03. June 2005 · Comments Off on Adventures in Retail · Categories: Domestic, General, Working In A Salt Mine...

I plead guilty to having frittered away some three or four months of my life (in between serious job/career adjustments) working in retail sales. Would it make any difference that it was enormously enjoyable interlude, almost completely devoid of huge mission responsibilities and seriousness? It also paid rather well, since the upscale department store offered a commission on sales, in addition to the (small) base salary… and a very generous employee discount; 30%, if memory serves. Some of the experienced sales staff said loftily that it was hardly worth working for a place that offered anything less than a 20% employee discount. And really, what could be more amusing than to dress beautifully every day, and go hang out in a department store with other beautifully dressed women?

As a military veteran, a resident of a very, very red state, a small-c conservative and one of those pesky right-of-center bloggers, I am doubtless already going to that version of hell envisioned by the very, very politically correct, and have nothing more to lose by admitting that I was hired… to work in the fur salon. The department store chain was going to close various Texas locations, but for the last three months before closing— which they planned to do on Christmas Eve— the national management brought in a concessionaire to set up a fur salon. In San Antonio, the concessions’ traveling rep hired three women, of which I was one, women of mature years and irreproachably upper-middle class demeanor to staff the small salon. I had never worked that kind of job, although the other two had; I seemed to have been hired because I looked right, and the traveling rep was confident that I would take an obsessive interest in the security of an extremely valuable inventory. We had some brief training on the cash register, and the means by which the inventory would be secured— by locking cables to the racks when on the floor, and at closing time transferred to rolling “z” racks and locked in a secure room overnight— and on the construction, quality, and varieties of fur.

The three of us had no particular feelings about the morality of selling furs, any more than we would have about leather coats or shoes. We also had no particular yen to own one ourselves. We appreciated the fact that many of the coats were quite beautiful of themselves, cunningly cut and tailored, and the tactile sensation of the various furs— mink, sable, sheared beaver, Persian lamb— was very pleasant, but… Not only were they completely impractical in this part of the country, they were very high-maintenance… and insanely expensive. As one of the store security officers said, shaking his head while contemplating our most expensive item: a very fine let-out ¾ length sable coat at $95,000 (but eventually marked down)
“I never saw a price like that on something that didn’t have either four wheels or a roof.”

We appreciated them with a distant aestheticism, and the 2% commission on their sales, and kept very careful track of which of us had been approached by a customer, who had worked with a customer in choosing a coat, and who had rung up the sale. Fur coats had one thing in common with cars and real estate; they were big ticket purchases, and not often bought on impulse. Customers often came back over the course of several days, trying on many coats, considering carefully before taking the plunge, asking for advice and reassurance. The salon was situated next to the designer evening gowns and around the corner from the Jaeger concession; the store itself catered to a fairly upscale, conservative old-money sort of clientele. Sometimes the customers were very hard to tell from the sales associates, some of whom worked because they had to, and some who didn’t, but just thought it was so amusing, darling, and after all, it was something to do.

Many of the customers were the sort of woman that I had always heard about, but never actually met until that point in my life; ladies of leisure, who shopped, and lunched and shopped some more, and sometimes had to hide their latest purchase from their husband. One of our most frequent customers was an elegant divorcee who adored fur coats, and eventually bought seven or eight, but seemed to spend half a day at a time among the racks. On one of the final days, when everything had been marked down 75%, and we were run off our feet just ringing up sales and each of us with three or four customers waiting to be seen, she was there, chatting up the other customers and selling them on the finer points of the various coats… we gave her a key to the racks, and she enjoyed herself tremendously as a volunteer unpaid sales associate. We knew her terribly well by that time… but what kind of a life is that, looking for human contact and company by hanging around in an up-scale store, chatting with the staff? Remarked one of the store security men when two of us pointed out some of the “ladies who lunch” regulars, one slow day in mid-week.
“I’d like to have that kind of life, not having anything more to do than meet someone for lunch.”
“No, you wouldn’t!” we chorused in perfect unison.

Within a couple of weeks of opening the salon, one of our trio quit in a snit— and left us with two people, to cover all the hours that the store was open, seven days a week. It would take a few weeks to hire a replacement. In the meantime, another sales associate suggested that we ask around, see if someone had a reliable, responsible teenager who could come to work right away, part-time and on weekends, until school let out for Christmas vacation. I swear, it took five minutes before I slapped myself on the forehead, and recollected that I myself had a reliable and responsible teenage child. So, after vetting by the company rep, Blondie came to work in the fur salon. She was then seventeen but looked college-age, and did very well. Modestly and neatly dressed, deferential and polite— the teenage daughter that many of our customers doubtless wished for themselves. We had to school ourselves; on the floor she called me “Mrs. Hayes” and I called her “our junior associate”.

On one of her first days, she came to me with a coat in one hand and a credit card in the other. It seemed that a man had brought his wife by, on the way to the airport, and on the pretense of just killing time before her flight, he had her try on some coats, as a lark. As they left, he hung a little behind, and slipped his credit card to Blondie, and whispered that she was to ring up the coat which his wife had liked the best, and he would be back in twenty minutes. It was to be a surprise for her… and it certainly was for Blondie, who had pretty well concluded that they were just looking. I sold a coat one day to a girl who looked scarcely older than my daughter. It was a slow day, and she was the only customer, so I took her around the racks, and talked about the finer points of the various coats, and let her try some on. At the end of ten minutes, the girl selected one of them, announced that she had just passed the State bar, been accepted into a good law firm, and she was buying a fur coat to celebrate. The other associates said, well, you could never really tell; best to assume that anyone walking in, no matter what their appearance and condition, had the wherewithal to buy any damned thing they pleased and treat them accordingly.

The experienced associates also said that after a while, you had seen everything… and some of it several times over. I rather cherished the memory of the evening the other salon associate came into the back room while I was on break and gasped,
“Celia, I can’t stay out there another minute! You won’t believe, but there’s three transvestites out there, shopping for evening gowns!” And so there were, and I would have never thought I was enough of a cosmopolitan myself to go out on the floor, and say with a straight face that the silver lame number was gorgeous… but one really had to have the legs for it.
Oh, yes, you’ll see it all in retail, and come to know that “Are You Being Served?”… was actually a reality show!

Comments closed.