Adventures of an Undercover Browser
Does how you look determine how well you’re treated as a customer?
Rachel Baker dons four different disguises to find out which salespeople are nice—and not so nice—at the Back Bay’s poshest shops.
When I go shopping (and I go more than I’d like to admit), the service I receive as a typical fashion-minded twentysomething is standard: polite, if unimpressive. But in the city’s ultra-elite shops, sales staffers have a long-standing reputation for, well, snootiness. To find out whether the perception is on the mark or simply an age-old retail rumor, I hit some of Boston’s priciest stores in four disguises designed to test the staff’s snub factor: geek, goth, VIP, and mom-to-be. Each time my high-end hit list was the same—Chanel, Valentino, Louis Boston, Alan Bilzerian, and Serenella. But the results? All over the map.
1. As Jan, an Iowan who prefers colorful clothing with a relaxed fit and conservative design, I’m seeking a “snappy ensemble to wear to my cousin Sheila’s wedding.” At Chanel, a salesman named Michael gently explains that this season’s collection is very “goth” and colorless. Nonetheless, he buzzes around helpfully. I try a $5,000 pinkish tweed jacket and complain it’s too small. Eager to please, though, Michael promises to call me if larger sizes arrive before the big event. The ladies at Alan Bilzerian take their sweet time addressing me and my bad hair. After several minutes, Tracy makes an obligatory offer of assistance. Why are things so expensive? I ask. As her frustration grows, I lay it on even thicker. We chat a bit about a $400 blouse before I leave, empty-handed. I can tell Tracy’s thankful to see me go. My next stop is Valentino, where the saleswoman is nice, if a bit dull. When I insist on a color other than red, she suggests I try Marc Jacobs. At Louis Boston, eight staffers notice me combing the racks but continue gabbing. After exactly 14 minutes of being ignored, I initiate contact with one, who looks at me blankly before turning to coo over a coworker’s “fabulous” pullover. Two minutes later, she deigns to address me, looking me up and down before concluding that I’m “tall and, uh, fairly thin” so I should be okay wearing anything. The sales gal at Serenella, Jan’s final stop, is all business, even as I balk loudly at the prices: “Three thousand for a dress? That’s as much as I’d spend on a car!” Realizing I’ve probably gone overboard, I bolt. She bids me a polite farewell.
2. As Raquella von Smirnoffberg, a European heiress with a reality-TV deal, I require a five-person entourage and, of course, a limo. I enter each shop only after my “bodyguard” says it’s okay, with my dramatic “publicist” announcing my VIP status to whoever will listen. Chanel is bustling, but when we saunter in, the sales team switches into starstruck mode. They beam and nod as my posse approaches me with suggestions, but they never get close. Alan Bilzerian’s shop gals aren’t so impressed. When my publicist informs Tracy and Dolly that I’m “particular and quite fussy,” they respond, “Oh? Well, we’re fussy, too.” I secretly appreciate their sarcasm, and like them all the more. At Valentino, I pout as I sashay through the store. The staff is pleasant if unremarkable, haphazardly pulling a smattering of overly grown-up suits and dresses. We storm into Louis and fan out across the women’s floor. As an attentive salesgirl suggests Balenciaga pieces to one of my flunkies, I dial his cell from across the department. He tells her, “It’s Raquella; she wants to go. Don’t take it personally.” When the Serenella staffers realize I’m “somebody,” they jump into high gear, trotting out outfit after outfit in hopes of approval. We can barely stand their hyperprofessionalism, so we bop down to Jasmine Sola for a bonus round. A perky coed aims to please, proffering a slew of options while the other girls watch from the wings.
3. As Cinder, the misunderstood goth girl, I growl that I need something “normal” to wear for a job interview at a bank (“my dad’s making me”). To get into character, I hiss at the duck boat tourists as I tromp down Newbury in combat boots. Lillian, a buttoned-up fiftysomething at Chanel, is surprisingly cooperative. She selects a black and white sweater-jacket, and suggests I pair it with the black skirt I’m wearing—“except maybe with tights without holes.” Even Coco was young once, too. Serenella, on the other hand, may have been old and stuffy since time began. In hopes of exciting the sales crowd, who remain cordial but largely silent, I toss out some extra attitude: “I know I’m gonna hate everything, so I was hopin’ to get whatever I hate the least.” The girls show me sweater sets and a white Narciso Rodriguez dress that’s so not Cinder. I tell them I don’t want to look like Laura Bush. They give up. Jenny, the hidden gem at Louis, shows no fear of my tough exterior as she pulls out appropriate monochromatic styles. “I don’t want to look like a waiter,” I say, and she sweetly suggests Riccardi for something “a bit funkier.” Again, I make friends at Alan Bilzerian. After leading a frustrating hunt for “something you won’t hate,” Dolly looks me in the eye and says, “The real question, honey, is why do you want to work at a bank? Why not work somewhere you can be yourself, like a hair salon?” Now, that’s service. Christopher, the high-energy people person at Valentino, assures me, “Valentino’s clothes are not for stiffs. We’ve got some really funky stuff!” When he hears I’m interviewing, he insists I wear a blouse with a jacket and perhaps a scarf to “luxe it up a bit!” I like Christopher so much that I linger in Valentino for a few minutes before heading back to the office (and the makeup remover).
4. As Jessi, a young mom-to-be, I’ve recruited our British, 43-year-old senior editor to play my baby-daddy, Jerome. I explain in a sugarcoated southern drawl that I’m meeting Jerome’s parents and that, even though “I’m fat right now,” I want to wear a classy outfit. The girls at Serenella seem delighted by my bun in the oven, but as we beeline for the sale rack their enthusiasm cools. My man suggests a lace minidress (about $1,200); I ask if they have a cheaper version. The girls seem annoyed; one adds, “That’s never going to fit you,” as she breezes by. At Louis, Jerome requests something “sexy and spangly.” Sales guy Anthony pulls a $500 embellished sweater and scours the store for more jazzy duds. But as we head for the exit, we notice he’s trailing us. Either he’s onto the act, or worried we might shoplift. “Well, I think you might just be the coolest pregnant lady I’ve ever seen!” says brilliant Valentino salesman Christopher. He proposes I mix one of the “more affordably priced” dresses (a simple navy empire, about $400) with my own sequined cardigan and cowboy boots. After Jerome and I enjoy a few free sprays of perfume, we thank Christopher but tell him we need to “check with the bank” before spending any major cash. He wishes us well. Our experience at Alan Bilzerian is similarly positive. When we gush over a slip dress, Tracy offers to make one if none of the sizes will fit my shape. And without even a hint of condescension, Dolly suggests we give H&M a shot, too, explaining that it stocks low-priced copies of Bilzerian’s wares. The service at Chanel is by the books. Michael seems uncomfortable but professional, even when I ask what could possibly fit in a mini quilted purse and Jerome bellows, “Condoms!” adding that I can’t wear anything that shows my “fat” arms. Michael suggests a simple black dress (about $2,900), but when I ask for something “like that, just less expensive,” he gives up, saying the cheapest pieces are $2,400 blouses. We take the hint.