What’s Going On: Tales of the Kirby vacuum salesman

I came home a little early that evening, and there he was. Standing in my own living room.

My wife had betrayed my trust. She had violated the sanctity of our home.

There was a grinning salesman in my house.

And not just any kind of salesman. It was the dreaded Kirby vacuum salesman.

I don’t remember what gimmick he used to get inside the house. I’ve heard tales of shampooing a room’s carpet or free air freshners doing the trick. I think my wife got a tin of “premium” cookies that tasted like overly sweet cardboard.

Regardless, I could instantly tell by the pleading and apologetic look in her eye that she had already been hooked. He had been there 30-45 minutes already and had conducted the standard demonstration and was more than eager to do it again for me.

He encouraged me to vacuum a portion of our carpeted floor with our old, beat-up vacuum, only to follow with his super-fancy, high-tech, state-of-the-art Kirby. After vacuuming the same spot I had previously been, he produced in dramatic fashion a filter about the size and texture of a coffee filter that was soiled with dirt and grime.

All that dirt … and after I had thoroughly vacuumed it with my seemingly useless and clearly inferior piece of machinery.

And if that demonstration wasn’t enough, or the aluminum diecast body, or the lifetime warranty, he played the ultimate trump card.

“You wouldn’t want that good-looking baby crawling around on dirty carpets, would you,” he asked, referencing our newborn son. “Think of the dust mites. The allergies. The potential respiratory issues.”

Game, set, match. He could have trimmed his 2-hour presentation down to that few seconds and sold us on the vacuum.

Only one obstacle remained: The price.

And oh, what an obstacle that would be.

The dance started at $2,000, and by the time it was all said and done, we had a vacuum for $800. After starting at more than twice that, I felt like I had achieved some sort of victory. Until later in the evening, after the salesman was gone and I realized I had an $800 vacuum cleaner.

In full disclosure, we (and when I say we, I mean my wife) love the vacuum. It does a great job and we have no reason to believe after nearly nine years of use, we will be buying another one in the next nine years. “You get what you pay for,” seems appropriate in this instance.

But to this day, my wife and I admit we fell for some of the salesman’s oldest tricks, which regardless of the quality of the item purchased, still somehow taints the experience.

I was reminded of that day nearly a decade ago when I read a story in Tuesday’s Star-Tribune emblazoned with the headline “vacuum sales take push to new levels.”

Kirby has essentially relied on door-to-door salesmen to peddle their product since the company started in 1914. And as with any service that is essentially contracted out, the quality of that service provided varies from company to company or individual to individual.

Allegedly, employees with the company cited in the article have been a little heavy-handed in their approach and embraced the “refusing to take no as an answer” adage a little too much.

Several homeowners have threatened to call the police. One pulled a gun when the salesmen ignored repeated requests to leave.

Basically, my advice would be if you don’t want to buy a vacuum, don’t let the salesman inside your home. Once they are there, its going to be hard to get them out without you writing a check.

And while according to the Tribune article their new asking price is $2,500, don’t choke on that figure. There’s a better deal out there, and you can get to that bottom dollar if you are willing to say “no deal” oh, say, about 42 times.

That should do it.


Gregory Orear is the publisher of The Journal. His award-winning weekly column, “What’s Going On,” has been published in four newspapers in three states for more than 20 years. He can be contacted at gorear@nujournal.com.