With a population of just over five million in 1900, Sweden was a small pond for an ambitious fish like Axel Wenner-Gren. At the age of 20 he travelled from Uddevalla to Berlin where he studied Business.
Next came a job in sales for the German subsidiary of Separator, a Swedish farming equipment company. Enterprising, energetic and determined, he was on the look-out for opportunities.
Axel Wenner-Gren with his degree from the Berlin School of Business (Berliner Handelsakademie) in 1903
And then, in 1908 he caught sight of an American Santo vacuum cleaner in a Vienna shop window. Bulky and cumbersome it inspired him to want to create a smaller, cheaper version for use in the home. He contacted Santo and then began to work for their European sales agent.
In 1912, after learning the basics of salesmanship and starting to develop a valuable international business network in Berlin, Wenner-Gren returned to Sweden. Two Swedish companies, Lux and Elektromekaniska were now producing copies of the Santos machine. He set about developing AB Svenska Elektron, a company that could provide a sales team.
The Wenner-Gren approach
A display of the Electrolux vacuum cleaner in your own home, preferably in the evening when the husband was also home, was central to the sales concept. Not only did this give the salesman a chance to display the product. It also gave him a chance to see how it was used in the home, thus providing invaluable feedback for the company.
Image illustrating the correct way to act as a salesman for Electrolux from a 1930's sales manual
Second, there was the possibility to pay for your appliance in instalments. This made it affordable for far more families.
And finally, there was the Electrolux Man himself. Door-to-door salesmen do not have the best of reputations, but the company made sure to recruit carefully. Ideally aged between 30 and 40, they dressed smartly and were able to speak eloquently and convincingly about their product and display knowledge of science and the importance of hygiene in the home. Every detail covered was covered in their Salesman’s Handbook. How best to use the doorbell? Two jaunty rings gave the best impression.
A january 1929 photo of the home salesmen of the Derby and Spat Club in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA
Wenner-Gren had already fine-tuned his direct sales methods during the First World War. The goal was to identify potential buyers, make contact and then gently persuade them to allow a home visit in order to demonstrate the product’s special qualities. What problems did the customers have? Were there perhaps some that they were not even aware of?
Before every sales visit, a special female salesperson was sent out. Her task was warm up the housewives by paying a visit and chatting with them about how demanding domestic cleaning could be and pointing out to them that they had the possibility to see a demonstration of a new appliance. After this, a visit by an Electrolux salesman, who was always a man, was booked at a time when the man of the house was home. Regretably, the vital role played by the female salesperson has tended to be forgotten.
Before every sales visit
Elegant, articulate and preposterously successful. Would-be salesmen doubtless looked to the company’s founder for inspiration: a man who threw parties attended by Greta Garbo, Danny Kaye, Elizabeth Taylor and Jussi Björling. Being a salesman could open many doors.
In Axel Wenner-Gren’s personally edited newsletter, salesmen were continuously encouraged to achieve new great deeds and he always gave credit to those who performed the best
Death of a door-to-door salesman
In 1967 the sales for vacuum cleaners and floor polishers, which had always taken place in the home, exceeded one mllion. However the days of the classic Electrolux salesman were numbered.
Ten years later in 1977, the READY vacuum cleaner was introduced, a model which only be purchased from a retailer. This was a watershed departure from the sales strategy which had existed sinece 1919 and which specified that Electrolux vacuum cleaners could only be purchased by direct sales in the home. Now the customer had a choice. The decision had been taken, partly becase of changes in society. More and more women had full time jobs and were at home far less during the day. An alternative sales method was needed.
Direct sales were to play an important role in the developing world throughout the 1980s. However the classic salesman was replaced more and more by knowledgeable retailers who used many of the original ideas.