Aggressive solicitors at Village stores irk La Jollans

Over the past few months, complaints have been reported to the La Jolla Village Merchants Association and the La Jolla Light about businesses using what some La Jollans see as overly aggressive tactics to get customers into their stores. At least three of the shops are on Girard Avenue and another two are on Prospect Street.

These are primarily skincare companies with employees who stand in the doorways handing out product samples and urging passersby to enter the stores.

For Julie Durkee, who works in The Village, the practice has changed the way she walks and shops around town, and she said she finds the presence of these clerks “distressing.”

“They stand in the doorways and are very friendly and smiling, but if you make eye contact, they say, ‘I can fix the bags under your eyes’ or wrinkles or whatever they notice at first glance. But if you don’t make eye contact, they follow you, stepping out further,” she reported. “If they just stood in the doorway with samples that wouldn’t bother me, but when they see I’m not making eye contact and they pursue me, that’s not OK.”

She said she likes to stroll through town on her lunch break, but no longer walks along Girard Avenue because of these businesses.

“It’s unnerving. Even when I pass one, I know there are a few more ahead of me that I have to deal with. At that point, I just go back to the office,” she said.

To make matters worse, Durkee said she has a health condition that requires medication every day, which affects her skin.

“I know what I look like, and nothing they can sell me is going to help. So reminding me of all of that is hurtful. My situation is unique, but it’s not just me hearing this. There are other women who hear such comments several times as they walk down the street.”

Merchants Association response

Durkee reported her complaints to the La Jolla Village Merchants Association (LJVMA) and, she is not the only one to do so.

LJVMA executive director Sheila Fortune said she has received multiple complaints about high-pressure business practices in recent months, but tasked with supporting local businesses, the association’s hands are tied.

“I’ve gotten phone calls and e-mails from people wanting us to shut down these businesses, but what they are doing is ... not illegal,” she said. “Technically, they are not supposed to come out of their doors, but we’re getting reports that they aggressively approach people. I’ve even had it happen to me! They throw samples at me and try to get me in the store,” she said. “It’s frustrating and it’s getting worse.”

Police Department response

San Diego Police Community Relations Officer Larry Hesselgesser confirmed that the practice of “standing in the doorway and inviting people in” is legal.

On the topic, San Diego Municipal Code Chapter 5: Public Safety, Morals and Welfare, states: “It is unlawful for any person on the streets, sidewalks or other places open to the public … to aggressively coerce, threaten, hound, harass or intimidate another person for the purpose of soliciting money or goods,” and that a person’s actions are considered to meet this rule when (among other things), “The solicitor persists in following the solicitee closely, and continues to demand money or other thing of value after the solicitee has rejected the solicitation by words or conduct.”

Further, the Municipal Code defines “aggressively” as “behaving in a hostile manner,” and “harass” as “to irritate or torment persistently,” and “hound” as “to pursue relentlessly and tenaciously.”

Fortune said she reached out to some of the offending store managers, but had difficulty getting through to them. La Jolla Light had a similar experience and could not reach management at two of the stores for this story. One store manager claimed to have given a supervisor’s phone number to a different Light employee, which was untrue.

Fortune said when people call or e-mail their complaints, she advises them to ignore the vendors and just keep walking or say, “no thanks.”

One Village business owner, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said the tactic poses a “huge problem” and customers are complaining. “One woman told me she has stopped walking along Girard Avenue and she only takes the alleys to go shopping,” she said. “More and more of my customers are not going to shop here if they’re getting harassed. A lot of people, especially elderly people and women, feel like they have to respond, and then they end up in the store. I just wish they knew to just say no or not pause to answer.”

Another local business owner, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity, said a longtime customer now requests to be let in through the back entrance to avoid the street solicitors.

Better Business Bureau response

Mike Sedio, vice-president of operations and general counsel for the Better Business Bureau San Diego, Orange and Imperial Counties, recommends the “just say no” method. “The BBB advocates for savvy and empowered consumers who can make decisions at their own pace, and when a company creates an artificial sense of urgency, there is nothing wrong with saying ‘no’ or ‘slow down,’ or saying you need to look them up, research their product and come back,” he said.

Of the reported five stores that post employees at the door to distribute samples, only one store manager returned La Jolla Light’s calls to be interviewed about its sales practices. That manager said the store has not received any complaints about sales clerks outside offering samples.

“It’s just something we do at all of our stores to market the products better, to offer something more friendly and exciting for the client,” she said.

“We try not to be aggressive, we try to be classy. Our reputation is important to us. When it comes to complaints, we will address anything that people are not happy about.”