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Marketing Class Memories

My wife recently got the sudden urge to clean out our attic. I helped her most by staying out of her way. After all, there was hardly enough room for both of us up there amid all the boxes. Besides, I've been more than a bit wary of that ladder after it broke on me on another occasion, sending me crashing to the concrete floor of the garage.

During her cleaning, my wife stirred up not only a lot of dust but also a lot of memories. She uncovered my old high school yearbooks and sent them down for my perusal.

My first thoughts upon flipping through the pages were (1) how young and immature everyone looked and (2) what silly things those who signed the albums wrote. At the time, we thought we were mature and knew everything about life. In reality, we were just silly children and totally unaware of "real life." And I could hardly remember many of the "close friends," "pals," and "best buds" who signed them.

But a couple of things struck me about others who signed the last yearbook, the one from 1971, my junior year. A large number of signers said something about my track "career." (They remembered my involvement then, although they probably don't even remember me today, let alone anything I did on the two-mile relay team back then!) A few mentioned that it would be my last year at Halls High. (I went to summer school at the end of that year, graduated early, and went off to college, never having a real "senior year.") But most of them simply wrote something like "good luck" and "been nice having classes with you." Those were people I hardly knew, even then.

One signer's comment, however, made me laugh out loud and brought some memories back to life. At first, I didn't recognize Rhonda Bowman's face in the photo of the Marketing Club below (she's the dark-haired girl to the far right, back row), but what she wrote brought back memories that were both humorous and humiliating.

For some reason, I had been enrolled in the Marketing class, which focused on retail business. As such, I was a member of both the school's Marketing Club and the national Distributive Education Clubs of America (DECA). Had I remained for my senior year, I presumably would have been in Distributive Education (DE) and attended classes in the mornings and worked in a local retail store in the afternoons. But my focus was on history, not sales. I must have signed up for Marketing just to fill a slot in my class schedule.

One major assignment of the Marketing class was to do a "marketing report." We were to choose a product, trace its history, identify the product benefits for consumers, and develop a marketing plan and a sales pitch for it. It all was to culminate in a "sales manual." That involved a lot of research and writing, things I enjoyed doing even then, so I put my best efforts into it.

But Rhonda Bowman was also eager to do well with her report, so she and I engaged in a friendly competition as we proceeded with the various stages of the project. Which of us would win?

I chose as my product Puma athletic shoes. (I don't remember what Rhonda's product was.) My choice of product was only natural, considering that the track team wore Puma track shoes. I got the company's catalogs, cut and pasted photos of their entire product line, researched the company's history, listed the uses and features of each shoe, etc. I went all out. And, somehow, my manual won.

What I didn't realize until after winning was that the class winner was obliged to compete at the University of Tennessee against other DECA students from other marketing classes in schools all across Knox County, perhaps even from across the entire state, in a sales demonstration contest.

The teacher, Mrs. Jean Chappell, coached me on my upcoming in-person sales presentation to a "prospective customer," who would be a member of the UT business and marketing faculty. She especially emphasized the importance of making correct change.

For weeks, I rehearsed my sales pitch. I practiced making change quickly and accurately. And I went to UT for the competition with an "inventory" of one pair of track shoes.

When my turn came to demonstrate my wares, I nervously but flawlessly presented my spiel and displayed the product while wearing my best customer service smile. And the "customer" bought a pair of used track shoes. I was mentally preparing to give him his correct change when he threw me a curve. Instead of cash, he handed me his credit card.

Mrs. Chappell hadn't prepared me for that. I hadn't even thought that someone would use a credit card, especially since Mrs. Chappell had put so much emphasis on making change. My parents paid for everything using either cash or checks. They had a Miller's Department Store "charge-a-plate," but I didn't know the first thing about processing a credit transaction. I fumbled around uncertainly and finally just wrote the customer's card account number on a scrap of paper and packaged the man's purchase. I was relieved to get off the stage.

No surprise--I didn't win the sales demonstration.

And that brings me to what Rhonda later wrote in my yearbook:

Mrs. Chappell also signed my yearbook. She had been so impressed with my manual that she had asked to keep it so she could "make a copy of it" to provide future students an example of how that assignment should be done, to be a model for their manuals. I never saw my manual again. But neither did her comment in my yearbook mention my sales demo fiasco, although she might have used it as a warning of what subsequent contestants should not do in that competition.

I recall little else from that class, but Rhonda's parting words to me reminded me of our friendly competition and the experience that confirmed for me that my calling was not retail sales!

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