MONTGOMERY — People selling door-to-door in Calhoun County would have to get background checks and would be banned from working after sundown under a bill on its way to the Alabama House of Representatives.
Calhoun County License Commissioner Barry Robertson said he asked for more regulations after fielding complaints from local residents about door-to-door sales pitches gone wrong.
"People have no way of knowing who's a legitimate salesman and who's not," Robertson said.
Robertson said that both he and the Sheriff's Office have fielded complaints from local residents who were unnerved by sales pitches made by door-to-door salespeople. While most of those salespeople were legitimate, Robertson said, clumsy approaches and pushy tactics have made some residents uneasy.
"In one case, we had a gentleman selling children's books door-to-door," Robertson said. "He did it by following a school bus to see where kids were dropped off. You can see how that would make people uncomfortable."
Current state law requires door-to-door sales operations to get licenses to operate, and Robertson can, and does, demand to see those licenses when a door-to-door sales company operates in the area. State law allows him to fine those who operate without a license.
Robertson says that’s not enough. He’s asking lawmakers to introduce a bill that would create a county license for each individual who sells items door-to-door. Applicants for the license would have to get a criminal background check. The bill would require salespeople to wear those licenses while they work, and would require them to attach signs to their cars announcing what company they work for. Door-to-door sales after dark would be banned.
Failure to comply with those rules would be a misdemeanor, if the bill passes. The bill wouldn’t apply to nonprofit groups such as the Girl Scouts, Robertson said.
It’s a response, Robertson said, to a growing number of complaints he’s fielded from local residents about sales operations that drop off several salespeople in a neighborhood and ask them to go door-to-door.
Those salespeople have been known to cut across wooded land to go from one property to another, Robertson said. Some ask for a chance to enter the house to demonstrate a product.
Those salespeople are pushing everything from gutter guards to frozen meat, Robertson said. But the most common door-to-door sales product, he said, was the Kirby vacuum cleaner.
“It’s a $2,000 vacuum cleaner, and they want to come into your house to demonstrate it,” he said.
Checks and licenses
Marcus Quinn says that’s a tried-and-true method of selling appliances — and one that, in the past, didn’t seem to bother people.
“Kirby’s been selling vacuum cleaners door-to-door for 100 years,” said Quinn, owner of Hoover-based MRM Marketing, which has a contract to sell Kirby products. Quinn said he has a workforce of about 50 salespeople, some of whom sell in Calhoun County. Salespeople typically offer a small gift, he said, or ask to come in and clean the floor in one room of the house.
Quinn said he does background checks on his employees, through state and national criminal records searches. He said the Kirby company fields any complaints about salespeople, and those complaints can lead to a distributor being shut down. He said he has a book full of licenses he’s taken out to meet requirements in various counties and cities across the state.
Quinn objects to Robertson’s proposal to ban sales after dark.
“It gets dark at five o’clock at some times of the year,” he said. Salespeople can’t sell successfully during the workday, he said, because so few people are home.
But Robertson such sales have increased dramatically in recent years, likely, he said, due to a lagging economy which has forced residents to look for jobs anywhere they can. It’s made it hard for residents to discern between legitimate businesses and those who may be looking to scam vulnerable homeowners at late hours.
“I had a woman complain there was a man going door-to-door to mow lawns,” Robertson said. “She said she wrote him a check for $20 and he tried to add an extra zero to it. And this was just some guy, no business advertised or anything like that.”
On account of the extra driving Robertson has had to do since door-to-door sales picked up around 2009, the licensing bill would also amend state law to allow the commissioner of licenses in Calhoun County to be provided a vehicle by the County Commission.
“Sheriff’s deputies can’t write citations when they get a call about these unlicensed door-to-door sales,” Robertson said, explaining he often gets called after dark to check on calls of salesman in rural areas of the county.
Robertson said currently his annual gas mileage tab for the county runs about $1,800 between driving from the three licensing offices in the county — in Alexandria, Piedmont and Anniston — as well as out-of-area conferences and dealing with day-to-day citations and licensing issues.
Calhoun County Commissioners already have the option, under current Alabama law, to use a vehicle provided by the county, but Calhoun County Administrator Ken Joiner said the five current commissioners all use a $4,800 yearly allowance option — or $400 per month — to cover travel expenses instead.
“That’s for them to go out into their districts and look at road troubles and that sort of thing,” Joiner said. “That goes back a number of years and I know at least one commissioner has had a county vehicle, but typically they choose the $400-a-month allowance.”
Robertson said the bill doesn’t stipulate if new fees collected would cover the costs of a vehicle, and said if the legislation passed, those decisions would be up to the County Commission.
The bill has yet to be introduced in the Legislature. Robertson said Rep. Randy Wood, R-Saks, had agreed to sponsor the bill in the House.