Thursday, 9 September 2010

On the Shopping of Others (or, the Memoirs of a Sales Associate)

As the second installation of Fashion's Night Out, the official don't-feel-bad-about-spending-tonight-event approaches, I figured that the timing couldn't be better to write about the valuable lessons I learned about shopping while working in clothing retail. After finishing my master's degree a couple of years back, I desperately needed a job. Clothing retail wasn't exactly what I was looking for, but at the time it seemed like an easy-enough option while I was supposed to continue looking for a "proper" job on the side. I started as a sales associate, but quickly took on the role of assistant manager. Before I knew it, I had become manager, due to weird circumstances and a staff shake-up. In the end I spent two years working for a higher-end fashion brand, and as far away as the field was from my educational background, I look back often to the things I learned about consumerism in general, and about women as consumers of fashion in particular.

According to my experiences, women who shop for clothes can be divided to roughly four categories: those who shop for need, those who shop for mood, those who shop for fashion, and those who shop for therapy.

A surprisingly large amount of women are completely clueless about shopping for clothes. A lot of these women fall under the category of need shoppers: they, in their own words, "can't shop" or "don't like to shop", but just like everyone, they need to wear clothes to portray a certain image through the clothing they wear. Often (but not always) these women have no sense of body image. They look into a mirror and can't put their finger on anything, really. They don't know their size, and have trouble indicating the colours or the shapes that might appeal to them. In short, they don't know what they like. "I don't know, they all look the same to me!" is what you'd hear after asking a customer to try on four drastically different pairs of black trousers. Bringing in bold prints and adventurous shapes was a recipe for disaster: "I've never seen anything like this, is this fashionable? How am I supposed to wear this? Is this supposed to be worn to work or to a party? Can I wear this? Does this print suit my hair colour? What do you think?" I'd often think (and say) that the more questions you have, the least likely it was that you'd end up wearing the piece. Despite an ocean of questions and insecurities, on some level, these types of customers were relatively easy to deal with. I'd carefully consider their body type, size, and colouring, and do the best I could to come up with something easy, stylish and timeless. I'd limit the amount of options on purpose, mostly because too many options would only trigger major confusion, or even desperation, in the fitting room. On the one hand, I'd always feel relieved once the customer settled for something, and it was rewarding to be able to help someone who needed me. On the other hand, I couldn't help worrying about the level of power I had over their decisions and their spending.

A small sub-group within the need shoppers are the sales associates' dream: the women who buy clothes when they need them, but know what suits them and what they like. For them, shopping is a straight-forward excercise: go in, pick what you need and like, pay, leave. As a sales associate I couldn't help but admire these women. They clearly had their spending in check, they had a strong style identity, and they wasted no time going back and forth, questioning and worrying about their bodies. These were strong women, with no time, need or energy to fool around and go ga-ga over a pair of shoes.

I'd say that a big proportion of women are mood shoppers. They buy clothes, often an awful lot of clothes, because it makes them happy. They are spontaneous, and they get easily excited about new styles. They read fashion magazines, are familiar with current styles, but essentially they look for clothes that have an "it-factor". They fall in love, and then justify their purchase with the help of the sales associate, a friend, or often their boyfriend or husband. Shopping is an adventure or a ritual of sorts for these women, and trying on the clothes and taking them to the cash register after a complicated process of validation is the part that appeals to them most. If you are a sales associate, these types of women are extremely easy to please: just tell them what they want to hear. The only problem with mood shoppers was the lack of influence I'd have on them as a sales associate. Being an honest person I am, and wanting my customers to look nice, I'd often give my opinion to a customer who was in love with something we didn't have in her size, or something that was essentially unflattering on her. I'd tell the customer that in my opinion the trousers were too small for her, or that perhaps a different shape or colour might work better. More often than not, regardless of my warning words, they'd buy the item anyway, thinking that they'd lose weight, or that they could wear the shade of mustard that made them look as if they had just walked out of a crypt. I often questioned whether I was out of line being honest, but then thought that if I was in the customer's shoes, I'd like to hear the truth if they had asked for it. Since I identified most strongly with this group of shoppers (having bought my share of shoes that were half a size too small because a sales associate told me that they'd stretch), the mood shoppers taught me an awful lot about my own shopping habits. I recognised the temptation of new stuff, the thrill of buying, and I have become a lot better about my spending habits since. I would no longer even consider buying a pair of shoes that were too small, and these days I manage to think about the practical issues, such as the contents of my wardrobe, before giving into the desire to buy.

The fashion shoppers were a handful. They'd often lack a style identity of their own, and they'd spend an awful lot of time name-dropping and showing off the latest things they had bought the last time they were in Paris. They'd shop according to fashion magazines' "what to buy now"-lists, without giving much thought to whether it was something they actually wanted or even liked. For these women, the driving force to shop was to appear a certain way, to show others that they were on trend. As a sales associate, you had to be careful with these types of customers: they'd often be very opinionated, and they'd treat the sales staff as if we were dirt. Because they considered themselves fashionistas, they always assumed that they knew better. I never understood what some of these women gained by letting me know that they knew what was fashionable. I'd often avoid getting into conversations with these customers, because there was nothing I felt I could do for them.

A smaller, a lot more pleasant section of the fashion-focused shoppers were the young women who wanted to buy the brand. A lot of times they might blow their savings on a name brand handbag, other times they'd give a speech about wanting to invest in quality rather than quantity, which I thought was encouraging, considering that a huge H&M store was located just around the corner. My guess is that these young women were probably on their way of becoming need shoppers with style identity, but because they weren't quite sure what their style was yet, they'd go for trends instead, but realised that quality was a factor they needed to consider.

Last but not least, there are the therapy shoppers. These women have issues, be it with their bodies, their work, their family or their mind. Shopping was a tool to share these issues with an understanding and kind sales associate. I spent hours with a lady who was bullied at work and bought clothes to make herself feel better. I convinced dozens of women that their bodies were beautiful (they were), and they bought clothes to confirm what I had said to them. I talked, talked and talked to women with eating disorders, post-pregnancy body issues and marital problems. They were women waiting to rise from the ashes: they wanted to re-create themselves through new clothing. I often thought of these women afterwards, and they'd come back to me a few weeks later, either for a new fix, or to let me know that they were doing better, and every time they'd buy something, and talk, as if the one thing they were really after was someone who'd listen.

The best and the worst thing about working in clothing retail was the customer: the customer who chatted with me and made me laugh, the customer who sincerely wanted my help, the customer who despised me and thought I was a stupid, uneducated little girl, the customer who ignored me. Among other things, I learned that women have their reasons to shop, that women deal with an awful lot of pressure regarding the clothes they wear, that women know what suits them, that women use other people to justify their buying, that women want to wear clothes they love, that women are willing to spend an awful lot of money on clothes, that women have no clue as to what shopping is supposed to be about, that women love shopping.

Top: Old Navy, 2008
Trousers: 2or+ by Yat, 2009
Cardigan: Benetton sample sale, 2008
Socks: H&M
Shoes: Bronx, 2008
Necklace and earrings: JBL, 2009


jesse.anne.o said...

I am honestly surprised the shops didn't encourage you to lie. I would never have been "allowed" to tell the truth to customers.

Also, it always seems like there's a staff coup at some point in retail. Like, once every 6 months.

Charlotte said...

I love this outfit you have on, Waves. And your cat is very cute.

My mother worked in a small women's clothing store for nearly 20 years, and what you say here reminds me of things I heard her say about her customers. Obviously, while managing the store, you were also absorbing an amazing amount of detail about human nature.

Milla said...

I just love these long, thoughtful posts of yours. You have such unique insight into what really lies behind the surface of the world.

Your writings about women are so touching and deep, often about things that many consider solely superficial. Now that's a talent.

Northmoon said...

You are a very keen observer of human nature. I too enjoy these thoughtful posts of yours.

And your cat is very sweet, sleeping on his back!

lisa said...

This post was a joy to read. (As soon as I clicked over from Sal's Lovely Links, I recognized your blog name and you as one of my favourite guest posters ever on Already Pretty.) Hmm it's an interesting exercise to read this and try to see which category one fits into, but your description of the "young woman who buys the brand" seems to ring true for me. I try to buy quality when I can afford it, although I still end up with quite a few things from fast fashion stores.

Stel said...

This is a really well thought out post. A lot of these thing I recognise from my own time in retail and also from my own experiences as a shopper. Personally I think I am a mood shopper, but ideally I would love to be a need shopper, knowing exactly what suits and what I want.

Erin said...

I work in retail now, and your observations are spot on. Love the "fashionistas" especially :P, we get quite a few of them here in nyc and they drive me absolutely crazy.

tinyjunco said...

oh my goodness! a very nice, well-thought out encapsulation of the major types of clothing shoppers in retail stores.

my husband worked for 20 years in retail (managing video stores - purchases in the tens of dollars) and i worked selling point of sale computer software for a number of years (purchases in the several thousands of dollars)...the recurring theme is how few people are need shoppers, and how overwhelmingly many people shop out of some emotional issue (or shop for something they need in a completely emotionally-based style).

it's like people aren't getting their emotional ya-yas in daily life, but when they're paying money they feel entitled to get emotional service in addition to whatever they are technically paying for (computer tech support, a movie rental, a pair of pants). just this morning, doing the weekly grocery shopping, a fellow shopper was bitchin incessantly about the wait on line...i told her i thought people out here in the 'burbs were a bunch of spoiled brats (in a very nice, roundabout way - no need to start a riot!). more and more people expect all this other emotionally-laden crap on top of the ostensible product they're buying.

sorry about the rant - your timing was too good! thank you for such an interesting post!

KellyBean said...

I really enjoyed reading your very thoughtful words on women's relationship to shopping. You've made me think about what kind of shopper I am and what kind of shopper I would like to be.

ValC said...

As a person who works in retail, I wholeheartedly agree with your observations. The same concept you shared here also applies to women who buy jewelry, makeup and purses.

Aury said...

AWWWW kitty!

You look lovely and I really love your insights into the phenomena that is women-shopping. We do totally contradict ourselves alot when it comes to shopping don't we?

Anonymous said...

To echo what others have said above, thank you for such a thoughtful and interesting post - the psychology of shopping is a fascinating topic.

Sheila said...

I worked as a sales associate in women's clothing for 3 years - you've really nailed all the types and also my own likes/dislikes about the various customers.

I also was always honest with women about what they tried on. Seriously, what is the point of lying about something? When that woman's friends go "ew", do I really want her to then reveal that I told her it looked good? No! I want her friends to come ask for me because I helped her buy something she loved that she looked good in.

Aw, sweet kitty.

Anonymous said...

What a great post. It has been completely eye opening for me, thank you.