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An Anonymous Luxury Department Store Staffer Tells All

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Welcome to the Retail Diaries, a new column in which an anonymous sales associate at a high-end Manhattan department store reveals what it's like on the other side of the cash register. Note: Names and identifying details have been changed to protect the innocent.

Photo by Bairachnyi Dmitry/Shutterstock

When my first day at the luxury New York department store rolled around, I dressed, as instructed by the employees in my training classes, for both comfort and style. "Looking good always helps," said one woman, a 10-year veteran of the company. "People like to shop with stylish sales associates?for obvious reasons."

That meant a black Theory sheath dress with charcoal gray Wolfords and Prada's new suede, stack-heeled shoe in burgundy. Deciding against a red lip—too bold for the first day on the floor—I opted for a pale gloss and headed uptown.

Despite my better judgment after working at small boutiques, I was excited to dive into a department store. "You have to wardrobe the whole client," the executives preached. That meant shoes, jewelry, handbags, cosmetics, intimate apparel, and, of course, clothes.

I belong to Women's Contemporary apparel, a bona fide hot spot for the store. As I made my way towards my register, I noticed the buzz on the floor. Fall had just begun, and judging by all the women with arms full of merchandise, people were prepared to spend.

I approached the register to disapproving glances from my new coworkers. Much to my chagrin, I hadn't been introduced to the people I would be sharing my territory with. One man, a tall redhead with fabulous shoes, looked me up and down, gave a curt smile, and introduced himself. The women in my section laughed, intentionally, I thought, out loud.

I was putting my things away when a customer came up to the register holding a garment bag and announced that she needed to make a return. "The receipt is in the bag," she told me, and answered the iPhone buzzing in her hand.

The item was a Helmut Lang leather jacket, beige, with shearling interior. It cost close to $1,500. I started processing the transaction in the computer, when it asked me the reason for the return.

"Ma'am? Was something wrong with the item?" I asked.

Annoyed, she put her phone to the side. "No, why? Is there a stain? I just didn't like it. I tried it on with my things at home. I didn't like it. I'm in a hurry, I have to get back to work." She waved her hands at me and apologized to the person on the receiving end of her call.

I returned the item, had her sign the receipt, and watched as she ran off. I was putting a sensor back on the item when one of the ladies who had laughed at me earlier came rushing over.

"Where's the return receipt?" she asked. I gave it to her, and she scoffed. She punched her numbers into the computer and, dismayed, threw her hands into the air.

"I cannot believe this. Two hours I spent with that woman! Two hours! She made me bring her every shearling on the floor. She finally bought that one, after I brought her a fresh one from the back."

"I'm so sorry," I said.

"Yeah, me too. Now I'm in deficit for the day. That jacket ain't cheap. I can't believe it. Maldito trenticuatro, that's what she is."

I don't speak Spanish. "What's that mean?"

"It means she's a fuckin' thirty-four. You never heard that before?" I answered no. "Oh, like 34th Street. You know, the knockoff stores and all the discount jewelry places? Thirty-four. That's what we call 'em. We know all of them, too. There are a bunch that love to just buy and return, like her. Look at this!"

She showed me the customer's file in the computer and, sure enough, her return rate was 89%.

"Remember her face," my coworker warned. "Don't help her, or you'll get screwed, just like me."

Since starting the day off with negative $1500 wasn't exactly appealing, I nodded my head in agreement. Lesson one: Stay away from the trenticuatros.

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