Around five years ago I briefly worked in an upmarket high-street womenswear shop in Covent Garden. It wasn’t my first job in retail, but the intense focus on the hard sell, the expectation to harass the customer every step of the way, was something I hadn’t previously experienced.
When a customer entered the shop and stopped to look at something, we had to approach them and ask whether they needed any help. If they refused, we would move on to the next victim or, if it was quieter, hover in the vicinity rearranging something that didn’t need to be rearranged.
The intense focus on the hard sell was something I’d never experienced before.
As soon as the customer picked up an item, we had to approach them again and suggest we put it in the fitting room. Better yet, show them a couple of items that would go nicely with the item they had already picked out.
Once they were in the fitting room, we had to knock on the door and get them to come out, so we could coo over how wonderful they looked, or bring them more clothes to try on if there were any issues.
The clothes weren’t even very well-made but we still had to flog them.
I was only ever good at that very last bit: I once did get a lady to buy over £600 worth of clothes, by eagerly bringing her slight variations of a top she liked.
‘Why do you think people pay so much for these clothes?’ my manager asked me once.
‘The quality?’ I said.
She shook her head. ‘No, it’s the service we provide. They are paying for the service.’
I said nothing at the time, but what I wanted to say was that if I had any money (I really didn’t back then), I would rather pay for the staff to leave me the f**k alone.
But that was it – to my disappointment, many of the clothes were not even that well-made and caring for most of the fabrics was extremely difficult. We would spend hours steaming the new stock that came into the shop folded in plastic.
When a sales assistant says something looks good on you, take it with a pinch of salt.
The belt I received as part of my uniform broke after a week. When I showed it to the assistant manager, he tutted and hid it somewhere in the stockroom, giving me a new one.
When two Estonian women walked into the shop later that week, the managers got particularly excited, because I am Estonian too. ‘Talk to them!’ they mouthed at me, sneaking around like jackals. I did: I told the ladies looking at the same belt not to bother.
But what can you do if the sales assistant doesn’t have a secret language to be honest with you? (Only 1.1 million speakers probably qualifies as secret.)
Here are a few tips:
- When a sales assistant says something looks really good on you, take it with a pinch of salt. If you need a second opinion, take someone shopping with you or text/email a picture to your friends.
- Stay strong when sales people bring you more stuff to try on. Yes, that blouse goes nicely with those shorts, but you already have ten blouses like that. If you’re looking for something to go with a specific outfit (i.e. work trousers), wear an existing work shirt to the shop, so you would see how the trousers go with something you already own.
- Think about the price. The sales assistant isn’t going to tell you that the ridiculous mark-up you’re paying is for their services, as in that case you would expect a foot-rub at the very least. Instead, they will talk about the merits of the product, be it timelessness, versatility or quality. Again, remember that pinch of salt.
- Check the care label carefully: is the item machine washable or can it only be cleaned by magic elves blowing gold dust on it?
- Try crumpling the fabric in your hand. If it creases easily, you are not only going to have a post-wash ironing nightmare, but you will also look unkempt after sitting down for an hour.
- Don’t feel like you can’t tell sales assistants to go away – just remember that very often they are not enjoying it any more than you are.