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Attack of the Kiosk Zombies

Perhaps you are wondering to yourself why a guy like me would be making a second visit in one day to the Victoria’s Secret store inside the Fashion Show Mall, or why I would be caught dead at a mall on a weekend during the very height of the bustling holiday shopping season.

The first answer that could come to mind is that even scruffy newspaper columnists might want to feel feminine and desirable by buying a few frilly and expensive undergarments. Or it could be that I braved the holiday crowds because The Viking has an early December birthday, and that I somehow left my cell phone in the store during my initial visit an hour earlier.

It really isn’t important why I would spend a few hours pawing my way through the assorted corsets and lacy unmentionables. The bottom line is that two visits to that particular store meant that I had to make four separate walks through the heart of darkness at the Fashion Show. By that, I mean the most intense concentration of kiosk hustlers this side if an Istanbul bazaar. Like nearly every mall in America, the Fashion Show’s wide aisles are now clogged with small kiosks that sell everything from hair products to cell phone accessories to miracle skin rejuvenators. The mostly young, mostly foreign, hucksters who man these booths and carts are generally more aggressive than any used car salesman or rabid time-share wheeler-dealer you have ever encountered.

Because of some ongoing remodeling underway at the Fashion Show, there is one particular stretch where the kiosks are impossible to avoid. Upon entering this gauntlet, I got the same feeling that probably comes over wild mustangs when they realize they’ve been trapped by the BLM. For the equivalent of a full city block, shoppers are hit with a dizzying array of come-ons and sales pitches. (Remember the scene in the comedy classic Airplane where Robert Stack is blitzed by a seemingly endless stream of religious nuts who are pressing him for donations? That’s sort of what it is like.)

“Sir, can I ask you a question?” said a comely young lass with an unidentifiable accent. “Say, would you like a free sample of this wrinkle reducing skin cream, you old geezer?” asked another. “Hey, are those Tapatio stains on your shirt?” inquired a third. The lines sound scripted and have probably undergone rigorous market testing to find out which ones work best at getting shoppers to stop for just a second, and then bam, they’ve got you.

I don’t know what it is about the kiosk people, but they give me the willies. Before you get your expensive Victoria’s Secret panties in a bunch, allow me to explain that this has nothing to do with their accents or nationalities—both of which were unfamiliar to me. It’s more of a zombie-like vibe they put out, as if they had learned the secrets of how to sell teeth whiteners or knock-off perfumes at an underground school run by Scientologists or monks or the CIA. I’m sure there are many fine people who work at kiosks and that not all of them have undergone MK-ULTRA programming, but a few of them gave me the distinct impression that they had earned degrees at the same university that cranks out Manchurian candidates.

Like all good salespeople, the kiosk zombies do not take “no” for an answer. And you can’t escape them by simply walking fast and keeping your head down. They will chase you until you respond. If you are dumb enough to accept that free sample of libido vitamins, they’ve got you, and they don’t let go. The next thing you know, your face is on a milk carton and your wife has remarried. (“We’re not selling, we’re hunting,” one kiosk manager admitted to the Wall Street Journal. That’s exactly what it felt like.)

It seemed to me that although the kiosks appeared to be independent of each other, they were somehow linked. I noticed a couple of young men in suits would prowl up and down the gauntlet, almost like drill sergeants keeping the troops in line and checking to see that their boots were polished. Weirdest of all is that the same sales zombies encountered me four separate times that day, used the same pick up lines each time, and not one of them showed even a glimmer of recognition in their glazed eyes, not a clue that I was the same guy they had just pitched 10 minutes earlier. It’s as if someone sprinkled their morning oatmeal with angel dust.

Back in 2004, I got my mitts on a confidential law enforcement report that alleged many of the Las Vegas kiosks were under the control of organized crime groups based in Israel and a few other countries. As wild as that might sound, a few years later, lawmen here busted one of the rings and secured convictions of four middle-eastern gangsters who had extorted and exploited the young people who worked for them. The kids were brought to America with promises of jobs, but were kept in shabby apartments, as many as eight to a room, and were literally programmed about how to sell, how to hustle, and how to turn over whatever they made to their new masters.

I have no idea whether mobsters still control a big chunk of the local kiosk market, or how they could ever worm their way in to top notch, above-board malls, but I do know that kiosk sales amount to a $15 billion industry, and that just a few months ago, another organized crime ring was busted by law enforcement in Texas for running the same kind of operation that drew scrutiny in Las Vegas years earlier.

The youngsters who are working today’s kiosks remind me of those packs of rabid magazine hucksters who used to show up at your home to explain why a few subscriptions would earn them enough points for a trip to, say, Jerusalem. Remember those crews? They too were zombie-like, almost like Up with People disciples who’d been dosed with roofies or psychedelic mushrooms. Some of them were shut down by law enforcement because they treated their employees like Asian sweat shop workers.

If you are in the market for a push-up bra, by all means, check out the deals at Victoria’s Secret. But beware of getting trapped in the kiosk equivalent of the Bermuda Triangle. I’m sure there are many fine businesses which rely on kiosk sales, and that they are honorable employers of excellent temp workers. That said, there are at least some of the kiosk zombies who would not be out of place if they made a guest appearance on The Walking Dead.

GEORGE KNAPP is a Peabody Award-winning investigative reporter for KLAS Channel 8.