Monday, April 26, 2010

Retail: A Rant

 The other day, I realized that I was out of a particular product, and only know one place in my beloved city to buy it. This establishment is right near our most fashionable mall. It’s the same mall to which I used to make an August pilgrimage, to buy my school clothes. It was customary then to dress up a little  when going to town, and a few places still make me feel like I ought to do that. They connect me to the past. I take extra care. It’s a little salute to an old way of being.
I stepped into the perfume department of a very upscale department store. You know the one. With the infamous catalog and the secret chocolate chip cookie recipe. It’s the Valhalla of commerce. Let’s just call it the Temple of Conspicuous Consumption, or TCC, for now.
The second my not-all-that-well-shod foot hit that storied marble floor, I was accosted. Detained. Shanghai’ed by an SA like never before. Here she was, and was and was and was and was, trying to sell me (oh God no) skin care products!
The SA launched into her spiel. Was I truly happy with my skin care routine? Have I decided what my neck cream should be?  How about my eye cream? What about my upper lip cream? 
I, uh, don’t really think about my neck that much, truth be told, except when it has a kink in it...and what’s wrong with my neck anyway that I need a special cream for it, hunh? The SA, a well-made up woman of about fifty, I’d guess, who knows, began to follow me, pestering me like a puppy. Do I use a foundation primer? she asked. (Uh, no, because I don’t even use foundation, well maybe New Year’s Eve.) Before I knew it she was dropping teeny little samples my handbag and giving me her card. I took it, just to get away from her, and headed over to the Guerlain counter.

Two seconds later, there she was again. Did I like Guerlain? Had I tried X? How about Y?  I asked if she sold perfume too. She told me -- horror of horrors -- that she was empowered to represent every product in the perfume department and, obviously, other departments too. 
I looked around. No one was alone here. There were no solo customers. Every one of them was being followed by one of these roving all-access SA’s. 
I fled the store as fast as my not-so-well-shod feet would go. 
Later, as always, I thought about it. 
What in the world makes a retailer think that this is a smart sales strategy? My first reaction was that perhaps they had marked me as a potential shoplifter. Over the past days I’ve begun to wonder, though: did I look like I needed that much cosmetic help? Or was it my perfect (not) clothing that did it? Was it the jacket I was wearing? Was it my shoes, hair, face, what? TCC has always made me feel like a peasant, but, in my city, it’s the store where the niche perfumes are -- some of them. 
So, you might ask: Why didn’t you just tell her to get lost?
Here’s why. Because I’ve worked in floor sales too. Because I bet she’s on straight commission or close to it. Because she may hate doing this as much as I hate being subjected to it. Because, for all I know, she might be supporting two kids in college.  Because life is hard. And because I can’t be like that. I just can’t.
My only solution is the passive one. I won’t darken that door again. 
What I wouldn’t give for a free-standing perfume store, where I could browse and sniff and test. Like the one I used to go to in L.A., on my way home from classes. I discovered so many beautiful fragrances there, long before the IFRA or LVMH or any of those other initials came along. I’d pay retail for that privilege. I’d even become a regular. 
We all read about how the fragrance industry is hurting, but here’s my take on it: this is desperate, and it reeks of desperation. It isn’t going to work, fellas. Not now not ever. It shows the same kind of disregard for the customer that bottling reformulated crap and selling it under a classic name does. It diminishes the product, the customer, the store and, most of all, the industry.
And maybe I’m just a retail innocent, but I didn’t expect it here, or, for that matter,  anywhere.
Photo from IMDB.


Anonymous said...

Ooooo the evils of retail. I worked in department stores while I was in college and after I graduated I swore I would never do it again. They tell you to treat the customers this way because they think letting a customer browse is a bad thing. I could never do it. I acknowledged the customer but NEVER followed them around. I hated being treated this way so I was sure they weren't going to like it. I found that being aggressive got 2 results. The customer either fled like a scared rabbit or purchased something to get you to leave them alone only to return it later. It doesn't work & I'm mystified why management still insists the SA work like this.

flittersniffer said...

I feel your discomfort most acutely! I recently had the chance to do 12 perfume store visits in one day in Switzerland and was constantly accosted by SAs asking if I needed any help, beyond anything I remember experiencing in the UK. It really spoilt the day and probably explains why I clocked up as many as 12 outlets in 5 hours - I kept on running!

Olfacta said...

Hi Melissa -- I've worked in department stores, too, but I guess that was before the strategy of pestering the customer to death became the norm. Store work is tough and I feel for these people. Usually, though, I shun perfume counters, which is a shame!

Olfacta said...

Hi F --Well thank God for online sample ordering. Otherwise I don't think I'd be doing this!

chayaruchama said...

I read your post with profound understanding.

No, these tactics don't work.

And YES- there is SUCH desperation; folks who once made a relatively decent living now have been reduced to begging, wheedling, stalking.

I bite my tongue these days- and yes, I, too, flee.

I've done enough of this sort of work [ all sorts, truly] that I feel their distress.

Truly upsetting for all.

BitterGrace said...

I did 2 brief stints in retail, and I'd rather swab toilets or wash dishes any day--so I do sympathize with the SAs. However, there are ways of being assertive with customers without being a complete pest. SAs who are good at really connecting with customers do boost sales. Not long ago I ran across a real pro at an Estee Lauder counter, and I have to admit that I wound up buying twice as much as I would have if I'd just been left alone. Not sure whether that's good or bad, but I'm not unhappy with my purchases.

All of which is NOT to argue against your basic point, Olfacta. Most SAs absolutely ruin the pleasure of perfume shopping, and I rarely approach a counter unless I have already committed to buying a specific item. It's a shame when you can't browse in peace even at Sephora...

Olfacta said...

Hi Chaya -- I guess the hardest thing about all of this, and maybe I should've mentioned it, is that the people who do this work know that their jobs are in danger if they don't pester. I have a friend who worked at another very upscale store, and the stories she told me...yeah. As usual, it's the disconnect between management and the people who actually do the work that is the real culprit.

Olfacta said...

Hi M -- I've heard that these professional SA's exist; it's just that I've never encountered one. Born sellers, people who just connect with others, are rare.

"Our" Sephora, in the same mall incidentally, is characterized mostly by SA's who stand against the wall, arms crossed, scanning for shoplifters. Not good either. However, if they sold something besides mass-market dreck, who knows -- I might shop there. At least they don't follow you around!

In general, I just stay out of malls. Too much heartbreak.

ChickenFreak said...

My local Sephora would be a nearly perfect perfume shopping experience, if they only sold something that I was willing to buy. Plentiful testers, sales assistants who leave you alone while you browse and magically appear when you look up with a questioning expression, samples on request.

They just, again, sell almost nothing that I want, and the items that I do want, I can get at a drastic discount elsewhere. So I buy roughly one full-price item a year out of gratitude for all the samples, and that's all.

It's a shame. Sephora seems like a nearly perfect outlet for raising people's awareness of niche perfumes, if they'd just take the risk.

Anonymous said...

With you 100% on this. We should all write to the retailers and cosmetics companies involved and say so.
-- Gretchen

Kathy said...

I have this same experience at our local TCC with the chocolate chip cookie recipe. I too assumed that I did not fit the profile of the usual shopper there, so they were watching me closely. They do not give you a minute to even think about the products, and you are doomed if your hand wanders too closely to a tester. I do feel for the SAs there because I cannot believe that they are stalking us by choice. I usually try to make a hit and run on the testers since they are the only ones to carry certain lines, and I order from somewhere else. I can't take the pressure!

Flora said...

Too bad stores seem to think they have to do this. I can't imagine shopping with someone following me around like that!

If only you could visit my favorite perfume shop, where expert and friendly people who really know what they are doing will let you wander for hours with no pressure to buy - but if you do ask for help, you will treated like the most important customer on Earth. Needless to say, I have been a loyal customer for 25 years!

March said...

Hee. Lurking on here. I've now rearranged and cleared out my bookmarks and relocated you.

This is a hard one. I've been told that they will get fired if they don't turn a certain number of sales. And I think they do it *because* it's effective -- that is, I think a certain percentage of folks can be bullied into buying. (Not sure they're keeping track of those, like you, who leave and never return.)

I think ... part of this is personality fit? It drives me nuts too, but not so nuts that I feel pressured/intimidated. I just keep looking them in the eye and telling them "I'll find you if I need you" or something similar. I have, when necessary, said "I'd like to be left alone now, please." Sort of Greta Garbo, but tough luck. I hate hovering unless I ask.

Darryl said...

Hear ya on the hell of retail. I've started going to department stores only after 6 o'clock or so, when the sales staff has thinned out a bit, and in any case the men's fragrance section is usually blessedly unsupervised in the department stores I frequent (I'm a guy and buy mostly men's frags). There are a million women's scents I want to smell, if only to fill in some blanks in my perfume knowledge, but I'm intimidated to wander across the aisle when there are so many hovering "assistants" ready to jump down my throat with a spritz of the latest whatever or probing inquiries about my buying intentions. I usually get flustered and tell them I'm shopping for my sister or something, when in reality, I just want a sniff of Angel or Shalimar so I can see what all the fuss is about...ON MY OWN TIME, thanks.

The irony of these pushy sales tactics is that if an SA doesn't hover unnecessarily, is actually knowledgable and helpful, and makes me feel welcome in the store and not like an interloper, I'll be 99.99% more likely to buy a bottle right then and there, full retail pricing be damned, simply because I wasn't treated with kid gloves the minute I walked into the fragrance section.