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Fashion Diary: Tales from the retail trenches

August 27, 2009 |  2:49 pm

Retailhell_rage Gossip, first impressions, trends in the making, celebrities and style setters. A regular feature by fashion critic Booth Moore.

We’ve all seen it: someone trying to return something that is, as they say, gently used. But imagine having to live it every single day. That was Freeman Hall’s life for the 15 years he spent as a self-described “retail slave,” working at the handbag counter at the Big Fancy, his pseudonym for “a department store that prides itself on customer service.” (Um, Nordstrom anyone?)

The L.A.-based author’s new book, “Retail Hell” (Adams Media), is an amusing window into the world of hyper-consumption (remember those days?), full of outrageous -- and humorous -- tales of shoppers behaving badly, all in pursuit of an “It" bag. There was Patty, who offered to pay Hall $10 to buy her a Burberry bag using his employee discount; Virginia, who came to the Big Fancy every day for the company, not the handbags; and Raelene, who left a mountain of bags and paper stuffing in her wake, but rarely bought anything.

I chatted with Freeman for a few minutes on the phone recently to talk about what really happens on the other side of the register.

At what moment did you decide to write this book? 

I was standing in the middle of the Big Fancy, frustrated with screenwriting, and all at once a crazy customer, a crazy store manager and a crazy co-worker walked by me at the same time. I asked myself, “What am I doing here?” Then I thought of David Sedaris, because I am a big fan of his, and it suddenly hit me that I was supposed to write about this crazy department store.

What are some of the shopper stereotypes you got to know over the years, who became characters in your book? 

A Looky Loo is somebody who goes into the store and wanders around a lot. When they become a problem is when they want to know the entire history of the Fendi sisters, because you know they are taking all your time up and not planning on buying anything. Their favorite day of shopping is Black Friday. Those are the days when retail slaves should all call in sick.

A Shoppersaurus Carnotaurus is a shopoholic on steroids. They roar into the store and buy anything they can, and they always want what’s hot and current. The good ones don’t return anything, but the bad ones come in at lunch and buy up all this stuff to show off to their friends. Then the next day they come in with sunglasses on to return everything.

We all have picky tendencies, but a Picky Bitch tends to be more neurotic, to look at every little stitch in the leather and pick apart things that are not there.

A Bloodsucker is beyond a Looky Loo. They call up on the phone and want a sales associate to go pick out Valentine’s Day cards for them -- over the phone -- and read every message. They show up late at night, asking questions. You’ll answer; they repeat the question again. They have their fangs in you.

But the No. 1 most common type, and you see it in every kind of retail, is the shopper who comes into the store every day. Some of them are nice and some are crazy. But the store is their home away from home, and it’s sad because they have no life.

Have you ever lied to a customer? 

I was forced to lie a lot. All salespeople lie. We are under intense pressure to sell or be fired. But if I waited on a customer who was genuinely nice and was able to communicate with me about her style and what her needs were, I always did my best to find the right bag for her, even if that meant ordering it or sending her to another store. And if something didn't look good on her, I'd tell her. The times I would lie involved selling something I thought was ugly because I felt I had to, or if I was being attacked by a Bloodsucker.

What’s the most common customer transgression?

Returns, sometimes you get 10 in a row. You have the "It threw my back out" return, or the "I bought it for my wedding in Hawaii and the wedding’s off" return. Then there are the women who rent. They pretend like they didn’t wear something, but it has a gouge in front, and hair and makeup in the bottom. Almost every day there was some used bag return, and usually you had to accept it because the stores were desperate to give great customer service. But it got out of control. And now, stores are getting tougher on returns because they can’t afford it anymore.

Freeman_rage What’s the worst shopper-on-shopper violence you ever witnessed?

I never witnessed anything violent, but I did see women fighting over things. If you want a handbag and the salesperson tells you it’s the last one on the face of the Earth, don’t let other women know you want it. Because women buy out of spite. I saw it so many times. You have to pretend like you don’t want the bag.

What were some of your most fool-price sales pitches?

“The price goes back up in two days.” “A lady just bought five of these,;she’s stocking up.” “There will never be another sale like this one.” “You can always bring it back if you decide you don’t want it.” “They’re so cheap you should buy two.” And “You have to have it.”

You’re not working retail anymore, but do you have sympathy for those who do?

Every day. When I’m in a store, if I see any kind of customer injustice, I try to get involved, maybe even speak to the store manager if the customer is out of line. It means a lot if you console the retail slave and say, "You’re doing a great job."

Is there anything about the current economic climate that has made you rethink your experience behind the counter?

Not really. I worked through the last recession in the late 1980s. People are more price conscious, but they still need clothing for events and job interviews. They still need to look good and feel good.

Give me a few of your insider shopping tips.

1. Be friendly and nice. The No. 1 complaint I hear from customers and retail slaves alike is that they are rude to each other.

2. Use pushy salespeople to your advantage. So many customers run, but you might be running from great customer service and the potential to get what you need faster. Use pushy to show you what’s hot and new.

3. Make friends with salespeople. Stores want you to come back. Commissioned salespeople want you to come back even more. If you find a salesperson you connect with, give them your contact info, buy only from them and stop in to say “hi” now and then. They will turn you on to sales, markdowns and new merchandise before anyone else.

4. Don’t fall under the spell of lying salespeople. If you are seeking fashion advice from a sales associate and feel like they are lying, trust your instinct. They probably are.

5. Shop early in the day, not  five minutes before closing.

6. Don’t talk on your cell when a salesperson is trying to help you.

7. Know when to haggle and when not to haggle. There’s no harm in asking if something is on sale or is going on sale, but asking incessantly is only going to annoy your salesperson. Haggling is great if you are in a privately owned boutique, but in major stores, salespeople can be and have been fired for giving discounts that aggressive customers begged for.

8. Notice retail hell warning signs. If there is a long line or one person at the register, something is up. No store wants you to wait forever and it wasn’t planned that way. But sometimes everyone shows up at once, a salesperson calls in sick or the register goes down. Save yourself and run.

Check out Freeman's blog and share your own retail rants here.

Top photo: Book cover for "Retail Hell" (Adams Media) by Freeman Hall. Credit: Adams Media.

Bottom photo: Author Freeman Hall. Credit: Adams Media.

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