Behind the fitting room doors

It has been a while since I last allowed you readers to step into my stilettos, in taking a look inside the fabulous and every changing, though at the same time constant world of fashion. So to risk not sounding monotoned in talking about the hottest shoe, color, or bag of the current season I decided to write about something near and sort of dear to my heart-retail. Yes retail, you know that job market that many of you worked in order to pay your way through college but never really considered it a career because you weren’t going to school for four plus years to scan items at the register? Yes that career.

Retail as many don’t know is one of the largest employers in the United States and grosses billions of dollars in revenue. Yet many seem to think that working retail or more specifically for high level department stores such as Saks Fifth Avenue, Neiman Marcus, Bloomingdales, etc is full of glamour and endless perks off of 500 dollar Chanel shades. True working for a department store that is known for hosting swanky events and capturing the latest trend before the rest of the fashion world even begans reporting on it, is quite cool. But no one sees the many man hours and often sacrifices required to be part of this world. I will not reveal which fabulous company I work for to protect mainly myself, while devulging my personal opinions and truth of what occurs behind the glass doors.

Truthfully speaking if people only knew how truly broke many of us who work retail really are, they would be surprised. Yes we may be able to get that great shoe that was once 500 dollars for 110 after it went on SUPER sale and clearance AND waiting for coworker appreciation. But often many of us employees do not shop as much as people think we do. The base rate for an employee working in a higher end department store on commission at the place known for the big brown bag is 12.00 an hour. Thats it, and before you say well you guys make alot of money on commission so that makes up for the little you make hourly. Not true, some retailers (like the one previously meantioned) work on a draw versus commission base. Which basically means if you don’t sell X amount of dollars per week in sales you fall into a deficit which means yeah you will get your base, but the moment you have a great week in sales you have to pay the company back for the money you owed before and what ever is left over is your check. Kinda sucks doesn’t it? Right.

Another thing many of us who work retail crave? Respect. Thats right, Ms Aretha explained it best in her hit song to quote her “R-E-S-P-E-C-T find out what it means to me.” I can’t explain to you how many times someone has yelled at me, called me incompetent, or asked me to clean up their trash..yes I said it trash. Of course if I respond to the insults of others, or those who don’t value my authority they ask for my manager only for them to reinterate what I just said… I am automatically wrong. That statement the customer is always right still holds true, even if they act like a total jackass and practically stalk you by calling your job asking when their item will arrive, even though you told them three times it will not arrive until Friday. Working sometimes 9 hour days on your feet and begging for an opportunity to sit down or relieve yourself from the pain your legs are feeling while still smiling as you take that return from the person who decides to come at the very moment you announce the store is closed…takes patience….LOTS of it.

Corporate visits in store are like scenes from Devil Wears Prada with people scrambling around trying to make sure everything is perfect before the men in black ( corporate) with their large binders and numbers grace our presence. Days like that are nervewracking, large groups of people hold numbers and ask you questions to your manager about you within earshot as if you don’t exist. Since if they don’t ask you what your name is…you kind of don’t. I have experience many a coporate visit in which I am nervously standing there awaiting verdict of how well I and my brand is doing performance wise, If its not good then you have constant stratedgy meetings with your manager and coporate brand representative on what can be done to improve the business. When you are in charge of a brand the brand and its success or failure rest on your shoulders. Some weeks are great numbers are up, projecting sales growth has increased to 20% above LY ( last years numbers) and you can’t keep your merchandise on the floor. Then next week comes and numbers drop, your rank in the company drops, and merchandise has barely moved. Nervously you check your numbers and the projected plan for the month, your 4,000 dollars short of your monthly goal and you only have three days to make plan. These are the kind of days I or any brand specialist may face, and does happen. If you don’t make plan you asses the numbers, and what can be done perhaps merchandising or training wise improve it…the worst they can do is pull your brand from the store if numbers continue to fail, or replace you.

Though dont get me wrong, not every day is dreaded. There are the days when clients who you have developed such a close relationship with come in looking for you and trust only your fashion advice. Or when you help a young woman pick out her dress for senior prom and for the first time she sees herself as beautiful. Or the days when your meet great people like the Vice President of Guatemala and he buys a thousand dollars worth of shirts and ties ( yes this has happened to me), or you have a celebrity, senator, or a Real Housewife of DC asking you for fashion advice. Days like this do occur, and that is what keeps many of us there. Our clients, the fashion tragic who can’t tell the difference between black and navy blue ( heres a hint look at the stitching on the garment). These people who have become so dedicated and loyal to us that they can’t imagine the day when they walk into the store and don’t find us in our area of specialty. Yet they day will come when many of us will move on or upwards into senior management, buying offices, or the career path we originally wanted to set out on.

Retail is a thankful and thankless business, unless you stand out among the people you just become a number, that can easily be replaced if you don’t meet quota. But If you are smart you learn the game, and how to play it-quickly. You come to quickly find out who is in power, and how to estatblish yourself as a competitor in a non threatning way. Sounds contradictory doesn’t it? Not so much. With any job you have build the trust of your fellow coworkers and management. If you come in with an elitist attitude you quickly make yourself the enemy, and those who despise you the most will patiently wait for your fall…perhaps even assisting with it. I have learned to have the face of a panda but the mindset of a shark. Sweet, caring, and enduring…but will cut you in half if you come at me wrong and take my kindness for weakness. Which is why I have survived in this business since I was 17.

The new kids in the store each have an expiration date, which we can size up how long they will last within first meeting them. Some we give 1-3 months before getting frustrated, some we give until the holiday season ends and they realize that not every day is chirstmas sale wise in store, and some are so productive but become so damn lazy we just wish they would quit, only a few out of the 10 people from the on boarding class has what it takes to stay. Sounds harsh doesn’t it? Well its the reality of the situation in retail, fashion, and truly the corporate world structure..the strong survive and the weak become food to be devoured. If you happen to last more than a year with retail, high end or lower end consider yourself lucky and one of the few of thousands who didn’t. Your rank has now changed, you are now the person people want to get in good with because management respects you, clients request you by name, and any small problem a newbie is sweating bullets over you solve within seconds.

Overall as frustrating as working in retail or fashion is, I wouldn’t trade my experience for nothing else. Working in this business has built me a back bone, one I really didn’t have before I started working so many years ago. I can be diplomatic, fair, but firm in getting my point across without stepping on any ones toes..but sometime I do and will crush them if necessary. I have had the priviledge of learning how to run a business, voice my needs for merchandise and needs of the client. Yes I may not be rich or making a lucrative salary, but I will because the skills I have accquired will take me further into the coroporate world, be fashion or not. So yeah my desk is a register, I may have to wear black everyday, I don’t have traditional weekends off, Thanksgiving and Christmas are some of the most dreaded holidays solely because of the erotic people who are about to lose it if they don’t find the perfect gift. But can I ring a register, answer a phone, and get another size almost simoultaneously…damn straight.

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