Modern Times: Your Bag, Madame

Flying with luggage has never been worse. Thank God there’s a man on the case.

Illustration by Ryan Snook

Nick Plummer’s job is to sell luggage, but his mission is to enlighten innocent travelers, and he does it with a professorial expertise that would make the makers of Samsonite and Tumi stand up and cheer.

“Wheel damage is most common, but zipper damage is most frustrating,” he said to a recent customer, zipping and unzipping as he spoke. “It occurs when the zipper is stitched with the same thread as the seam [that holds the suitcase together]. Should the case land the wrong way, and the zipper teeth get crunched, they’re more susceptible to damage, and suddenly you have to pull harder”—he zips frantically—“to get the zipper closed, and then you pull exponentially harder, and then you really have problems.”

Nick talks fast—rat-a-tat-a-tat—and he talks non-stop, not only because he has a lot to say, but because just one more piece of information—the right one—may spell the difference between “I’ll think about it,” and a sale. He is also in constant motion, pulling down luggage, opening garment bags, probing interiors, pointing out the Velcro amenities. He offers tips (e.g., put dry-cleaning bags between garments to hold their shape). He comforts people who worry for the wrong reason (“No one’s ever been kicked off a plane because their luggage didn’t match,” he says). He makes recommendations, but often in the guise of what “other people” say, as in: “Would you like to consider something that I’ve heard from other customers . . .?” He has no interest sounding like a know-it-all.

For most of those customers, the presentation mesmerizes even though the topic is mundane. Nick knows this, and so he goes for the laugh. To a lady fingering a mid-size Travelpro, he announces: “It’s lighter, stronger, and less expensive.” Pause. “That’s game, set, and match.” Another pause. “The tougher a suitcase is, the better protected it is. I’ve seen very good ones that have been destroyed, but we’re playing the percentages.”

Nick reminds the lady that if she takes one bag and exceeds 50 pounds, the overage fee will be $90 to $100, but that if she takes two bags she pays only $35 for the second bag. “So you can carry more for less money,” he concludes.  Enchanted, the woman pulls out her charge card and says she’s going to England. “My father was from Romney Marsh in Kent,” says Nick. “He who tires of London tires of living.”

Five days a week, at Macy’s in Kenwood, this show goes on. Nick, who is 45 years old, is not tall but his looks are compelling. His black eyes and black goatee square off stylishly with his black coat and trousers, while his necktie—in a pattern that evokes vintage luggage stickers from the steamboat era—hints at good times. “We’re not curing cancer here,” he says, “but we are helping people by making the next business trip easier and focusing on the fun of the next pleasure trip.

“If you have to think about your luggage while you’re traveling,” he adds, “it’s probably not doing its job.”

 

The afternoon I spent with him, a Friday in mid-September, was slow by Nick’s measure. A trickle of customers, nearly all women, moved through the department, and not all of them bought. Even so, he was making his sales goal, which generally hovers around $200 an hour, or between $1,700 and $1,800 a day. By 5 p.m., with an hour to go, he could point to revenue of $2,447. On a busy day, he might do $4,600.

The easiest sale, to a lady who walked to the register clutching a distinctive, purple, hard-shell Delsey suitcase, prompted Nick to cite a quote he had recently picked up on the importance of appearance: “It’s 80 percent how you look, 10 percent how you say it, and 10 percent what you say.”

In broken English, the lady explained that she needed the case, an extra, because she “makes way too much shopping.”

Nick, determined to ease any embarrassment the lady might have felt because of her diction, moved rapidly to another example of looks famously carrying the day: “You remember when John Kennedy went to Berlin and said Ich bin ein Berliner—‘I am a Berliner’? Well, what he really said, because of the way the words came out, was ‘I am a jelly doughnut,’ but nobody cared because he looked so great and what did it matter? Think of it! ‘I am a jelly doughnut!’ ”

Then followed a riff on accents, which morphed to Texas accents, and Nick, now rattling on as if on automatic pilot, said, “Never ask a man if he’s from Texas. If he is, he’ll tell you. If he’s not, don’t embarrass him.” The lady with the accent smiled, but seemed nonplussed. No matter. Nick’s monologue, combined with the consummation of the transaction (taking the charge card, figuring the discounts, ringing it up, giving her the slip to sign), was an unbreachable wave.

Afterwards, he explained that hard-shell luggage, once very popular, took a tumble as airlines imposed harsher weight restrictions. “But customers who are traditionalists want it; they like the security of the fact that it’s not a fabric that can be torn. So now they manufacture lightweight hard-shell, and it’s made a great comeback.”

Plummer began selling luggage 15 years ago after a part-time gig selling holiday decorations at the same store where he works now. Previously, he had attended Miami University and held various pick-up jobs, but nothing had stuck. After a short time at Macy’s, the manager said they needed help in luggage and would he be interested? “The rest is history,” he says.

It took him a few months to acquire proper product knowledge. Prior to 9/11, airlines had varying size and weight regulations, so people selling luggage had to know them all. (With a those-were-the-days roll of the eyes, Nick recalls passengers circumventing one carrier’s onerous restrictions by ducking through another carrier’s gate.) But after 2001, carriers began to streamline regulations, most emphatically with reference to carry-on luggage. Soon enough, sizes were homogenized, and luggage manufacturers were free to focus on functionality—mobility, special features, and as carriers toughened their stance, weight.“

The questions used to be What’s best? What’s the cost?” says Nick. “Nobody asked about weight. At that time, the cost to go overweight was 10 or 15 dollars, and many of the ticketing agents just looked the other way. Now the first question and often the only question is, ‘What does it weigh?’ Which leaves the manufacturers asking themselves: How can [we] maintain strength, but still keep the bag light and the cost low?

Another question—although Nick doesn’t phrase it this way—is How can I save a passenger from buying what isn’t right? Take garment bags. While they and a variety of duffels remain available (some even on wheels), most luggage manufacturers have narrowed the choices to three uprights: a bag that’s 28 inches high, another that’s 26 inches high, and a carry-on that’s 22 inches high. In addition, some manufacturers have recently come up with one that’s 24 inches high.

The different sizes often necessitate Nick delivering a mathematical refresher course. “Most customers haven’t bought luggage for years,” he says, “so I remind them that the limit is 50 pounds, and they go straight for the 28-incher. It weighs just a pound more than the 26-incher, and they say to me, ‘It’s a couple of inches wider and a couple of inches deeper, and I could use the extra room.’ And I say it’s all those things, and if you remember your eighth grade geometry, when you increase an object by its scaling factor”—say you make it twice as large—“you increase its volume by the cube of that factor”—or eight times as large. “So it ends up with a lot more room than you think, and you fill it with clothes and suddenly you’re over the limit. We want you to know before you get to the airport that you could be in trouble.”

Citing other customers’ experience, Nick almost always recommends a smaller bag.

 

Hearing this, the lady he is currently pitching immediately expresses concern about having to pack her things too tightly. Nick hoists the suitcase over his head, tilts it upside down as if turning over in transit, and says, “That can be a good thing.”

The lady is examining a Samsonite case, which features spinner wheels in tandem carriages, so that each wheel bears one-eighth of the total weight instead of one fourth. It moves backwards, forwards, and sideways with impressive ease. But, cautions Nick, the manufacturer gave up some durability, packing space, weight, and price advantage to achieve this flexibility.

The lady goes for the flexibility, in the 26-inch package, and asks Nick why, if what he says is true, they bother to make a 28-incher.

“Madame, I could use you to talk to the manufacturer,” he says, simultaneously relieving her of her charge card. Thirty years ago, Nick says later, they didn’t put wheels on luggage. He shakes his head at the thought. Travel alarms and travel irons used to sell well. Today they don’t. Cell phones have alarms, and people don’t iron. But new accessories have taken their place. Nick holds up a small round scale affixed to a large hook: an overweight indicator. People packing at home can hang their bags from the hook and look at the weight. “I can’t keep it in stock,” he says. Then, reminded of a joke, he recalls Jay Leno demonstrating a similar looking device called a body-fat indicator. He quotes Leno: “‘Didn’t we used to call that a mirror?’ ”

Today, despite many advances, manufacturers still can’t accommodate everything. “A man comes in and wants a wheeled tote bag [to fit under the seat] that’ll hold a 17-inch monitor,” says Nick. “No can do. Manufacturers are producing for airline regulations. I can show him one that’s 13½ by 16 by 18½. It fits under the seat, but it’s not big enough for the monitor. He’s unhappy. I say, ‘Sir, you’re a minority in a majority-driven industry.’ ”

Nick has at his disposal 20 brands of luggage for sale. Suitcases and carrying bags stacked from floor to ceiling in a corner of the store frame multiple aisle displays that he keeps carefully ordered—“I like my Macy’s neat,” he says. Each brand has a defining feature, and he is quick to point them out: Samsonite’s spinner wheels, Delsey’s hard shell, London Fog for style at a lower cost, Travelpro—“the best combination of durability, cost, weight, and functionality for the majority of customers,” he says. “It’s also number one with airline crews, which is a significant selling point for a lot of people.”

For many travelers the price of luggage today feels high. “They tell me baggage never used to cost this much,” he says. But time was, “baggage didn’t have to be this tough.”

When Nick travels, which is not as often as he likes (although the list of places visited is long and varied), he uses the Travelpro 22-incher and a tote bag. He doesn’t check baggage. “I have found that once people decide to take less, they find they can get by with it, and the world opens up to them. So often, instead of going on a vacation with baggage, people let the baggage take a vacation with them.”

That would not be Nick Plummer’s style.

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