Photo - Jane Thompson
Anyone who has worked in retail will be familiar with some form of the 'steps of selling'. Sometimes it's 5 steps, maybe 7, even 10, the number varies but the idea is the same - understand the psychology that underpins people's behaviour and then exploit that understanding to sell them stuff. Professional retail is about the commercialisation of trust, an idea that not only customers can find sickening, but sales staff as well.
Jane E Thompson's latest play, called simply Retail, goes after the essence of that sickening effect and captures it superbly. Part satire and part detective thriller, Retail tells the story of the staff of two exclusive boutiques in an upscale Melbourne shopping district and uncovers the lives of some of their shadier customers. I was ready to buy into the experience after only the first few minutes, but somehow the play ended without closing the sale. What happened? Perhaps those surefire steps of selling have the answer...
Step 1 - The Approach.
Your prospect's' first buying decision is about you, the salesperson. People buy because they like you. Do you have integrity and good judgment?
Absolutely. Thompson's script is clearly imbued with her own experience in bridal and menswear. The characters are convincing, instantly and often painfully recognisable archetypes. The set, the lighting and the music especially contrive to make the audience feel they are actually in a shop, which, due to an inspired choice of venue, in fact we are. The experience is overwhelmingly authentic and only moments into the performance you've already earned our trust.
Step 2 - Qualification
This is where the salesperson gathers information about their customer, qualifying the person as a genuine prospect and uncovering the problems or needs that exist.
Is a story about what happens in a shop really something an audience could be interested in? Do we really need to know about these people's lives or care what happens to them? Yes on all counts. After fifteen minutes and having been introduced to the main characters in both shops, we are interested and invested. We see the complex power plays, get the first hints of deeper motivations, recognise people and situations we know all too well and have decided it's going to be interesting watching it all play out. As an audience, laughing and groaning on cue, we are qualified customers.
Step 3 - Agreement on need
Summarise for your prospect the information you gathered in the first two steps and demonstrate your understanding of your prospect's unique needs. Your prospects buy not because they understand your product or service, but because you understand them.
Ok, so this is going to be a bitter but funny story about the staff of these two shops and how they deal with having to work in retail, right? That's how it's been set up and that's what I'm now looking forward to. It's clear that one of these customer characters is a little bit dodgy and probably has a backstory. It'll be interesting to see how that's weaved into the larger narrative.
Step 4 - Sell the company
Your prospect's second buying decision is about your company. Does it have the competence and capability to perform as promised?
The acting is excellent. Natural and believable performances from all concerned, with a couple of standouts. Emma Fawcett underwrote the whole play's authenticity as Jennifer with her depiction of a depressed but dutiful shop assistant, competent but crushed by the force of the bridal shop owner's overpowering personality. Mark E Lawrence stole the show with a thoroughly disturbing and hyper-real portrayal of Rob, a creepy middle-aged customer with connections in the underworld.
Step 5 - Fill the need
Features and benefits. Demonstrate the product and how it meets your prospect's needs.
The audience is sitting in an actual shop, looking out into an actual shopping centre. So it's really cool when some of the performance's heated confrontations and conspiratorial whispers happen outside the shop in full view of baffled passers-by who have no idea what is going on. It's a brilliant device used to great effect and well-executed technically with the help of invisible radio mics. It doesn't hurt that we all know it's bloody freezing outside with gale force winds. Makes it all more real somehow. The set changes are also well executed and well-timed. Because the play is set in two different shops it is actually the set that stays the same and the actors who change between scenes. Again, very clever. We're impressed.
Step 6 - Act of commitment
The only buying decision left is when to buy. Now is the time to ask the prospect to commit.
You have us. We're eating out of the palm of your hand. Ready to buy. But it seems you're still showing off the features. Yes, we liked the outside bit but don't overdo it. That interpretive dance scene was well-done but was it really necessary? And it seems like that subplot we thought might be interesting is actually devouring the whole show. We were committed but now we're not so sure.
Step 7 - Close the sale
People buy emotionally, then justify their buying decisions logically. Cement in your prospect's mind the logical reasons that made their purchasing decisions wise, sound and intelligent so that your sale will wear well.
The show comes to a dramatic end. A micro-pause of confusion and then applause. It was good, but walking out of the shop we're not entirely satisfied with what we've just bought. We thought we were getting a funny but bitterly realistic character drama. That's how you set it up. That's what you sold us. So why did it turn into a detective thriller? Why weren't the characters' storylines resolved, especially after that particularly violent and confronting scene when the shop had shut? What were you really trying to say? What am I supposed to do with this product? You showed me all its features and I want to like it, but honestly now that I've bought it and taken it home I don't really know what it's for.
And that about sums it up really. I worked in retail for several years myself and often found it inhuman and insidious. But those steps of selling have been lodged in my memory forever. Funny how even the inhuman stuff can teach us something about ourselves. Maybe that's what it was all for.
The Boards presents
Directed by Jane. E. Thompson
Venue: No-Vacancy Gallery Jane bell Lane, Melbourne
Dates: Wed 30th Sept - Sun 11th Oct
Times: 30th Sept - 4th Oct, 7th -11th Oct @ 7.30pm
Matinees: Sat 3rd & Sat 10th Oct @ 2pm