Well aware that shoppers — that is, the ones that are still out there — haven’t the time, inclination or patience to hunt down the customer service department, more retailers are leaning on sales associates to ensure consumers leave happy. And face it: After months of this economic slide, most business executives are savvy enough to know a little cheerfulness goes a mighty long way.

This story first appeared in the May 19, 2009 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

While customer service departments haven’t vanished, they are no longer the epicenter for most consumer queries or complaints. Macy’s, Lord & Taylor and Saks Fifth Avenue are encouraging salespeople to interact more with shoppers to ensure they are getting just what they are after. For many staffers, that means double duty, since sales forces have been reduced in recent months.

During visits to six New York stores earlier this month, the newfound hospitality also could be seen in more subtle ways, such as friendly security guards instead of stone-faced ones, candy bowls in Saks Fifth Avenue’s St. John boutique and salesmen smiling all the way as they retrieve stacks of shoes for fickle shoppers at Lord & Taylor.

Suzanne Stemper Johnson, group senior vice president and general manager for Saks Fifth Avenue’s flagship in New York, said, “Obviously, customers are being very careful and thoughtful about how they do spend their money. There does seem to be some recent pent-up demand, but when they do come in, [the experience] has to be extra glorious.”

Further complicating the situation is that shoppers know they are in a position to barter — or bark, as the case may be. A Bergdorf Goodman sales associate, who requested anonymity, said shoppers want more one-on-one attention. “Since they are shopping [and many others are not], they feel as though they are owed something,” she said. “It’s as though they think, If I am spending this much money and no one else is, they expect to be checked on every five minutes.”

And all this special attention is not lost on consumers. With a client from Boston in tow at Bergdorf Goodman earlier this month, freelance personal shopper Linda Wolff, who also owns the CPW specialty store in New York’s Upper West Side, said, “Salespeople can’t do enough for you. It’s so different than it used to be. We were just in Prada and they were so kind and welcoming. There’s no attitude — anywhere. I’m sure management has said, ‘Kiss ass.’ Now you can ask salespeople anything and they are very patient. It used to be you were judged for how you looked.”

And even prices are often open to negotiation. As one Lord & Taylor salesperson said when a shopper inquired about the length of a sale: “There’s always a sale!”

Knowing an increasing number of shoppers will look for the slightest flaw on a garment to get another discount, some stores are trying to put the brakes on such consumer behavior. After a successful test in 20 markets, Macy’s is rolling out its My Macy’s program nationwide where district merchants and planners are continually in its 804 stores listening to shoppers’ suggestions and concerns, and taking action to try to keep them coming back and to localize assortments for individual stores.

Even H&M, whose calling card has always been disposable fashion, not TLC, is having morning meetings to fire up staffers. Saks Fifth Avenue started arming its leading sales associates with BlackBerrys last year so that they can e-mail clients about new merchandise, let them know alterations are ready to be picked up or send them photos of looks they might like.

“The days of calling clients on the phone when they are eating dinners are over. No one wants that — at least most people don’t,” Johnson said. “Everyone uses e-mail.”

That might explain why several sales associates were glued to their handheld devices and cell phones during a recent visit to a Saks’ flagship. That was also the case with several salespeople at Bergdorf Goodman and Lord & Taylor. But for the most part, staffers are all ears — and not just out of the goodness of their hearts.

Saks staffers have been advised to listen more carefully to shoppers. “A lot of customers just want to get something off their chest that may not pertain to their purchase,” Johnson said. “And if we sell something, we really want to make sure they love it.”

But if for some reason they don’t, returns, including online ones, can be made at any register. Shoppers can make payments for their Saks cards there, too. A Saks saleswoman said, “The people who come into the store do shop, but they return a lot, too,” she continued. “We’re here all day — there is only so much you can do to look busy when there is no one to help. It is what it is.”

These days, Macy’s also has sales associates handle any customer service issues within their departments, and many keep handwritten logs of shoppers’ concerns and requests. A Macy’s spokesman said, “The process allows us to really listen to what customers are saying and to take quick and decisive action. Shoppers really do have a meaningful impact on stores, and the sales associates are key information gatherers.”

Cynthia Rowley is getting in touch with shoppers in a more unusual way. The designer’s new store in Charleston, S.C., now has a Style Hotline that shoppers e-mail for fashion advice from the store manager for specific personal occasions or other conciergelike services, such as a tip about a new bar in town. Rowley weighs in from time to time with her own suggestions and plans to introduce the Style Hotline to her stores in other cities.

Peter Arnold, president of Rowley, said, “The concept of customer service isn’t outmoded, although the ways in which it’s implemented often are. We think of our Style Hotline, individual Facebook pages for our stores and shopping events in customers’ homes as different, relevant ways to provide customer service. We get in touch with customers who purchase items from us online and we note those who are not located in an area where we have a store to see if we can bring the clothes to them on approval. We want to engage them and have them engage their friends.”

At Henri Bendel, a saleswoman said the economic crunch has rocketed staffers into action with many trying more than ever to exceed customers’ expectations. They will personally drop off purchases at an out-of-town shopper’s hotel if need be, she said. When, during a visit to H&M’s Fifth Avenue store earlier this month, a shopper — who had not purchased anything — inquired about nearby J. Crew stores, saleswoman Porsche Williams offered detailed directions to the Rockefeller Center location. She said H&M staffers in that store, as well as the 34th Street locations, know to be friendly to tourists. “It’s always expected that we go above and beyond to help shoppers find the right sizes, what looks good on them and anything else they need,” Williams said.

Every morning the sales team assembles for a 10-minute meeting, which sometimes involves acting out customer service scenarios or putting together age-appropriate outfits. “It’s actually a good way to get everybody amped up for the day,” she said. That kind of teambuilding seems to have carried over to cost cutting, considering many staffers agreed to reduce weekly hours in order to avoid layoffs, she said.

Customer service has been and will remain a priority for Zara USA, according to a company spokeswoman. “As for the customers, we have not seen major changes in their attitudes towards service, since they have grown to expect the high level that we deliver on a consistent basis,” she said.

At Lord & Taylor, more employees are going the extra mile for customers lately in order to make every sale they can — hunting down styles in the stock room, on the computer or phoning other stores to have them shipped, which may not have always been the case six months ago, a saleswoman said. “We are always trying to be better for clients. Sometimes it’s a matter of just listening to that little minutiae thing they want to say. A lot of people just want to be listened to,” she said. “We are all in this together and we are going to get out of this together. Yes, business has been challenging, but we just have to be a little more creative in the way we reach out to clients.”