By  on April 29, 2008

Retail therapy has rarely been taken so literally.

Chalk it up to unsteady economic times, political overload, social malaise or dehumanizing technology, specialty store sales staff are becoming the stand-in shrinks for many of their regulars. When asked, 30 salespeople gladly chimed in — mostly anonymously — about their more high maintenance shoppers — and ferreting out just the right style for a shopper is the least of their job requirements.

Customers are reaching out in all sorts of ways — from striking yoga poses in a G-string for all the store to see, spending with abandon after a lengthy lunch, asking salespeople to sit in their parked cars to ward off meter maids, or calling their salesperson at home first thing in the morning to ask what fragrance they should wear that night. Then there are the working women who make no bones about turning boutique bathrooms into makeshift offices or soon-to-be divorcees counting on retailers to help them catch a man.

Michael Solomon, a St. Joseph's University marketing professor and author of consumer behavior books, said stores have become a figurative public square in that they offer people a place to congregate, making them the third place to linger beyond a person's home or office. In turn, tantrums and oddball behavior are bound to be more prevalent as people increase the amount of time they spend in stores, he said.

"The more people are getting beaten down in other areas of our lives, the more they feel obligated to take it out on salespeople," Solomon said.

All in all, retailers said there are five main types of extreme shoppers demanding their attention:

-Miss Lonely Hearts: well-practiced at pouring her heart out to a salesperson on a regular basis.

-The Addict: shops nonstop, and isn't exactly sure why.

-The Psycho Shopper: prone to tantrums and just plain bizarre behavior. One such shopper had a Bergdorf Goodman staffer snap naked photos of her in the dressing room.

-The Performer-Exhibitionist: inclined to parade around the store in her underwear, flirt with salespeople or show off her latest dance move or bauble.-Little Ms. Indecisive: tries on clothes as a form of exercise, is a big fan of putting merchandise on hold for days before actually buying and often is a chronic returner.

While there have always been some of the above types of shoppers, more want to be heard, according to Searle vice president Alice Blatt, who has worked in retail for 50 years. "It's absolutely the worst it's ever been. They can't make decisions. The economy has them stressed out to the limit. Indecision is everyone's middle name. They are absolutely afraid to spend money."

Just last week a Searle shopper was in a dressing room trying on the last of 20 pieces, all of which she planned to buy. The $4,000 sale dissipated when her husband called to see what she was up to. "He told her, 'Forget it. Do you know what is going on [with the economy]? Forget it,'" Blatt said.

The woman left with three T-shirts.

Given the unexpected dramas that unfold every day on the sales floor, several salespeople said they openly joke with customers about how they could moonlight as psychiatrists. While "talking people down" from whatever crisis that ails them — be it marital, chemical or professional — may not be part of their job descriptions, it goes with the territory, they said. And it may be a small price to pay in a field that doles out 3 percent to 10 percent commissions, with salaries that can range from $60,000 to $300,000.

"They want everything. They want your blood. They are needy and greedy, but that is the worst of them," Blatt said. "There is a scale to all of this. There are wonderful people too."

Miss Lonely Hearts

One twist in the equation is the increasing number of women in their 20s, 30s and 40s who have nothing but money and hours to burn thanks to a trust fund or a Wall Street husband. They are more than happy to keep their favorite salespeople up-to-speed with their personal lives. Years ago, the tell-all shoppers tended to be older women who were either widowed or married well.A Luca Luca saleswoman said, "They used to go to their hairdressers — now they shop. They talk about their problems, their families –— they even talk about their kids' problems — what's wrong with their kid's girlfriend or boyfriend, relationships, eating disorders, all sorts of things."

The trend is not limited to retailers. Designer Maggie Norris has her share of couture clients who linger in her atelier for hours. "Everybody is so lonely. So much time is spent on the Internet. People are very isolated," she said. "They want attention and they want to be heard. They don't get enough of that at home maybe."

One Madison Avenue salesman said, "It's definitely gotten more prevalent at the high luxury level. Most of the women on the Upper East Side are just out shopping to shop. They're spending from hedge funds or oil money. The separation of classes has gotten so extreme. Their husbands are out doing whatever. We have a couple of women who come in because they know we will kiss their butts and tell them how pretty and skinny they are."

He said soon-to-be divorcees go the revenge route, trying to beef up their monthly credit card bills to insure their settlements will allow them to maintain the lifestyles they are accustomed to. A woman who typically spends $10,000 a season may suddenly start burning $10,000 every two weeks on clothes, he said.

The fact that shopping still allows for a good deal of human interaction appeals to people in a technologically heavy society, said clinical psychologist Robin Goodman. "It has more to do with face-to-face human contact. We haven't gotten to the point where someone in the dressing room texts a salesperson 'Get me another size.' And let's hope it doesn't come to that."

As for the chattier customers who like to share their problems, Merlene Bush, a sales associate at Gianfranco Ferré's Madison Avenue store, said, "If the person is a good customer, you just have to grin and bear it. Sometimes you know their families don't live close by or they live by themselves. It's kind of hard because you don't want to come off as rude to the customer. Occasionally, I will say, 'I can't really help you with your personal life.'"The Addict

Michael Palladino, director of client and studio services at Henri Bendel, will create some distance when needed. "I once had a woman call me from the recovery room post-plastic surgery. She was flat on her back, all groggy, telling me to send her everything plunging because she had just had breast enhancement surgery. I said to her, 'Have you called your husband?' She said, 'In my wallet, there are three numbers — yours, my gynecologist's and my husband's — in that order.'"

Pallandino showed some tough love and hung up on her. Three weeks later, the customer called back to ask who the hell he thought he was and to inform him that other stores were happy to accommodate her. Despite that flare-up, she remains a friendly client. "She is one of the ones I don't mind telling, 'The meter is running. If we're going to talk any longer, you're going to have to throw a handbag in the bag.'"

Such teasing is not solely in jest and he often tries to slow down overzealous shoppers who start pulling at items on the racks, demanding multiple purchases and grabbing at clothes they wouldn't normally gravitate toward. "I will ask a lot of questions like, 'Are you sure you want this?'" he said. "I'm asking these things purposefully. It is sort of like if you go to a bar, the bartender is responsible if you have an accident. I don't want to have someone come here, work with me and then have them wake up covered in receipts and shopping bags, thinking 'What did I do?'"

Surprisingly, the shaky economy only stands to make things worse, according to Terrence Shulman, founder and director of the Shulman Center for Compulsive and Theft Spending, which has a Shopaholics Anonymous division.

"The irony is when times are tough, people often become more addictive. They may dig themselves deeper in a hole and keep spending. They rely on shopping as a quick, easy coping mechanism instead of doing the hard work to dig in and fix what's really wrong," he said.

The Psycho Shopper Calypso has had its share of women who turn the store's bathroom and dressing rooms into a temporary office. Once when a woman had spent 45 minutes in the rest room, a saleswoman knocked on and opened the door to see if the customer was all right — only to find her sitting on the floor, BlackBerry in hand and folders splayed all over the floor. "She shoved the door closed and said, 'I'm not done.'" the saleswoman said. "She was in there for another hour."

On another occasion, a woman threw a tantrum — kicking drawers — because the store did not have a pair of boots in her size. "The word 'No' they have never heard of. They don't understand that," a Calypso spokeswoman said. "A lot of these incredibly lonely women don't even know if they want to buy something. They just want to talk to someone."

When she complimented another customer's gold-heeled boots, the shopper replied, "My husband is jealous of these boots because they are better looking than he is. He hasn't spoken to me in a week because he thinks I am paying more attention to my boots than to him."

Solomon of St. Joseph University said there also are more instances of "register rage," where people get frustrated about waiting in lines in stores and respond by acting out on cashiers and leaving behind all the items they had planned to buy. "Our norms about acting out in public unfortunately seem to be eroding a bit. It may be because of cell phones and wireless technology. The boundaries between home and non-home environments are going away."

The Performer-Exhibitionist

"They have always been there — they are just out there more," one Saks associate said, going on to describe how a shopper recently alarmed her by dropping to the floor to do some yoga moves as her purchases were rung up at the cash register.

Another yogi was even more extreme at a Madison Avenue Calypso store. The salesman, who witnessed the shopper posing in a downward dog in nothing but a thong, said, "I used to live in Los Angeles and worked on Rodeo Drive. Some women would come into the store with blood dripping from their noses, because they just had a nose job. That was nothing. They are really crazy here."Bush of Ferré said the more flirtatious customers tend to gravitate toward the male sales associate regardless of their sexual preferences. A salesman at another Madison Avenue store said, "I can't tell you how many naked women I have seen. It's a safe perversion for them. They know I'm gay but they love the idea of a man looking at them naked. They have me lift a boob, adjust a bra or snap a bodysuit. Ick!"

Incas Noel, a sales specialist at Chloé, doesn't dwell on any advances made in his direction: "Sometimes they flirt because they think you are gay, which I'm not, or because they don't get that attention at home. But you can't take it to heart. I had one woman who had just had her nails done, so she asked me to zip up her pants. Once I did, she said, 'I wish I could take you home with me,' but I didn't think anything of it."

Conversely, salespeople on the Upper East Side need to mind their manners with clients, he said. Noel recalled how he once complimented a customer, who had lost her husband in a freak accident, on her appearance. She mistakenly took it to mean he thought she was fat and complained to management, Noel said.

Little Miss Indecisive

"We have some people who literally come in every day always at the same time to visit their dress, their bag or their coat. They do not buy the merchandise. It's totally a visit," Searle's Blatt said. "Then there are those who try everything on and put everything on hold and then it takes them two or three days of torturing themselves before they actually buy it."

"Generation Debt" author Carmen Wong Ulrich said such behavior can be a "type of mourning." They may be visiting the success they used to have or used to have access to. "They may be thinking, 'Let me visit the place where the wonder used to happen,'" she said.

Out-of-whack as that may sound, it can actually lead to something productive. "If visiting the clothes they used to buy or the store they used to shop in offers some kind of solace or motivation, that's a good thing. If it's not, it could mean, 'I can't wait to plunk down some money,'" Ulrich said.A few other salespeople noted how women who tend to return what they buy flood in at the end of the month, before monthly credit card bills are issued. Renee Roman, co-owner of Presse boutique in Los Angeles, said many shoppers are very open about the need to hide how much they spend from their husbands. "We do have a lot of emotional shoppers. They will split the payment on different credit cards. The tricks they have up their sleeves are insane."

The Analysis

If all this sounds ripe for a reality show or sitcom, don't think the people who have experienced it firsthand on a daily basis haven't thought of it. "We've talked about that for years," said one Saks salesman, high-fiving a colleague. "We even have the characters from the people we deal with in real life."

Bravo's reality show "Real Housewives of New York City," a clutch of women who aren't afraid to run up their credit cards, has created a wave of wannabes, one salesman said. And Sophie Kinsella's popular book "Confessions of a Shopaholic" is being turned into a movie with Kristen Scott Thomas, John Lithgow and Lynn Redgrave. Kinsella, who has written a series of popular books about addictive shoppers, freely admits that it is her fantasy to spend a night in a department store. Watching a scene from the film being shot at Barneys New York was close, but no shopping was allowed.

The reality of those day-to-day dramas is more sobering. The "big paradox" in all this is while companies spend millions of dollars on advertising, the make or break of the sales of that item rests on the shoulders of this poorly paid person in the company, Solomon of St. Joseph said.

But putting up with such unsolicited remarks as "I'm sorry you have to earn a living" and "Do they make you wear that sweater? I only ask because it is not becoming on you," as one saleswoman at a Madison Avenue luxury boutique was told, may not be all that bad. As a Calypso salesman said, "A lot of people say how they would love to live the lifestyle of Upper East Side women — never having to work, summer in the Hamptons, always shopping. There are a lot of great things that come with that, they travel the world and money is never an object. But a lot of those women have really big problems. Working here definitely makes us feel good about our lives."

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