SERVICE, STORE BY STORE IN A CONTINUING SERIES, WWD GOES BEHIND THE SCENES TO CHECK UP ON CUSTOMER SERVICE, THE HOTTEST BUZZWORDS IN THE RETAIL WORLD.
Byline: Georgia Lee / ALICE WU
The Suit Search Buying a swimsuit is fraught with insecurity under any circumstances. But at six months pregnant, the prospect can be as frightening as childbirth itself. However, when my five-year-old son Miles said, "Mommy, the baby sure is getting fat," after seeing me sunbathe in an old bikini, I decided to bite the bullet and look for something more appropriate. Friday, after work, I pessimistically set out on my quest, after bribing Miles with a trip to Burger King if he would be good while I shopped. We valet-parked the car at Phipps Plaza and went straight to A Pea in the Pod. A smiling salesperson immediately greeted us just inside the door. She was especially friendly to Miles, asking him if he'd like to play, and taking him by the hand to a toy box. With him engrossed, I told her I was looking for a swimsuit, and she directed me to a rack in the center of the store. "All our suits are 10 percent off," she said. A plain black ribbed suit with gold strap detail from Viewpoint by Gottex immediately caught my eye. I liked it because it looked like something I would normally wear - minus the draping, skirts, ruffles, panels and other features designed to conceal my delicate condition. I passed over the florals, but picked up a couple of solid-textured suits. The salesperson asked if I'd like any spring water while I was looking. I declined, but it was a nice touch. In the dressing room, I tried on the Gottex suit and faced the dreaded mirror. To my delight, the reflection looked only like a slightly fatter version of me, rather than the Sumo wrestler I had imagined. Only in profile was my condition obvious, and from the front, I even maintained the slight illusion of a waistline. Sold. I tried on one other suit, for its beautiful coral color, but as I suspected, the gathered fabric around the tummy only drew attention to it. I didn't bother trying on the others. The Gottex sticker price, $92, was up there, but the relief and surprise I felt at not looking like a cow was worth every penny. Maybe more. I was so happy, I wanted to buy more things. Looking around, I started wildly grabbing things to try on. First, a coverup - a black hooded thermal cotton jacket. A beautiful blue silk tank top by Shelli Segal, a red cotton knit swing dress by Adrienne Vittadini, a couple of casual tank tops, and soon there were almost as many clothes in my dressing room as on the selling floor. Almost everything I tried had a sense of style, without being the least bit matronly or dumb. A great deal of it looked like the loose flowing styles you'd find in most better specialty stores. I literally wanted to buy everything, but restrained myself to five pieces. I cringed at the tab, which was well over $400. But my casual summer wardrobe was pretty much set, with things that made me feel comfortable and attractive in an awkward physical condition. I had been in the dressing room quite a while, during which time the salesperson periodically reported that Miles was "having a blast" playing ring toss with her boyfriend, who was in the store to pick her up from work. I paid for the clothes and volunteered my name and address for the mailing list. The salesperson gave me her card, in a pretty pink envelope, which also contained the sales slip. I went to collect Miles, who was in the final round of ring toss playoffs. "He's killing me," said the boyfriend. Miles beamed, bragging about how many games he had won, and begging to play a few more. On the way out, he said, "Thanks for taking me there. Can we go again sometime?" This is not his usual reaction to waiting while I shop. If I'd only known, I wouldn't have had to use the Burger King bribe. We left the mall with my spirits raised. A Pea in the Pod had convinced me that its written slogan, "maternity redefined," was true. And although my checkbook was lighter, I convinced myself that certain things, such as the right product and genuine customer service, are well worth the money.The Contemporary Hunt When I hear the words contemporary clothing, I picture an outfit that's casual, yet stylish--something nice enough for work, but nothing too flashy to run my errands in. So when I was asked to check out some of Atlanta's contemporary clothing stores, I set out with a vision of flowy drawstring pants, thinking I could dress them up or down. I hit Mitzi and Romano, in Virginia-Highlands, first. As soon as I opened the door and walked in, a blonde sales associate smiled and said hello. She was behind the counter with another sales associate ringing up a customer's sales. I decided to browse around and saw labels like Betsey Johnson, French Connection and Liz Claiborne. After the other customer left, I waited for either of the two saleswomen to ask me if I needed any help. Instead, the ladies were busy talking about what was going on in their lives. I wondered if they weren't offering to help me because I look young. Then two women in their 20s and a little girl came into the store. I heard one of the women asking the sales associates if the voice on the radio was Tori Amos. The blonde one answered "yes" in a genuinely friendly voice - yet didn't offer to help them either. I finally decided to walk up to the counter and ask for help. "Do you have any drawstring pants? I'm looking for something I can wear to work, but I don't want to be too conservative." The sales associate showed me three styles. Two of the styles I liked, but they didn't have my size. The third style, which was too casual for what I was looking for, was available in every size. She suggested a few different styles of pants, and I agreed to try them on. I tried on a few things, but nothing made me want to part with my dollars. When I came out of the dressing room, my sales associate was right there and asked if anything worked. I explained I was really looking for drawstring pants and I thanked her for her help. I thought she was nice, but I didn't think I should have had to ask for help. I headed across the street to Rapture/Bang to continue my search. Half of Rapture/Bang is dedicated to women's and the other half to men's apparel, and it is known for its very hip apparel. As soon as I walked in the door, I made eye contact with the salesman, but he didn't bother to greet me. A distributor walked in and he immediately started working with him, filling out forms, so I started to browse through the clothes. I stared at the same two racks of clothing for about 25 minutes, trying to think of a way to lure him over. Finally, the distributor left, and I jumped at the chance. I pulled out a random pair of pants and asked him what kind of fabric it was. After he repeated for me what it said on the label, I gave him my line about looking for drawstring pants. He suggested some floral print pants, but I think he realized from my expression that they were too loud for my taste. Then he pulled out burgundy palazzo pants, but quickly put them back, explaining he felt they were too sheer for work. He pulled out a pair of black tailored pants by Max Studio that had a $120 price tag. He correctly guessed my size, and I headed for the dressing room. When I looked in the mirror, I was amazed at what these pants did for me. They made the "casual yet stylish" criteria and somehow seemed to slim down my waistline. All right, I thought, maybe this guy's not so bad. I decided not to make any rash decisions, though, and handed them back to the associate. After I left, I realized he hadn't asked how they fit, didn't say thank you and didn't say goodbye. I changed my mind again; although his manners were lousy, he had done something only a good salesman can do: I had come in looking for drawstring pants, and he sold me the idea of a tailored look. My last stop was Rexer Parkes in Buckhead. I wasn't very enthusiastic about checking out customer service since I hadn't been taken very seriously in the last two stores. Taking a deep breath, I walked in and headed over to the first rack. Immediately, a saleswoman walked over with a smile and said, " Tell me if you need any help finding something." I thought,"Now this is more like it." I gave her my same line. She started pulling out linen, cotton, rayon and silk drawstring pants in various styles. With one pair of pants, she even suggested a matching vest. I couldn't believe the selection. "Everything this season was drawstring or snug-waisted pants," she explained, showing me some snug-waisted pants and suggesting a wide belt to hide the elastic. Envisioning black drawstring pants, I inquired about them instead. She didn't have any, but pulled out a pair of black pants by Parallel that she said might work for me. They were on sale for $45. "These hang low on the waist and fit snug on the tush, but flow out at the bottom. They are kind of like bell-bottoms," she explained. I headed for the dressing room and tried on drawstring pants from Karen Kane, Anne Pinkerton and Max Studio. Unfortunately, none of them were flattering. I tried on the black pants last and was a little skeptical. I walked out to the big mirror and a different saleswoman came over and offered her opinion. "Obviously, you need to hem them. Next to that, I like them. They fit well," she said. I stared a while longer in the mirror and finally decided I liked them, too. I put them on hold and walked out thinking Rexer Parkes's idea of customer service should be a model for other contemporary clothing stores in Atlanta.
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