Years ago, Cherie Pines visited a personal shopper at Lord & Taylor in New York City. She needed help putting together polished outfits for her job in medical sales, yet she says the personal shopper suggested a series of bland outfits that screamed "suburban teacher" instead of "Madison Avenue professional." "She didn't get it," Pines says. (Lord & Taylor did not respond to requests for comment.)
Of course, "getting it" (or at least a piece of it) is what personal shoppers are all about: Households with incomes of $100,000 and above spend an average of $8,000 a year on clothing, according to market research firm Nielsen. There are even two types of professional who specialize in relieving fashion-challenged consumers of their annual shopping budgets: the in-store "personal shopper" and the independent "style consultant."
Both kinds of shopping professional aim to save clients time, by pulling clothes for their consideration prior to each scheduled appointment, for instance. Yet with less-skilled practitioners, the service doesn't go much beyond that, critics say -- either because the consultant doesn't have an eye for style, or because the customer really just wants a gofer. In one study earlier this year, America's Research Group found that customers at Macy's in particular seemed to use personal shoppers only to pull merchandise they'd already researched online. "They're not using the personal shopper to make decisions," says ARG chairman Britt Beemer.
"People use personal shoppers for a whole range of reasons," says Macy's spokesman Jim Sluzewski. Some customers may use one just to find specific merchandise, he says, but "the personal shopper can curate options in the store for dressing for an event, or help a customer find the right fit."
Department stores typically do not charge shoppers for in-store personal-shopping services. Yet because most personal shoppers work on commission, "You will definitely feel pressured to buy something," says Michelle Madhok, CEO of SheFinds.com, who worked as a personal shopper for Nordstrom early in her career.
Nordstrom spokesman John Bailey says the service is designed to create a stress-free shopping environment: "We never want our customers to feel pressured to buy something," he says.
That said, the personal shopper has every incentive to persuade a client to buy -- and keep -- what she suggests: Merchandise bought through a personal shopper is tagged at check out, and the seller's commission typically gets cut if the item is returned.
Independent image consultants, in contrast, can break the bank in their own way: They generally charge a flat or hourly fee for their services. A session with some independent consultants in New York City will set you back more than a visit to an accountant or a therapist. Style for Hire, a new network of personal stylists picked by Stacy London, one of the hosts of the TV show "What Not to Wear" charges from $40 an hour for a session with an apprentice stylist to more than $300 for the top consultants, says Cindy McLaughlin, CEO and co-founder. She says that despite this outlay, a good stylist ultimately saves clients money by making sure they put their existing wardrobes to good use and only buy necessary pieces: "When they shop, they fill in the blanks," McLaughlin says.
With its legions of self-styled experts, YouTube has lowered the barrier to entry for many professions -- including personal shopping. In fact, style consultants require very little overhead to hang up a shingle. While the Association of Image Consultants International and other professional organizations offer certification programs, there's no universally recognized credential for stylists. "This is a bit of a Wild West industry," says Bridgette Raes, a style expert and president of Bridgette Raes Style Group in New York City. Raes studied at the Fashion Institute of Technology and says her formal training helped her understand cuts and fabrics that flatter every figure.
Others dismiss the need for a fashion degree. Amy Salinger, who majored in communications in college, has built a successful business as an independent style consultant in New York City without any formal fashion education. A lifelong clothes horse, Salinger says she faced a steeper learning curve with the nuts and bolts of running her own firm: "Forget about fashion, I wish I took a business course."
Since personal shoppers thrive off of referrals and repeat customers, it's in their best interest to keep customers happy while making sales. Each summer, Patty Edwards looks forward to the call from Nordstrom inviting her to an exclusive preview of the Seattle-based department store's annual Anniversary Sale. It's one of the perks that Edwards, chief investment officer at Trutina Financial in Bellevue, Wash., enjoys as a regular customer of Nordstrom's personal shopping services. The salespeople know what brands the busy executive favors, and they call her when new merchandise comes in, she says. Edwards doesn't find their sales tactics at all pushy: "I've had more people at Nordstrom say, 'that doesn't work for you.'" But they know her weaknesses and will often show her a purse that will complete an outfit. Most of the time, Edwards says, she's happy to succumb.
Salinger, the independent New York stylist, loves taking clients to the personal shoppers at Bergdorf Goodman, the high-end department store in New York City. She calls ahead of time and makes sure a dressing room is available; she then goes and pulls clothes for her clients, who are served Champagne or cappuccino as they sample the wares. "They're quite lovely," Salinger says of the Bergdorf's personal shoppers, who get their cut of Salinger's clients' purchases, while she takes an hourly fee for her services.
But not every relationship between in-store and independent shoppers is this cozy, experts say. Department stores maintain black lists of independent stylists who buy thousands of dollars' worth of merchandise for their clients to consider, only to return most of it later on, says Paco Underhill, the author of What Women Want: The Science of Female Shopping. "Everybody is doing this, but they won't tell you about it," Underhill says.
Technological improvements have allowed department stores to keep track of their customers in increasingly savvy ways, Underhill says. Macy's tracks all online and in-store purchases of Macy's cardholders, according to a spokesman. Nordstrommaintains a "Personal Book," where clients' preferences and purchase history are kept on file with their permission, which a spokesman says allows the store to keep customers informed of sales or other events they might be interested in.
While in-store personal shoppers stick to their dressing rooms, independent stylists often visit their clients in their own homes. They help clients put together outfits from their existing wardrobe and figure out what key staples -- say, a white button-down shirt -- might be missing. In the process, they get a glimpse into their clients' private selves: "I always say, messy closet, messy life," says New York stylist Raes.
The relationship between a shopping professional and her client can get personal real fast, some pros say. After all, a client spends a lot of time undressed in her shopper's presence, and vulnerabilities get exposed. Raes has recognized shopping and alcohol addictions in her clients, as well as body dysmorphic disorder, a mental health condition where people fixated on a perceived body flaw. She has referred clients to therapists, nutritionists and doctors.
Terrence Shulman, founder and director of the Shulman Center for Compulsive Theft, Spending & Hoarding in metro Detroit, has received three inquiries from personal shoppers in the six years he has treated compulsive shopping. "Most addicts in general don't like to ask for help," Shulman says, but a delicately worded referral from a stylist can provide the nudge they need.
Christine Cameron, a personal stylist in New York City, estimates that about 5% of her client base is male. Her male clients are usually business owners who are established in their careers: "They can afford to buy that really nice suit and want to be taken seriously," Cameron says.
Men generally want to look good and be done with it, says Salinger, whose client base is one-quarter male. Same goes for men shopping for the women in their lives.
Jim Bieri, principal of Stokas Bieri Real Estate in Detroit, stumbled upon a personal shopper at a Von Maur department store when he was looking for an outfit for his wife. He was so successful with his choice of a classic sheath dress and jacket that he's been back several times since. "If you get the right personal shopper, she'll make you a hero," Bieri says.
The America's Research Group survey found that 4.6% of respondents used an in-store personal shopper or an independent image consultant some time in the past year. Of those, 75% used the professional shopper more than three times that year. "When you have them, you use them a lot," says Beemer, ARG's chairman.
Corry Bazley, a Manhattan resident who works in sales for a financial services firm, sees her stylist about once each season. "There's too much choice out there," Bazley says. "I could waste so much money trying to outfit myself without direction."
Bazley's co-workers noticed when she started coming to work her new, stylist-inspired looks. Gone were the boring suits, replaced by colorful separates and statement jewelry. Her new looks moved easily between the office and the ballparks and restaurants where she takes sales clients in the evenings, she says. And sure enough, she got promoted soon after. "I like to think it was my skills that did it, but I looked like I should be promoted," Bazley says.
And Bazley's isn't a fringe perspective. Says John Challenger, CEO of global outplacement firm Challenger Gray & Christmas: "Promotions go to people who do the best work, fit into the company culture, who get along with the boss and who impress the higher ups with how they present themselves -- it all counts."