"Let's Talk Shop"

Condensed from "The American Magazine" - January 1939 (as appearing in The Reader's Digest 1939)

by Hortense McQuarrie Odlum, President Bonwit Teller, New York

When, four years ago, I was made president of a large women's store, I was about zero in business experience. But as a customer I had run the gamut: in the early days I had had to save and plan for months in order to make a single dress purchase; later, the great shops of New York and of Europe had courted my custom with a flattery which was often oppressive. And just as to every other woman shopper, there had been many things that seemed to me unnecessarily annoying. One of my pet dislikes was the saleswoman who said, "You certainly don't want a checked blouse. Nobody wears anything but stripes." Or, "Moddom, it simply isn't being sold." I resented the different treatment accorded to modest and well-to-do customers, the quick change from frown to fawn, based on bank roll. One of my first acts was to make discrimination against the modest purchaser an unpardonable sin.

I knew that, to women, shopping is a vital and perilous business. Besides the approval of husband and friends, the right clothes mean self-respect and inner content, a lift to the personality. In a sense they mean much the same as prestige and position mean to a man. If a woman buys wisely, her world is rosy. Grudging congratulations from her husband, the admiration of her friends. But if she loses her head and spends too much there may be tears and recriminations at home, and weeks of scrimping. If she buys an unbecoming costume, she must face her husband's mute displeasure and the ineffectually concealed pity of her bridge cronies. Indeed, success in shopping closely affects woman's emotional and social life.

Because I, as customer, had been through all that, I decided I would show every customer the same hospitality I would show a guest in my home. I would never let customers be urged to buy what they did not want or could not afford, and would offer expert advice toward making each shopping trip a successful experience.

When I moved to the other side of the counter, I found that the saleswoman, too, has her woes. Her work is hard. She is on her feet for long hours. Her customers often seem haughty and unreasonable.

That is why the relation between tired salesperson and dissatisfied customer often develops into a masked feud. But when the saleswoman realizes that the customer's haughtiness may conceal an inner doubt, that the irritablility may grow from a real worry, the feud evaporates. Sympathy and helpfulness replace browbeating and the upturned nose.

I did not rise to be president of the store; I just happened to fall into it. My husband and his associates had acquired control of the establishment, which had somehow fallen behind the times. They hadn't the foggiest notion of how to run a women's store, and one of them suggested that I shop around there a bit, and see if I had any suggestions to make. After visiting the store daily for several weeks I worked out some ideas which seemed so obvious I was afraid there was some catch in them. I remember I suggested that the millinery department be brought down to the first floor. Women strolling through often like to try on a hat, and if they find a fetching one it encourages them to go on to other purchases. (This change, made later, tripled our millinery business.) My suggestions were so successful that the directors finally asked me to take the presidency. All I brought to the job was horse sense and the customer's viewpoint.

My first determination was to find out why, as a customer, I had received less prompt and courteous service when I shopped with cash than when I shopped with a charge account. The best answer I could get was: "Well, the cash purchasers are just transients. we may never see them again."

If they are transients, why not try to make them regular customers? I issued strict orders that every kindness be accorded cash customers. One night I had another idea, and drafted an informal thank-you note to be sent to each cash customer. The response was surprising - both in acknowledgments from pleased recipients and in repeat business.

Also I gave great attention to the Complaint Department, where it had been the store's habit to put up an argument, which often grew into a quarrel, and the customer was lost. I reasoned that in most such disputes the store must finally give in anyway. Why not make every reasonable concession at once, with courtesy? It would cost money, but it would make friends and more business in the long run.

Many women customers would rather not be asked by the saleswoman how much they want to pay. It is better to bring out three selections, on high priced, one low, and one medium. The let the customer indicate her preference. The good saleswoman does not ask, "What size, please?" She should be able to guess. If she is not sure, she should make the woman happy by guessing a bit under.

The sensitive woman shopper may become angry over a trifle, but by the same token she is generously delighted by little kindnesses. One of our best saleswomen showed us that. When a woman comes in who looks upset, she invites her to sit down and offers her a drink of water before she begins to show any merchandise. This almost always puts the customer in a more receptive frame of mind.

Our customers also appreciate such little conveniences as these; The doorman always has $10 in change for customers who arrive by taxicab and are annoyed by the New York taxi driver's chronic shortage of change. Needle and thread are available in every part of the store for the quick and cheerful repair of a loose button or seam. Luncheon is served in the fitting rooms and the beauty salons. In fittings, hair nets are provided to protect a cherished coiffure. A desk has been established where women can obtain information, get change for telephoning, and leave messages for friends who they expect to meet.

So that I would not lose the customer's viewpoint, I set up a Consumers' Advisory Committee. Every month I invite to a meeting four different customers, selected to represent a cross section of our clientele. Informally, we have luncheon in my office, discussing clothes and shopping problems.

To help the woman who doesn't know what she wants, we offer a clothes counsel service. Many women who do not know how to dress well are shy about asking for advice. But it is a common failing, and nothing to be ashamed of. Women shoppers should ask for all the advice they can get. More frankness is also in order with the woman with a limited budget. In the long run, it is just as bad for us as for the shopper if we sell her more than she can afford. We want no woman ever to leave the store with a purchase unless she is entirely happy.


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