Tuesday, 2 January 2007

Guest Slapper of the Month XII

Robin of Now Smell This is without a doubt the unsung hero* of the perfume-blog world. I don’t share all of her tastes in perfume, but I always enjoy reading her thoughts, and respect her opinion because it’s never fanciful or perverse. If I were an influential magazine editor or book publisher I would snap her up in a jiffy. Of course, that would probably mean she’d be too busy to carry on delighting us with news, reviews and all manner of insights on a daily basis. I used to flit about all over the Internet in an attempt to keep myself informed; her wonderfully clear and user-friendly blog is now my first port of call. If you haven’t discovered it yet, you have a treat in store.

Printemps Beauty Floor, Paris. Pic courtesy of LMcQ

Previous guest-slappers have tackled such weighty issues as access to health care, littering and excessive violence in video games, and I considered following in that vein by taking on some meaningful topic like World Peace or the No Child Left Behind Act. But the holidays have left me more than usually drained of any ability to think Big Thoughts, so I am going to stick with my usual frivolity and give a resounding slap to every snooty salesperson I’ve encountered in the past year while engaged in my habitual frivolous pastime: shopping for perfume.

I shop for perfume a lot. I am not a good customer, since I rarely buy anything – I just do my part to drain the testers, and I try to cadge free samples. So I sympathize with the salespeople who have come to recognize me at my local mall, and sigh when they see me coming. They know I am a waste of time, and this slap isn’t for them.

But pray tell, what exactly is it about standing behind a glass counter all day selling perfume that seems to engender such a massive feeling of superiority over your fellow man? When I was much, much younger than I am now, I rather thought that the saleswomen (they used to be all women) in the beauty area had the right to be snooty. After all, they led Glamorous Lives and possessed all sorts of arcane knowledge, such as how to do a smoky eye without looking like a raccoon and how to choose the right lip liner to blend with your lipstick. Now that I am older, it is increasingly obvious that selling perfume or eyeshadow in a department store isn’t really the glamorous job I imagined it to be when I was 13, and that in fact, many of them do look like raccoons, and that the percentage of women behind beauty counters with teased hair is alarmingly higher than it is in the population at large.

But I digress. To get back to my point, many salespeople are just downright unpleasant. They stand behind the counter chatting to other salespeople instead of offering assistance. Sometimes, they are even chatting openly, and snidely, about other customers. Ouch! If you interrupt politely to ask a question, they look at you like you might be something the cat dragged in (and I find this is especially true if you aren’t wearing lipstick and carrying the latest bag from Prada). Or they offer assistance, and when you make it clear you don’t need any, they hover over you and keep offering to spray your arm with the latest Britney Spears fragrance. But most of all, they just act superior. They seem to assume that everyone they encounter is clueless about how to choose a perfume, and they seem to take a special joy in making sure that the process of shopping for one is anything but fun.

If they do engage you in conversation and you appear at all knowledgeable, they look at you suspiciously and ask if you work for a perfume company. More than once, I’ve been basically accused of being some sort of industry spy simply because I was aware of upcoming fragrance releases that were supposedly “top secret”. Perhaps there are industry spies in the perfume field – I wouldn’t know – but if there are, I can only assume that they have better methods of keeping an eye on the competition than scoping out the perfume counter at suburban Macys.

Obviously, not all salespeople are snooty, and they aren’t always snooty at the places where you’d think they would be. Paradoxically, I’ve had nothing but wonderful experiences at the swank flagship Saks Fifth Avenue store in New York, and generally unpleasant experiences at Saks stores in suburban malls. At Macys, a mid-tier chain where you might expect to find a less uppity attitude than you would at a high end store like Neiman Marcus, they are almost uniformly supercilious and extraordinarily stingy about samples; at my local Neiman Marcus, they are unfailingly helpful and pleasant. Both of the Nordstrom stores I shop at regularly are great. Sephora, where they will make you a sample of any fragrance in stock, is one of my favorite stores: the salespeople aren’t at all knowledgeable, but they are friendly and kind. Now if only they would make a Sephora store for grownups without the loud music and the masses of giggling pre-teen customers blocking the aisles, but that is a subject for another slap…

* Someone must have heard me: her blog is currently mentioned in the January issue of Lucky magazine. Congratulations, R!


  1. I feel really intimidated by some salespeople. I love to cadge as well and they make you feel so cheap if you don't buy anything. Of course, when you do buy things the samples come thick and fast!

  2. Great to see you here, R!

    I wonder if your slap may be slightly misdirected. As you pointed out, Nordstrom salespersons are uniformly friendly and helpful, while Macy's seems to hire only snooty b*tches. Something to do with their training? The corporate culture of each store? Let's slap the management! Of course, each individual does have a choice, whether to be a ray of sunshine or a bitter pill, in any given transaction...

    I feel sorry for the SAs, really. Talk about 'all dressed up and nowhere to go' - they primp and polish, then go to work at a job where they're on their feet all day for not much more than minimum wage, and the only people they impress are spotty 13-year-olds!

  3. I agree with red-queen that it's got something to do with training. Imagine being a wine connoisseur and going to a restaurant where the staff are told that every customer is wine-ignorant, and the server should begin by explaining that red-goes-with-meat and white-with-poultry. The moment you bypass all that and ask for the dry Spanish rosé you read about in your connoisseur's magazine (the one you bought futures in years ago), they look at you as though you've called them out, and haughtily so. At a better establishment, of course, they'd be like that waitress whose "entire face blazed with joy" when MFK Fisher knew to order the perfect wine with her truit au bleu at that out-of-the-way restaurant in, where was it, Alsace? (I think it's in The Gastronomical Me, but it could be An Alphabet for Gourmets.)

    Anyway, your slap is warranted because anybody who is unwilling to admit limited knowledge just to retain their power in the situation (those goes for SAs and world leaders alike) deserves one. I frequently have to stifle my mother's trademark comment, which (like so many of her sayings) pops unbidden into my mind: "Were you raised in a BARN?"

    I've found that a photograph of my extensive 'fume collection works like a charm. I don't present it in a braggy way (how could I?--it reveals me to be the freak that I am) but in a "look how obsessed I am, isn't that wacky?" way. It allows me to bypass the whole you-must-be-new-to-perfume routine while contextualizing my knowledge as one of a collector rather than an industry spy. I tend to get treated much better that way. Seriously, I recommend gathering your stuff together and photographing it. Then slip the picture in your bag and take it out when you shop for 'fume. They SAs will love you (okay, the SAs at Barneys in Chicago and Saks in New York). :-)

  4. Quite so that management and/or corporate culture is equally to blame. But each individual *does* have a choice, and letting the power go to your head is frankly comic when after all, you're selling perfume, not directly world events.

    E, I don't even mind being made to feel cheap so long as I get my free samples!

    D, how ever did you guess I was spotty at 13, LOL?

    K, Will have to take some decent pictures of my collection and try that tactic, LOL...

  5. The friendliest, most helpful and knowledgeable SA's I've come across were at Barney's. Actually kind of surprised me because perfume is the only thing I can afford in that store! But my daughter and I decided that we wanted to marry our SA from a recent trip in Dallas.

  6. Yes, I have found it makes THE most enormous difference if you wear lipstick. No other make-up seems to count, just that red slash. I've got several 'I mean business' lipsticks in my make-up bag that are just for manipulation. Dark, dark browny-purply red intimidates trendy younger women (I'm 43). Scarlet silences businessmen. Raspberry-red (a bit less frightening) makes other women like me and be friendly.

  7. Gail, the Barneys NY SA's really vary. Some are marvelous, some are worse than Macys, LOL! Luis at the Frederic Malle boutique there is one of the best SAs in the country, IMHO.

    Lulu, that might be my problem -- I wear wussy little pink lipsticks that probably say "pick on me" and "don't give me free samples", LOL...

  8. If I'm not mistaken, in this country, SAs are employed by the companies they represent not by the department stores they work at, so the former are responsible for the SAs' behaviour.

    How's this for snootiness and sheer nerve: a few years ago, in Harvey Nichols, I enquired about an Anna Sui fragrance that had just come out and sounded interesting. The SA looked me up and down and said, 'It's very expensive, you know!' I was younger and less bolshie then, LOL!, I was so stunned I couldn't think of anything to say and walked away. Nice, non?

  9. I WISH I'd be accused of being an industry spy. More often than not, aside from being generally unhelpful, I get the blank stare when I ask for, say a men's scent with amber or the new something or other. I love when they tell me it doesn't exist and yet I have a sample I've worn several times.

    Better still is when I am redirected to whatever the hell they're pushing that month. They do love to show you the cute gift sets. Anybody who knows anything about perfume of course is buying the new Paris Hilton scent in EDT, lotion and shower gel. With a stuffed animal.

    Of course knowledge varies hugely from store to store, but I find it greatly disheartening that I have received a better fragrance education on various message boards and by reading a few books, than many of these people who make their money that way. Great post, Robin!

  10. Maybe this is a good place to bring this up.

    On perfumes - why do people even buy that stuff by Britney Spears or even worse Paris Hilton? Do you WANT to smell like a skank?

    It would be like if Donald Trump had a signature line of bad rugs with names like "roadkill musk rat", "4 day old dead skunk", and the ever popular "opossum". Would men buy those things? Probably.

    By the way, I like Kenneth Cole "Black" and Burberry (the kind that comes in the black and white checkered box and the red box). I also like Polo Blue (old but still good) and Azarro "Chrome". The Azarro "visit" reeks like a pine forest and is not for me. Might as well just wear a Pine-Sol or something.

    My high end store stuff consists of this stuff I got at Saks. "John Varvatos". That is what it is called. The dude makes suits or something. It is OK. I like my KC Black better really but there is nothing wrong with the Varvatos stuff.

  11. It's not just fragrance SAs. I actually got laughed at in a handbag store recently because I took my time to make a discerning choice. I was very tempted to walk out but I couldn't decide if the joke would be on me if I allowed some stupid SA to stop me buying the bag I wanted. In fact I did walk out and then returned and (assuming there was a commission system in operation) made the purchase with a different SA.

    I wonder how much the being on their feet issue makes a difference. I recently stood for 2 hours at a concert and by the end my feet were so sore that I would have been incapable of being civil to anyone.

  12. GSE, I cannot remember how many Shakespeare plays I've seen, standing at the back of the stalls of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre in Stratford and elsewhere (admittedly when I was younger and standing-room tickets cost 50p - the number runs into hundreds b/c I was seeing the same prods 25 times). I was always elated and floating on a cloud at the end, but I would hate to have to stand all day behind a counter in a store.

  13. It's the first thing I've been to that required standing (I skipped the first Live Aid and many things since because they required standing). I don't think I'll do it again. I need to acquire a shooting stick.

  14. Wonderful vibrant post. I related, even though I'm far from perfume nutty. Does anyone really need more than, say, two fragrances? ;-) Fragranced bubble bath on the other hand...

    There is one department store in Birmingham that specialises in those snooty, haughty, terribly made up-coiffured assistants. It was a bad joke, but after a (mad)man went on a machete frenzy in there a few years ago, it was said that many of the assistants were saved from serious injury by the thickness of their make up. That is what came to mind while I was reading.

    And remembering how hard I worked to be civil even to rude and idiotic customers when I worked in a department store. (Not the one mentioned above: I know when to say 'that's a thick enough lash' and I have manners.)

  15. Bela, best answer I can think of is "what a shame, you probably can't afford it on your salary", but in real life, I would have just walked away saying nothing just like you.

    R, I have to laugh when they tell you that you are lying about a fragrance you *own* -- it doesn't exist! If they haven't seen it, it doesn't exist. LOL!

    Lazy Iguana, I knew Britney Spears could sell fragrance, but I hereby go on record as saying that I was convinced that *nobody* would buy a Paris Hilton fragrance. Why would they? HA!

  16. GSH: that is incredible, actually laughed at?? What do they care how long you take? And it is hard to be on your feet all day (I used to waitress, and I remember well) but all that excuses, from my point of view, is lack of enthusiasm, not outright rudeness.

    Jemima, apparently you can live with one scented bubble bath so long as you have 100 perfumes -- I am living proof :-) But you have a good point: I'm sure there are as many rude customers as there are SAs.

  17. Well, Bela, you have picked a great guest. I enjoyed this slap very much.

    I don't shop for scents, but I do SHOP, and in general, sales clerks are not so helpful and polite as "in the old days." Why? I can't figure it out.

    I find grocery check-out clerks among the worst. Some don't even look at you or speak to you. Some talk on their cell phones while ringing up your purchases. Amazing.

    Happy New Year to you all.

  18. R, you are soooo right!

    I was shocked at my first Sniffa in NYC, when all the SA's were so darn *nice*! I'm used to incompetence, no help, or downright rudeness. The SA's at Bergdorf are lovely beyond belief, as are those in Saks and pretty much everywhere else in NYC. Not so here in Delaware.

    Excellent slap!

  19. Bela-

    I think I would have looked her up and down and said "If YOU could afford it I wouldn't be asking about it!"

    Nordstroms SA's (were, I don't know if it's still the case) had pounded into them from day one that they were to be friendly and helpful. It was called being "Nordy" and was a trademark of the store.

    I worked in retail for years (selling art and architecture books) and made an effort to be nice: if I had a customer with no knowledge I tried to help them, if I had one with some, I enjoyed the exchange and if I had one with more than me I wanted to learn from them.


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