THE HUMAN TOUCH
RETAILERS ADDRESS THE NEEDS OF TIME-PRESSED CUSTOMERS WITH PERSONAL SHOPPING AND WARDROBE CONSULTING SERVICES.
Byline: Kathryn Hopper
When Maureen (Mo) Doss needed to throw together an ensemble for George W. Bush’s inauguration festivities, she turned to B.J. Wilson.
Wilson, owner of the upscale specialty boutique Dressoir in Fort Worth, Tex., has been helping her clients update and retool their wardrobes for years. Wilson and her staff quickly found a Victoria Royal gown, suggested shoes and a bag, then went a step further
by arranging a hairstylist and manicurist.
“I don’t know what I would have done without her,” said Doss, who lives in Aledo, south of Fort Worth. “She made it so easy. It was really a one-stop deal.”
For Wilson and her staff, such last-minute consultations aren’t unusual. They are part of her business strategy of offering attentive, personal shopping services that cater to time-pressed clients who want professional help and are willing to pay for it.
“They’re busy but they’re not in the fashion business,” said Wilson. “They want to look coordinated and current, but they need help putting it all together. Believe me, they love the service.”
From independent specialty stores such as Dressoir to large chains including Saks Fifth Avenue, retailers are offering specialty shopping and wardrobe consulting services that deepen customer loyalty and drive sales.
While retailers don’t want to divulge just how much business the personal touch helps bring in, store executives say personalized service is an important way to stand out in the competitive retail marketplace.
“A lot of people are living fast-paced, on-the-go, lives,” said George Gillen, a Dallas-based retailing consultant who operates the firm Leadership Solutions. “A lot of what they do is delegate, and this is one more thing they delegate. It’s a competitive advantage to serve their needs.”
Wilson started her wardrobe consulting service back in 1983. As business grew, she decided to open Dressoir four years ago, in large part to better serve her clients. Dressoir carries such labels as Nicole Miller, Rex Lester, Anne Klein and Cynthia Rowley.
“I had so much business that it made sense to open the store instead of going all over the place and it’s convenient for customers,” she said. “Now that I have the store, I try to use it, but if that’s not possible, we go outside.”
For wardrobe consulting services, Wilson charges a base rate of $150 per hour with a two-hour minimum. She says she prefers not to give clients quotes over the phone, but to meet them face-to-face and discuss how the service will meet their needs.
Clients can have their closets edited and new outfits and accessories added to coordinate with what they already have. Some clients get detailed computer printouts that list outfits for specific days or events. One client received a photo book that displayed more than 150 outfits, including shoes and other accessories she could pull from her closet.
Wilson said clients come back every season for help planning for special events and trips such as a cruise or European vacation.
“We work hard,” Wilson said. “We get calls everyday from people who said we changed their lives.”
She says the service is in demand from busy professionals as well as stay-at-home moms who want to wear the latest looks. Men constitute a smaller, but growing percentage of her clients as they seek guidance to deal with today’s business-casual dress code.
For valued clients, Wilson and her staff will handle gift-buying services as well. She estimates that about 10 percent of her clients ask for this service, including many men.
“We’ll always get a lot of calls around Christmas, Valentine’s Day and Secretaries Day,” she said.
Wilson and other retailers who offer personal shopping said the strategy works because sales associates get to know and develop deep bonds with clients.
At Stanley Korshak, sales associates often work with the same customers for years and get to know their individual wardrobe needs.
“Our business is based on relationship selling,” said Jim Farr, vice president at Stanley Korshak. “While we don’t offer a personal shopping program per se, we are always aware of the personal needs of our clients. We do closet editing and some of our associates will go to a customers’ house and help them pack for a trip to Europe.”
The store has also put together a wardrobe of suits and casual businesswear and carried it to a busy professional’s office, even bringing along someone to do the alterations. Farr gave the example of one client, a high-level Dallas executive, who called the store asking for a half-dozen dress shirts because he had to suddenly leave for a business trip.
“Normally, a store would just sent them all pinned up in boxes,” Farr said. “But our associate said ‘Let’s have some of them pressed and hung so they’ll be ready to wear.’ The customer appreciated the extra effort and told us no other store had ever done that for him.”
Stanley Korshak doesn’t charge extra for such personal service, Farr said, considering part of the store’s shopping experience.
“Anyone, whether they spend a thousand or multi-thousands of dollars is entitled to the service,” Farr said.
Saks Fifth Avenue offers personal shopping services through its 5th Avenue Club, which was launched in its flagship New York City store 15 years ago and is now in 50 locations, including Dallas, Austin, San Antonio and Houston.
“We market privately to a customer base we would like to have in the clubs, but we are available to any Saks shopper,” said Susan Olden, vice president in charge of the program. “The only criteria is someone has to want more than one item.”
Members of the club get pampered in the privacy of a spacious club consulting room where lunch and beverage service are provided. For added elegance, coffee and tea are poured from a silver service.
The club also offers a private phone line in each room. Client preferences, special occasions, requests and replenishment needs are kept on record.
Saks will also arrange same-day delivery and final fittings at a client’s home or office. Like other upscale retailers, Saks declined to divulge any specific sales numbers for the clubs, but Olden said the clubs are coming off a very good 2000.
She said the market for personal shopping is driven by three different types of shoppers.
“You have the shopper who wants to save time and likes having the store edited down for them,” she said. “You also have the shopper who wants a kind of old-world experience, likes the personal attention and having lunch and beverages served.
“The third is young up-and-comers,” Olden said. “There are two different types. One is young professionals who want some guidance on what’s appropriate. They want to know what’s ‘business’ and what’s ‘business casual.’
“Then you have what I call the new lady who lunches. She’s young, from an affluent family or married into one and she’s raising her children herself while staying involved in her husband’s career and charitable causes.”
Men account for about 15 percent of the club’s business, but Olden said that percentage is growing as men grapple with the nuances of new corporate dress codes.
“Last year, we had a great year in men’s wear because we know how to translate the dress for success wardrobe to luxury casual,” Olden said.
Saks staffs each of its clubs with a dedicated director of sales and team of associates selected for their attentiveness to customers. Olden said the biggest challenge is finding new employees in the tight retail labor market, but she said the clubs have become one of the most popular places to work at Saks.
“The really top sellers want to come to the club because they know they can sell the entire store to their client,” she said.
Olden said that sometimes serving customers means telling them things they don’t want to hear.
“We had a large gentleman who came into our New York store recently and said, ‘I want to buy an Oxxford suit,’ but given his large frame, our director knew that it really wouldn’t flatter him. So he told him, ‘I could see you in an Oxxford Suit, but you would really look better in a suit by Hickey-Freeman, which would be half the price. So the man said, ‘Are you going to walk my business?’ and our director told him he would.
“Well, the man wrote me a letter saying he did try on the Hickey-Freeman suits and admitted they fit him much better. He ended up ordering 10.”
The key to successful personal shopping, Olden said, is “making customers life-ready,” which means listening to their needs, finding out what they do each week and where they go, then helping them assemble a wardrobe that suits their specific needs.
“It’s not about having a beautiful space with lots of gimmicks,” she said. “It’s really about how you help the shopper live his or her life.”