Here’s an odd contradiction about the 21st century: online pharmacies beg to sell me drugs I am anatomically unqualified to use, clothiers dog me from website to website, promising me a discount on a shirt I flirted with a month ago, and ads gibber and dance in the online columns of The New York Times itself, but when I am eager — nay, determined — to spend money, I find that I can’t.
Last week was a case in point. I conceived of the perfect shade of green. “It’s sort of a peacock color,” I told Ken earnestly. “Not a creepy teal, you know. Not a Florida kind of color, not Southwestern. Peacock-y.”
I dragged out the color fan that my main man Pablo gave me a year or two ago when I began haunting our neighborhood Sherwin Williams. I spent hours shuffling, comparing and deploying chips. I gradually convinced myself that our safe, familiar paint manufacturer could not possibly satisfy this exotic need. I began to dawdle longingly near the paint displays at Lowe’s and Home Depot. Their oranges seemed more subtle and various; the yellows had a freshness and promise that my old, familiar color fan could not hope to match. In short, last weekend we went in search of a little of the strange.
When Pablo spontaneously gave me the color fan, it was not, I think, a business decision. Overwhelmingly, that store makes its money from contractors. Homeowners who agonize over this or that precise shade are probably just barely worth the trouble. But I was in there all the time, raiding the paint chip displays and gossiping; we had bought a lot of paint and clearly intended to buy more; Pablo had an old color fan on hand, so without much reflection, he gave it to me. From that day to this, I consistently trot in there every month or so to buy samples or gallons. Pablo is nice, they have quality paint, and the color fan allows me to indulge and discard any number of silly decorating notions. Everybody wins.
Imagine my surprise, then, when Ken and I tried to buy color fans at three different stores last week, and were soundly rejected.
It’s not entirely the fault of Lowe’s that we didn’t buy a Valspar fan. Naturally there was no one behind the paint counter, and when the guy responded to our page, his understandable existential despair robbed him of interest in us, paint, or anything else in this bleak, sublunary world. “A color fan? You have to order those online. Yeah, go to the website. It’s, like, six dollars.” We cheerfully agreed.
While driving home, we considered the implications of ordering a color fan online. There would be shipping costs. We would have to register on the website and hand over credit card information. No matter how diligently I unchecked every box I met on the way, Lowe’s would stalk me via email, addressing me with disconcerting familiarity. Everyone from the New York Times to J. Crew to the First Lady of the United States does that already; my email in-box is groaning under the strain. I thought better of it. “Screw it,” I said. “Let’s get one at Home Depot.”
The situation there was even more odd. An exceptionally earnest, helpful young woman informed us that they do not sell color fans, and could really only give them to contractors. We admitted to being nothing more than homeowners, but mentioned, modestly, that we do have a home improvement blog. “Let me ask the Behr rep,” she said. She pleaded our case to a young man fussing over a paint display several yards away, then gestured us over for an audience.
“Are you contractors?” he asked us. “We can only give color fans to contractors. They’re expensive to print.” Absurdly, we spent five minutes giving an impromptu pitch about The Joy of Moldings. He treated us professionally, but remained unimpressed. The exchange ended when he asked for a business card, and we confessed that we didn’t have any for the blog. I toyed with the idea of giving him one from my day job. I almost never have occasion to hand them out, but when I do, my entirely opaque, vaguely menacing and misleadingly impressive title can reduce weak salespeople to servile hand-rubbing. He seemed like a tough cookie, though, and we already felt silly begging a reluctant sales rep for a minor freebie. So, no color fan.
The next day we went to Ace Hardware for birdseed and paint samples. Could we, perhaps, buy a fan of their lovely paint colors? “We don’t sell color fans,” the guy said. “You can borrow one, but you have to bring it back.” I demurred. I can’t be trusted with loaner anything. My undergraduate and graduate universities both threatened to withhold my degrees because I am a flagrant, if unintentional, library scofflaw. I’m not ready to go to prison for a bound set of Benjamin Moore color chips. So I peevishly stripped their display of every vaguely relevant green chip.
For the last seven days, Ken and I have marveled daily at how three large companies earnestly and successfully resisted doing business with us. The experience was hardly unusual, but surely their reluctance is strangely self-defeating. What model of customer service — or, more likely, what cost-benefit analysis — led two large corporations and a thriving chain to refuse to sell us a simple tool that would reliably lead to further sales?
So, back to the familiar embrace of Sherwin Williams. Their sales staff are free to hand out the occasional small promotional item to a neighborhood couple. With that, they’ve earned my loyalty, and a few bucks more per gallon.
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