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Welcome back to the Retail Diaries, 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
It was noon, and I had already stood diligently in my place for three hours waiting for a customer. None had arrived. The floor was so quiet that the other salespeople were gathered in clusters, talking in whispers. One of the floor's veterans looked at me, held out her arms, and gave an exaggerated shrug of the shoulders. As Florence would say, these were the dog days. Except ours weren't over.
So when the phone rang, I rushed over to it, beating my coworker to the punch. This could very well be a huge phone sale! I prayed for fur, leather, suede, anything over $1,000.
“Hey, wanna go to lunch?” the voice on the end of the line asked.
It was Jen, my friend from lingerie. My hopes dashed, I agreed. A nice, long lunch sounded like an excellent reprieve from the floor.
Moments later, we ended up in line at PopBurger, anxiously awaiting greasy sliders and tater tots. "How's your day?" my friend asked.
"I got nothin," I answered as I grabbed my tray. "What about you?"
"God, do you have to ask? Me either. But there was so much drama on my floor this morning."
After stealing a table from a couple of angry suits, we sat down and she filled me in.
Lingerie is a fairly lucrative business, what with $200 bras and $1,000 nightgowns being all the rage among our Brazilian visitors and elderly Park Avenue princesses. Jen makes decent money for selling shapewear and bras all day, but that's because women need these things all year round, constantly replenishing their lingerie drawers.
Jen's seen everything from girls surprising their boyfriends with a $3,000 lace La Perla bodysuit to recovering breast cancer patients and plastic surgery nightmares. The lingerie salespeople are, by default, more intimately connected with their clients than anyone else in the store.
That morning, Jen's coworker had nabbed two older women, who were "clearly Upper East Side types." Clutching their Birkins, they went into two separate fitting rooms to try on a couple of bras. While they did so, one of the newer associates on the floor (let's call her Jamie) approached a very tall, pretty woman who was picking out some very expensive lingerie. "May I start you a room?" she asked, and led her promising client to the third fitting room, right next to the two Birkins.
"It wasn't even ten minutes before the other two ladies came running out of their fitting rooms, screaming and making a scene, and saying the word, 'Disgusting!' over and over again," Jen told me, shaking her head. "The poor thing, I felt so bad."
Unbeknownst to the new associate, her promising client was a transgender woman. While she had an "impressive" (according to Jen) pair of very realistic looking boobs, she still had male equipment downstairs. When Jamie opened the door to help her fit a particularly tricky bra, she noticed that something was clearly different. Apparently, one of the elderly women saw into the room and began to react. "Jamie’s client was so brave about it when she came out of the fitting room. It was as if nothing ever happened."
Jamie ended up having a hefty sale from her client, but her other coworker missed out. This, of course, caused quite the argument. "You put those people in separate rooms, where no one else is," the associate told Jamie.
Over what was left of our tater tots, we discussed what was right and wrong in Jamie's situation. On the one hand, our goal as service providers is to keep our clients comfortable and at ease. But on the other hand, it is also the duty of our customers to maintain and respect the luxury environment we create.
Had those two ladies expressed concern or discomfort at the thought of sharing space with the woman in the next room, they could have politely informed their sales associate, who would have gladly (and quietly) moved them elsewhere. Instead, they caused a scene and embarrassed and shamed another client.
I do not agree with Jamie and Jen's coworker, whose solution to the problem was to isolate Jamie's client. It is not our job as sales associates to accommodate discrimination. And, lest the ladies in their ivory towers on the Upper East Side forget, this is New York City. Men, women, and everything in between are well represented and well respected here.
Having said that, it is a complex problem that is hard to address in a luxury New York institution, where things of this nature are often ignored. It's even hard for me to think that I would do the same thing as Jamie if I were in her shoes. I only wish I were as naïve as her, that I could look without judging, and view every customer the same.
Instead, I fear I've become more like my coworkers: keen to looking at the brand of a bag or pair of shoes before I approach someone, judging women based on their makeup, and their accents. Would I have treated this woman with the same blind kindness Jamie had?
I like to think I would. In fact, every part of me wants to go back to that day and hug her, and shame the women who made her feel so poorly. It's a sad fact that sometimes, the more money one has, the more ignorant one is. And as for those Upper East Side ladies who walked out of the store, I’m glad they did so. In fact, I hope they never come back.
We don't tolerate their kind here.
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