SmartMoney: Off the Rack

It’s a Saturday afternoon at Bloomingdale’s, and we’re prowling the racks in Personal shoppers shoppers are search of new business clothes. On hand to help us is the store’s “personal no longer just for big shopper,” a petite, blond twentysomething in shiny black stilettos. Some 30 minutes later she’s lugging armfuls of women’s wear to a private dressing spenders. But are they room, where she presents her findings with a Vanna White flourish. We’ve got a knit Nanette Lepore pantsuit in shades of black and gray, open-toe anything more an a leopard-skin pumps and some flashy gold costume jewelry. We give her a way to boost sales? puzzled look. “You call this business attire?” One of the hottest shopping trends these days isn’t faux fur or the leather satchel; it’s personal shoppers. Though they’ve been around for years, until recently, stores reserved the amenity for big spenders. But now, from Macy’s to the more upscale Barneys, personal-shopping services are growing. Saks Fifth Avenue’s personalshopping department, which includes more than 200 “style consultants,” had a 20 percent jump in sales this year, according to a company spokesperson. Beginning with its May 2007 launch, Apple has offered personal shoppers in every store (195 and counting), and now homefurnishings retailers such as Williams-Sonoma Home have interior designers on staff to help customers. Who knew-there are even personal shoppers to help coordinate your fine china with your linens. Retailers’ motives are clear. Shoppers who love luxury tend to spend more, so stores want to cultivate those relationships. And given the competition from the Web and specialty shops, retailers are extending a helping hand to the masses-and promising the world. With personal shoppers, stores can both cater to customers and boost sales, says Daniel Butler, vice president of retail operations for the National Retail Federation. They’ll have merchandise waiting for you. They can sync their computers with your closet to find the perfect pieces to round out your wardrobe. A Saks Fifth Avenue rep said that for the right client they’d fly to South Carolina just to hand deliver and alter an over-the-phone order.

Intrigued, if skeptical, we persuaded our editors to send us on a New York City shopping spree. We wanted to see just how far personal shoppers at a range of department stores would go for us. And could they do any better than we could unassisted? We brought along Carol Davidson, owner of consulting firm StyleWorks of Union Square in New York and instructor of image consulting at the Fashion Institute of Technology. Our budget: $1,000.

When we arrive at our first stop, Bergdorf Goodman, we’re dressed in jeans and a T-shirt, our fetish for designer handbags concealed. Davidson warned us ahead of time that personal shoppers often size up clients based on what they’re wearing; they’ll push items accordingly. But waitlook who’s not pushing anything. Bergdorf’s personal shopper, a tall, stern woman with short hair and glasses, is trying to turn us away! She tells us she didn’t receive the correct information about what we were looking for prior to our appointment and thus can’t help us. (A company spokesperson says, “This truly isn’t typical.”) When she finally agrees to sit down with us, it’s a little intimidating. Our shopper poses three blunt questions: What kind of clothes do we need, what’s our size, and “Do you know Akris?” She asks us to come back in a few hours.

When we do, a half-dozen suits, not one under $1,000, are on display. We tell her they all exceed our budget, but she encourages us to try them on anyway. And we can’t help but admit that the pair of $800 black Akris pants and the $3,000 coral Akris jacket are a perfect fit. In fact, our shopper, who’s getting friendlier, is very knowledgeable about the fits of various designers and the way different fabrics will fall. “Even I’m learning something new,” Davidson says. We ask our shopper to put the $3,800 outfit on hold, just in case we win the lottery in the next week; four days later she calls us to see if we’re planning to pick it up.

We have higher hopes, at Bloomingdale’s, where we’re more optimistic about finding business attire for less than $1,000. And as we take a seat in the waiting room, we realize the budgetminded are in good company; we overhear a personal shopper telling her clients, a husband and wife, where to go to find knockoff handbags: “Canal Street and Baxter. It’s on the corner,” she says. When it’s our turn with the young, energetic shopper, she takes us on a 30-minute journey around the store to pull merchandise. She’s fast and methodical; it’s a challenge to keep up. When we enter the dressing room, we’re in for a few surprises.

First, there’s a mountain of merchandise on the floor from the last appointment, which she quickly tidies up. Then, as we view her selection, we realize we may not be on the same page. “Do you really think these are appropriate?” Davidson asks about a pair of shiny, superhigh Stuart Weitzman stilettos. “I do,” our shopper replies, adding frankly: “That suit’s too dull; it needs some pizzazz.” (A company representative says, “We’re a fashion store; our tendency will be to show you our most fashionable stuff first.”) We ask our shopper to run out for accessories. And then for more shoes. Her enthusiasm and pleasant demeanor never waver; and she offers us a Snapple while we wait. Though we leave empty-handed, the Bloomie’s shopper is just as friendly as she was when we walked in. “Come back again,” she says with a smile.

At Lord & Taylor, our personal shopper, a middle-aged woman dressed in a pressed jacket and slightly cropped pants, takes us for a leisurely stroll around the store. We have her undivided attentionwith the exception of a quick walkie-talkie conversation she has with another personal shopper. Meanwhile, we gather a fair sampling of suits. But back in the dressing room, the mysteries of vanity sizing unfold. One size 2 suit is much too tight; in another; we’re swimming. She agrees that only one suit’s a decent fit and says she needs more than an hour to truly help us But it’s been a long day, and we’ve yet to discover a good find here. We politely excuse ourselves to try out just one more store.

At Saks Fifth Avenue, a style consultant escorts us to a large room with two racks of preselected business attire, organized by color. We’re delighted by the presentation. And as we peruse her picks—a range of blouses, sweaters, skirts, pants and jackets, from $100 to $1,200 each-we sip coffee from delicate white mugs. Davidson says she finds the selection a bit overwhelming, but we’re pleased. As we try on various outfits, our shopper runs in and out for more clothes, so we’re left to judge fit on our own. Although we’re iffy about a $620 Theory suit and a $250 red Dana Buchman blouse—”I’m surprised she didn’t offer her opinion,” Davidson says-we spend $400 on two beautiful sweaters that we simply can’t resist. As for the rest of the $1,000 we’ve budgeted, after a long day of shopping, we decide to splurge on something more relaxing. Next stop? The spa.

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