Fronting a luxury brand in-store can seem posh, but the job usually involves more grit than glam.
As customers left the store,
Sarah desperately attempted to
mediate the situation, physically
pulling the girls off each other.
As far as retail jobs go, getting to work in the world of luxury fashion is pretty much as good as it gets. Sales associates (or SAs, as they sometimes call themselves) are the gatekeepers between high-end products and their buyers – they bridge the gap between Birkin bags and the tiny percentage of the population that can afford them. And if movies are to be believed, they’re usually impeccably groomed and pretty sophisticated themselves.
But don’t be fooled by the glamorous facade – working in fashion retail is more than just discounts and uniform smiles. Many would envy the 30 to 50 percent discount that brands tend to offer their staff, but ironically, low salaries usually mean associates often aren’t able to afford the products even at staff prices. Retail is also known for weird hours (5am start times for restocking), and astronomically high selling targets that have to be met, often without reward. So the work to look polished and pristine usually involves more grit and less glam.
Behind the scenes
Working retail is commonly regarded as a fairly simple occupation. However, the job involves a lot of physical and emotional labour. While working in retail isn’t an Olympic sport (although it’s maybe just as competitive), it requires associates to be in relatively good shape. Most stores need their associates to be fit enough to lift heavy boxes, arrange displays, and stand for long periods.
If an SA has had a terrible day, they’re expected to feign enthusiasm and act professional with their coworkers and their customers. When they don’t, it can get ugly, as Sarah*, who worked at a store best recognised by their signature blue boxes, witnessed. She once saw her co-workers fight over a guy they were both dating on the sales floor, scaring customers away as they clawed at each other. Not a good look for a brand that stands for romance. As customers left the store, Sarah desperately attempted to mediate the situation, physically pulling the girls off each other. The SAs were reprimanded by senior staff, but surprisingly, neither were fired.
Maintaining a professional demeanour is especially challenging when dealing with difficult customers. Bryan manages a store that retails a high-end Asian-inspired French brand; he admits that his biggest fear is large tour groups, and even takes his leave on long weekends to avoid them. Tour groups are notorious for leaving the store looking like a war zone. Common practices include throwing articles of clothing across the room, scattering products across the floor, aggressively asking for discounts, and demeaning the employees. While SAs are there to provide a service, they’re not Britney Spears – meaning they’re not a “Slave 4 U”.
The customer is always right, right?
Working in luxury retail can take this saying to new levels. Mel*, an ex-manager at an Italian fashion house known for their overthe-top designs, recalls how a royal family from the Middle East would shop with their bodyguards. The bodyguards were there on double-duty: to protect the family and carry briefcases filled with cash to pay for their extravagant shopping sprees. The family frequently purchased $50,000 to $80,000 worth of merchandise each time they entered the store. Mel initially thought the briefcases housed guns for protection, but when a coworker corrected her, she went out of her way to cater to the family’s shopping experience.
Back at the store with those blue boxes, Sarah reveals how she would often see men come in alone to buy gifts for their mistresses. Many of them would ask the SAs for their discretion the next time they visited the store with their wives.
Obviously, this can lead to a moral conflict for the SA. Sarah recalls feeling guilty each time she saw the men come into the store with their wives – knowing that the husband was cheating, but being unable to do anything about it at the risk of losing a customer and being fired. The overused (and often wrong) phrase “the customer is always right” is a sure way to make an SA’s blood boil. Instead, it should be: “the customer isn’t right, but you have to suck it up and pretend like they are.”
At a Dior store, a customer once entered and inquired about the store’s pet policy. Unsurprisingly, furry friends aren’t welcome (unless they’re already part of a handbag or fur coat, that is). When the woman’s “baby” started to meow, it became apparent that she had been hiding a cat under her sweater. Because they valued her patronage, Sharon* and June* turned a blind eye – hoping that the lady and her feline wouldn’t take their business to Celine.
So where should SAs draw the line when accommodating customers and their outrageous requests? Most of the time, it comes down to how good the customer’s relationship is with the brand. Demands that negatively affect other customers or the integrity of the store should not be tolerated, but usually, the larger the bank account, the larger the request.
"As customers left the store, Sarah desperately attempted to mediate the situation, physically pulling the girls off each other.”
Climb the corporate style ladder
OK, so you’re the store’s star seller – does this mean you’re automatically the top candidate to be promoted? Not necessarily. Rayna*, a hiring manager, explains that when they are looking to move SAs into corporate positions, it’s not all based on reaching sales targets. She tends to look for “emotional intelligence [and the] ability to make decisions... based on what is [best] for the business... individuals who will run the business like it’s their own.” So SAs who learn quickly and willingly take on generally undesirable tasks such as volunteering for early shifts or taking initiative to organise the stockroom have a competitive advantage.
Companies also want their employees to interact with their products – even if it means trying on the clothes to see what looks best prior to dressing the mannequins. Lauren*, who works for a high-end independent boutique, said she and the other SAs try on every piece that comes in so they can accurately tell customers what the clothes look like when worn. Above all, you need the right attidude. As Sarah, who has worked in three luxury houses, said, “every problem can be solved, but you need to be resolute and diligent to get through the situations.”
So is fashion retail for you?
SAs need sharp survival skills to get ahead and hopefully break into the fashion industry. But before you think a promotion from retail to another place in the industry is your ticket to stardom and money, think again. The expression “starving for fashion” doesn’t just apply to models – the fashion industry is notorious for its terrible pay. There is hope, though: if you work your way up, you can transfer to a different department – one that provides greater creative freedom and a larger pay cheque. Ralph Lauren entered the world of fashion by working as a salesman at Brooks Brothers. While working there, he became an expert in ties, and then left to start his eponymous label shortly after.
The fashion world isn’t easy, so perhaps retail is merely fashion’s version of Basic Military Training to see who has what it takes to make it to the next level. If you lack connections but want to break into the world of fashion, working on the sales floor may be a good place to start. Having said this, you really do have to love the clothes as it’s the only thing that will justify the late nights, low pay, demanding management, and crazy customers.
"The customer isn’t right, but you have to suck it up and pretend like they are.”
Images 123RF.com Text Claire Soong. *Name has been changed for privacy purposes.