By  on December 23, 2008

NEW YORK — So much for the soft sell.

With holiday volume sinking, retail sales associates are pulling out all the stops — and then some — in an effort to get shoppers to spend.

At least that’s how some customers characterized the above-and-beyond — and at times over-the-top — customer service they have received, which contrasts with the common complaint in previous seasons of being ignored.

Sales associates are peppering shoppers with questions about their holiday plans, taking their pictures, walking step-for-step with them through a store and, on a recent afternoon in Juicy Couture’s store in the West Village, even getting down on hands and knees to embrace a customer’s chihuahua.

They are doing whatever it takes, but not everyone likes the extra attention.

After making purchases at Lord & Taylor, Anthropologie, Saks Fifth Avenue and Henri Bendel, Caroline Edwards, a New York-based actress said, “They are a lot more engaging and are staying pretty close this year. They tell me their name right away and ask if there is anything they can take into a dressing room for me.”

Aside from offering unsolicited advice, the salespeople she has encountered have inquired about the number of people she needs to buy for instead of casually offering gift ideas, which has been the norm in recent years, Edwards said.

“You can almost sense the word ‘commission’ is emblazoned in letters on the inside of their brain,” she said.

Salespeople at several stores said they are in the red compared with last year because of sharp markdowns, rampant returns and slow store traffic.

At Henri Bendel, stylist James La Porte said he and his colleagues, who work on commission, are trying to save more, knowing this season has already had its share of returns and more are inevitable in the post-holiday period. Four-digit commission checks are no longer a given, and three-digit ones have become more common, he said.

“You never know what you are going to get in your check anymore,” La Porte said.

A Lord & Taylor saleswoman said, “It’s like playing Lotto. You can have $3,000 in sales one day. And then you go to lunch, and by the time you get back, you have zero [due to returns]. You have to try to be on top of things and sell more, but it’s tough.”

A salesman at the Barneys New York flagship on Madison Avenue said his commission is running 30 percent behind last year, which seems to be the average for his coworkers. To avoid “returns which can be almost guaranteed,” he said he is “hustling more” and zeroes in on customers who are in the store shopping for themselves — not buying gifts, or phoning in or e-mailing requests.

In New York for a three-day shopping spree, college student Chantal Rainville said, “They’re really pushing [their own] credit cards. In Victoria’s Secret, the saleswoman said, ‘You’re 20 years old and you don’t have an Angel Card?” referring to the retailer’s signature card.

She and her friends were also encouraged to open credit card accounts, pay with those cards and then pay the bill immediately with cash. Rainville said, “It made no sense. Why wouldn’t we just pay with cash?”

“The saleswoman probably just wanted the commission for opening the credit card,” said her friend Whitney Lashomb.

Shopping at Bergdorf Goodman last week, Long Island resident Beth Cohen said the retailer is one of many that barraged her with e-mails, direct-mail pieces and phone calls. She has also noticed how empty the parking lot appeared at the Americana in Manhasset, which she drives by daily in her commute.

“Normally, at this time of year, you couldn’t even pull in there,” Cohen said. “The stores are very desperate for business. I am constantly getting phone calls asking me to come in. They’re sending out more mailings and e-mails. The state of retail is actually very upsetting.”

That said, the 60 percent markdowns in Bergdorf Goodman’s shoe department did allow her to buy two pairs of shoes she otherwise would have not been able to afford.

Another Bergdorf Goodman shopper, Judy Kaufman said, “I live in Michigan and what I find here is startling. There is such enthusiasm and excitement from the salespeople. In Detroit, even the sales at Neiman Marcus and Saks are desolate. I know it’s depressed here, but it doesn’t hold a candle to Detroit.”

Kaufman, who works as a career counselor, said, “There are so many wonderful people who want to work and there aren’t any jobs. There have been so many layoffs and there are more to come next year. I don’t want to go back to work. At least here, you can see that things will get better. I guess it all depends where you are from.”

Shopping at Henri Bendel last week, Ava Maloney, a student at Marymount College, said. “They [sales associates] follow you a lot now, they almost stalk you. I turn around and they are standing right there and you look at them and they smile weakly. It’s kind of awkward. I’ve found that in Dior a lot, and in Nordstrom.”

Shopping in Zara’s 42nd Street store, Danielle Regan and Nicole Phipps said salespeople need to be able to read their customers. Regan, who used to work in retail, said, “In New York, the customer will tell you if they need help. Salespeople have to be quick to see that because every second counts in this city.”

Sifting through the racks at H&M’s Fifth Avenue store at 42nd Street, Californian Cathy Hunt said, “In stores like Macy’s, where people normally ignore you, salespeople are offering help. They don’t have enough to do. They ask if you want help — that doesn’t happen often.”

The oversell isn’t lost on some. Last week, Nick Gallanis, a civil engineer visiting from Greece, was delighted to have a Polaroid taken by staffers upon entering Abercrombie & Fitch’s Fifth Avenue store.

“I think it’s gutsy,” he said.

Gallanis said he was equally pleased by the numerous employees who were dancing — and smiling.

Another European shopper, who declined to give her name, preferred a more solitary approach. “I am French,” she said. “I like looking by myself. I don’t like people helping me.”

After shopping at Bergdorf’s, Barneys New York and Saks, Rebecca Poone, a resident of the state of Washington, said the revved-up customer service is something customers used to expect.

“It’s what people used to give all the time…and they are projecting that,” she said.

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