TV’s “White Gold” Sells Vinyl Windows For LaughsAugust 21st, 2017 by Trey Barrineau
A new comedy series is turning a brash, bawdy lens on U.K. window salesmen in the 1980s, and one Englishman who was in the industry at the time says it rings true in some ways.
White Gold premiered on Netflix last week after a six-episode run on the BBC earlier this year. Set in the middle-class London suburb of Essex, it focuses on super-confident salesman Vincent Swan (played by Ed Westwick, who starred in the U.S. teen drama Gossip Girl on the CW network from 2007-2012) as he charms and cons homeowners into buying double-glazed vinyl windows – the “white gold” of the show’s title.
Geoffrey Card, who has worked for more than 50 years in both the U.K. and the U.S. window industries as a technical marketer and product designer, says watching the show triggered nostalgic feelings for an era he lived through.
“It brought back many memories of that time as I was brought up in Chelmsford, Essex and helped found Spectus Systems in October 1981,” he says. “Spectus was the first U.K. uPVC (vinyl) systems design and extrusion company at a time when the only PVC window products available came from West Germany.”
Card says the show’s creator captures the spirit of the time so well that he thinks he must have worked in the industry. He’s not far off, actually – the writer, Damon Beesley, told the New Statesman that his father became a window salesman in Essex in the early 1980s after losing his job at an oil refinery.
Beesley said memories of hanging around his dad’s showroom as a boy gave him lots of material for the show.
“It was full of hi-jinks,” he told the newspaper. “They were always mucking around and winding each other up. As a kid it’s pretty intoxicating, getting to hang out with these sharp-suited, young charismatic men.”
That era coincided with big changes in the British residential fenestration market and a strong economy under Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. That meant homeowners had plenty of money to spend on remodeling, and vinyl windows were an exciting new product.
“The principal U.K. market for windows at that time was the replacement sector, which was being supplied with a non-thermally broken aluminum-framed product,” Card says. “There was a lot of market dissatisfaction due to streaming condensation with aluminum frames, and it was therefore a fairly easy sell for uPVC with its great thermal properties. By the mid-1980s, nearly all replacement companies were dropping aluminum and adopting uPVC.”
Despite that, Card says it still took a while for vinyl to catch on.
“Initially, the sales guys were reluctant to change from an aluminum product which they understood, but once trained in the FFBs (features, functions and benefits), they jumped at the chance of making a lot of commission selling the new hot product,” he says.
Despite his praise for the show’s historical realism, Card says it inaccurately presents 1980s vinyl windows as cheaply made, vastly overpriced products.
For example, early in White Gold‘s first episode, Westwick’s character holds up a sample vinyl window profile as he talks into the camera like another Netflix character, Frank Underwood of House of Cards.
“This is what we sell,” he says. “The dirt-cheap white plastic bits that go around your windows, sold to you with a mark-up of 600 percent.”
Card says vinyl windows weren’t cheap to produce in the early 1980s, and pricing was a challenge in a market that was more accepting of other materials.
“We worked very hard to get near to the aluminum prices,” he says. “Usually they were sold at a premium. Profit margins were industry normal, and the replacement window cost structure was approximately one-third product, one-third installation and replacement company profit, and one-third marketing cost including around a 15-percent commission element.”
On the other hand, Card does say that the sales team’s cockiness and raunchy, locker-room humor is an accurate reflection of that go-go era.
“The sales team depicted are fairly typical of specialty salesmen (a special breed — remember the film Tin Men),” he says.
Here are two preview trailers for White Gold: