November 21, 2011

Walk Softly and Carry a Big Coat Hanger

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Always carry a coat hanger and never talk to women. These are the two lessons I learned while working at Banana Republic during the Holiday Season of 2009, and the two pieces of advice I can offer to students who will turn to retail to make some cash over winter break.Lesson 1: The Coat Hanger

As a sales associate my only job was to walk around the store and help people select merchandise. Since I didn’t have to restock shelves or work a cash register, on a slow day it looked like I was just following people around while they shopped.  My manager was quick to comment on this. “Ben, you’re stalking people. You hide behind that table of sweaters and then slowly approach someone from behind when they pick something up. It looks creepy.”

He was right. No one likes to be watched while they’re shopping. And most customers don’t need commentary on every item. We’re selling pants here, I should hope you’ve seen them before.

So in lieu of practicing for Seal Team Six during my shift, I learned to always look busy. My secret was to constantly carry a coat hanger. Why would I briskly walk around with a coat hanger if I didn’t have something to do? If I look tied up, you don’t notice me watching you handle that silk-cotton cashmere sweater.

But actually, I am watching you, studying you, waiting for my chance to insert myself into your shopping experience. And the beauty of it is, you have no idea. Still stalking, but less creepy. Or maybe more creepy, but at least my manager was happy.

One minute it appears that I am searching for a place to put a coat hanger or rearranging a pile of clothes, and the next minute I pounce. “You know, I really like those pants. You can easily dress them up with a tie or dress them down with some sneakers. They’re great for the office or going out on the weekends. Could I grab a fitting room for you?”

Boom. That’s how you sell clothes. I did $8,000 on a Saturday once.

Unfortunately, the coat hanger was not enough to save me from the ire of the women’s side of the store.

Lesson 2: Never Sell Women’s Clothes to Women

Working the women’s side was the bane of my existence. I felt so out of place; I couldn’t even understand the sizing. Somehow, it is possible to be a size 0. Furthermore, it is possible to be a size 00. If 0 is the absence of size, I fundamentally don’t understand how a size 00 exists.

Women could sense this confusion. They looked at me with derision, scorn. Even when I fetched something from the back for a female customer or opened a fitting room, they would still tell the cash register attendant that no one had helped them on the floor, they had found everything on their own.

When I brought up the issue with my boss, he said, “Ben, what could possibly be better for a woman to hear than a man saying something looks good on her?”

“Well, I can think of about a thousand things, such as not having a man watch her come out of the fitting room and realize that the outfit is way too tight and she’s actually a size 10 and not a size 8.”

Quintessentially, I believe that when women shop for their clothes it is an intensely personal experience. They go alone or conscript a few confidants, and together they navigate the racks while wading through the various unrealistic body images and messages from the media as to how they are supposed to present themselves. It’s a private experience, and a random 25-year-old guy is not invited. Especially when he’s peddling a store credit card.

I think my manager got tired of hearing my anthropological rationale for why my presence was an intrusion on this gendered performance space, and gradually I stopped working the women’s side.

Over on the men’s side, though, women loved me. I had the best line. “If you see anything you need a hand with, my name is Ben, I’d be happy to help you out. Also, I wear a medium.”  Women’s eyes lit up. “Oh you’re a medium? Oh that’s so great, because my husband is a little taller than you are, I’ll get a large.”

The best was when women would say, “My husband is an extra large, could you try on this jacket for me?” So I would stand there and put on the extra large jacket. “You know ma’am I don’t wear an extra large, it’s probably not going to look that good on me.” “Yeah, it looks a little big. Do you think I should go with the large instead?”

As I stood there, jacket falling off my shoulders, fingers not even reaching out of the sleeves, I realized the comedy and absurdity of retail.

Ben Koffel is a grad student in the College of Architecture, Art & Planning. He may be contacted at bkoffel@cornellsun.com. Come Again? appears alternate Tuesdays this semester.

Original Author: Ben K.