Andy Poirier vividly remembers the night a vacuum cleaner salesman appeared at the door of his Shakopee home.
He said the salesman, in his early 20s, spent nearly two hours demonstrating a $2,500 Kirby vacuum cleaner and ignored his requests to leave. Then, Poirier said, a supervisor showed up and told him the salesman needed one more sale to earn a reward trip.
“Don’t you feel bad?” Poirier recalls the supervisor telling him. “You just wasted this kid’s entire night and you’re not even going to buy anything?”
Instead, Poirier said, he posted a no-soliciting sign and complained to police and the Better Business Bureau. “It’s not an acceptable way to do business,” he said.
Homeowners in various parts of the metro area have found themselves opening their doors to salespeople who, according to police reports, use over-the-top sales tactics to hawk vacuum cleaners.
Several homeowners point to representatives with Burnsville-based RG Enterprises, in particular, for arm-twisting they find annoying, confusing and downright scary.
Mike Gerber, owner of RG Enterprises, said in an e-mail to the Star Tribune that he was sorry for frustrations caused by his business and that its home demonstration approach “sometimes raises eyebrows.” So far this year, he said, his company has sold 140 vacuums.
“Because I’m not with all of the salespeople who affiliate with my business all of the time, I sometimes don’t know of things that aren’t as they should be until after the fact. ... I know the Kirby Company does not tolerate ‘pushy’ sales tactics,” Gerber said.
Savage and New Prague residents have called police after sales visits from RG representatives, officials said. Two cities — Isanti and North St. Paul — said enough was enough and revoked RG’s sales permits.
Armed with complimentary cans of air freshener, the salespeople reportedly spend hours showing off their Kirbys until they’re asked to leave. Then they become rude and resistant, according to the pattern noted anecdotally and in police reports.
One homeowner reported pulling out a gun to hasten their exit, while another gave them $20 to go away.
The Better Business Bureau (BBB) recently updated RG Enterprises’ online profile to reflect four complaints about their “misleading and high-pressure” sales tactics.
“We’re watching it pretty closely,” said Dan Hendrickson, a BBB spokesman.
At North St. Paul City Hall, “our phones were just ringing off the hook,” said City Manager Craig Waldron. “It was quite concerning.”
Four companies besides RG Enterprises also sell Kirby vacuum cleaners in the metro area door-to-door, said Halle Sminchak, chief compliance officer for Cleveland-based Kirby. That’s the only way they’re sold.
The problem isn’t door-to-door sales generally, said Sgt. Mike Ernster, spokesman for the St. Paul police. It’s the aggressive approach taken by companies like RG.
“I think they take advantage of people and their niceness,” Ernster said.
Since RG’s recent venture into St. Paul, residents have filed five complaints with police. Some allege that the salespeople made them feel unsafe, Ernster said. And they didn’t always follow the law; Benjamin Thomas Gibson, 20, was cited by police in February for peddling without a license.
Ernster said that when one St. Paul woman asked the salespeople to leave, they responded that their time was valuable and suggested $20 as a fair price for the presentation. She forked over the money to get them to go, he said.
North St. Paul police received 12 reports on sales pitches. Waldron said salespeople weren’t carrying their permits and used “abrasive and mysterious” sales techniques; the company asked to appeal the revocation but didn’t show up at the hearing, he said.
Hannah Fitzmorris filed a police report about the night she said a frantic young salesman pushed past her after she opened the door to her North St. Paul home. He pulled a container from his bag and took a sip, she said, telling her that “he drinks while he does this.”
Another salesman joined him for the hourlong presentation, but Fitzmorris said neither would say how much the vacuum cleaner cost. Both asked to use her bathroom, and after they finally left she noticed a picture frame on her bedroom floor. Fitzmorris, who lives alone, said the whole incident left her feeling uncomfortable.
Isanti Mayor George Wimmer said that RG representatives came to his home, wouldn’t leave and even wedged their foot in his door so it couldn’t close. The city revoked RG’s sales permit in October 2016.
“I thought it was ridiculous,” Wimmer said.
Gerber appealed that revocation. After the council rescinded the permit, according to a video of the meeting, he shouted that there were many other places that would appreciate the chance to buy his Kirbys.
“I can’t believe they’re allowed to operate,” Wimmer said.
A dying practice
Door-to-door salespeople are uncommon today, which may account for some of the resistance to RG Enterprises, said George John, a marketing professor at the University of Minnesota’s Carlson School of Business.
Better Business Bureau officials said they receive complaints every summer about door-to-door solicitors selling items such as magazines, asphalt and alarm systems.
“Naturally when a company tries to buck the trend, they are going to get pushback,” John said.
Selling door to door is expensive and time-consuming, and yet it sometimes works if salespeople can get inside.
“It’s effective but also socially punishing,” John said, adding that salespeople may get one sale but turn off many other potential customers.
When asked about complaints against RG Enterprises and Kirby generally, Sminchak said misunderstandings sometimes occur because people aren’t accustomed to door-to-door sales. It’s difficult to please everyone, she said, and studies show that unhappy customers share their experiences more than satisfied ones.
Nonetheless, she said, door-to-door sales are a “unique opportunity” for customers, who are comfortable at home and thus more likely to ask questions about the product.
That wasn’t the case with a White Bear Lake man, who complained to the BBB about an RG sales pitch and said he “nearly had to use physical force to remove these knuckleheads from my home.” When they wouldn’t stop their spiel after two hours, he brandished his gun.
In response to the complaint, Gerber wrote that the salesman was never actually asked to leave — an indication, he suggested, of interest on the part of the customer.
“Part of our dealers’ jobs are to make a friend and demonstrate the equipment,” Gerber wrote. The salesman “really did his job in this house.”
Erin Adler • 612-673-1781