there would be ESL opportunities here. Not so.
What do you do for fun?
Much of my fun derives from my two grandsons, who are 2 and 6 years old. I babysit frequently, spending time making cardboard space ships, playing at the park, cooking, making things with Playdoh, dancing to the Wiggles. You get the picture. I have a gentleman friend with whom I can go to the many outdoor concerts here in the summer, watch movies, go for hikes.
How did you find yourself working as a sample lady?
My job hunting efforts were not yielding anything. I’ve probably applied for more than 100 jobs, applying only for those I thought I had a chance to get. I got pretty discouraged. I also became very poor. On Social Security and a small pension from the newspaper, I needed to earn some money. After a summer of having less money than I’d had in my life, I found this job, with a marketing company that contracts with Wal-Mart/Sam’s Club to provide demonstrators. Our services are ultimately paid for by the manufacturer of the food product we demonstrate. It was hard to accept this job considering how I feel about Wal-Mart (I had never shopped there) and my attitude toward highly processed foods (comprising about half of the food sold at Sam’s.) In short, I was desperate enough to make this concession.
I schooled myself to adopt a positive attitude toward my work. One friend advised me to put a little love into every sample. I would look at every customer as a precious and lovable fellow human being. I’d be efficient and guard against waste. I’d smile at everyone.
Pollyanish as this seems, this strategy worked. Smiling at people brought smiles back, which made me feel good. I educated myself about the products and told the customers the truth about the nutritional contents. Over time I grew familiar with individual members and could have more interesting, if brief, conversations. Some sought me out for product information, or just to schmooz.
Can you tell us about an average day on the job?
When I get to Sam’s demo staging area, I gather the tools I’ll need to perform my demonstration (or “event” as it’s called by my company.) We do the cooking when we are on the selling floor. I stand at my station for 3 hours at a time, with an unpaid half-hour break. This is the most difficult part of the job – standing in one place. Another difficult aspect is boredom, when traffic is slow. I just stand there. No sitting. No bringing a book to read.
I deal with the boredom in several ways. I practice standing on one foot and count the seconds before I lose my balance. (There has been little improvement.) I count and rearrange samples. I reorganize the equipment under my cart. I alphabetize equipment. I grab items off the shelves and read the ingredient and nutrition labels, read slogans on T-shirts, (I put ketchup on my ketchup) or I try to engage customers in conversation.
Have you discovered any particularly awesome products while working this job? Any really bad ones?
The good: Sam’s has made a big effort to have very high quality fruits and vegetables. These are a good buy and look amazing.
The questionable: Sam’s has opened a bakery, which they are promoting as fresh and home baked. They are telling the truth, technically, but nothing is actually made there. It comes from somewhere else and is just baked there.
The ugly: Horrifying steak chimichangas, microwaved, which – when cut into bite sized pieces – squirt out a nasty brown liquid. Worse yet, lots of people liked them.
What are some of funniest responses you’ve gotten to your samples?
Whenever I sample out hummus, someone will call it pumice. “I’ll try some of that pumice.” Or they pronounce it “hyumus” as if it’s rich soil. Customers make stock remarks about certain foods. If you serve sausage, they ask “Where are the pancakes.” If you serve a cold drink, they say it would be better with vodka. Coffee samples inevitably get “Now I need a donut.”
How has this job made you feel about humanity in general?
Here I must confess, I’m not such a shining example of loving kindness. I’ve read that Wisconsin is second to Arkansas in obesity. Never have I seen so many gigantic fat people as I see at Sam’s. I’m talking whale-like. So far I have restrained myself from counting fat people and figuring out percentages, but my guess is that ¼ of the shoppers at Sam’s are morbidly obese. The foods sold here are a contributing factor.
I never expected to be at this job this long (9 months so far). I enjoy the work and the people far more than I ever expected to, yet each day I am a sample lady is a day I’m not doing something more meaningful.