By  on August 1, 2014

Linda Lee, who at Macy’s Inc. expanded the personal shopping service from the province of the privileged to the general population, concludes her 35-year career at the department store today.

“My customer is really everybody who walks through Macy’s doors,” said Lee, group vice president in charge of Macy’s By Appointment personal shopping, corporate sales and business to business services, in an interview.

Though retailers are not generally associated with superior service, according to Lee, the personal shopping side to Macy’s is alive and well. “We are still building wardrobes for customers,” she said. “MBA is in 130 Macy’s stores across the country and still growing. Within Macy’s Herald Square, we have 10 MBA offices covering all categories. It’s a business that has gained momentum.”

Lee started her career as an assistant sales manager at Bergdorf Goodman, held jobs in publicity, consulting, art direction and is co-owner of Connie’s Racket active sportswear shop in Westport, Conn.

She joined Macy’s in 1979 as a fashion consultant and not long after was asked by then chief executive officer Edward Finkelstein to attract the carriage trade to a special department at Macy’s Herald Square called The Little Shops that was transforming from an eclectic boutique including accessories and ready-to-wear, into a true designer space housing collections from Donald Brooks, Geoffrey Beene, Yves Saint Laurent, Byblos, Thierry Mugler and Calvin Klein, among others. Finkelstein’s aim was to make shopping easier for socialites and suburban housewives. “I told Ed there is a much more realistic application to personal shopping at Macy’s — that we should really branch out.”

It was also when women were rapidly entering the workforce, and black suits, white shirts and string ties were the uniform. “That was exactly what women felt safe in,” Lee noted. Yet many didn’t want to look cookie-cutter and needed help with their wardrobes, either because they had no time to shop, no interest in fashion, or found navigating Herald Square, with its huge square footage, daunting. To build the personal shopping business, Macy’s management offered Lee a team of assistants. “I told them I didn’t need assistants. What I needed were clones.”

Macy’s began adding blurbs at the bottom of its full-page ads, instructing shoppers to call Linda Lee and her MBA personal shoppers. Those ads would help dispel misconceptions that the store charged for personal shopping, had a minimum required if the service was utilized or that personal shoppers exerted pressure on clients to buy. Ultimately, Lee became the face of Macy’s for years by having her picture appear in ads in The New York Times, Playbill and elsewhere.

Though the setting and the products are different, MBA now works like other personal shopping services at high-end stores, Lee said. Shoppers make appointments, personal shoppers pre-shop and clients visit a consultation area with a fitting room. The staff is salaried, not commissioned, so they’re objective and don’t try to sell customers just anything to run up the ticket. “For me, it’s a great joy making someone feel special when they didn’t have to spend a lot of money to feel that way. That doesn’t mean fawning over someone. Lots of people don’t like that. They want an efficient service, good taste and someone who understands your unique style and needs.”

Leaving Macy’s and the business she built “is bittersweet of course,” Lee said. “But after 35 years, I believe in term limits.” She hints at getting involved in the online realm, possibly bringing personal service to a selling channel that’s largely impersonal, though nothing has been decided. “I’m going to see what’s under the bed. I’ve pushed so many things away. It’s time to take stock.”

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