Friday, November 09, 2007

Snobby Salespeople

A tip from reader Charles led me to this article and blog post at, about how salespeople in high-end stores perceive potential customers.

I was talking to a Jaguar salesman last week and asked him what the hardest part of his job was.

“You can’t tell who’s rich anymore,” he said. “It used to be if someone walked in with jeans and a T-shirt I could ignore them or ask them to leave. Now that guy could be a billionaire. You have to be nice to everybody these days.”

Tim Blixseth, the billionaire timber tycoon, once told me about the time he visited a men’s clothing store near Palm Springs to buy a suit for his son. When they walked in, wearing work boots and jeans, the salesman headed them off at the door and said “I think you’d be better off at the mall.” They eventually bought a suit, but Tim made sure to drive by the front door in his Rolls Royce and wave goodbye to the salesman.

Identifying the rich used to be fairly simple: They dressed, talked and looked a certain way. They had iconic last names like Hutton or Hearst or Phipps, often with Roman numerals at the end.

Today, wealth has been democratized and individualized, and the rich come in all ages, shapes, sizes and ethnicities. People often ask me, “What do the rich wear? How can you tell by looking at someone today if they’re rich?” Such questioners are usually recalling old myths about watches and shoes, but my answer is that there is no way to tell. The rich don’t have a uniform anymore. Today, they all wear their wealth differently, from the dot-commers in T-shirts to the hedge-funders in khaki to the CEOs in classic pinstripes.

In her Journal column today, Christina Binkley takes a stroll down Rodeo Drive to do an “emotional audit” of salespeople — i.e., to find out how nice and welcoming they were. A woman at jeweler Van Cleef “sent us out the door with little more than her scowl,” she writes, while a woman at Yves Saint Laurent didn’t offer a smile but a “single upturned corner” of her mouth. In other words: not welcoming.

The articles and comments get at a key issue frequently discussed in the personal finance blogosphere, namely that the more you spend on "looking wealthy" the less actual wealth you are likely to have.
One issue that doesn't really get mentioned much, though, is that of the snobby salespeople themselves-- except in the comments. Here's a couple of outtakes:
[An investment banker says] I care my clients see me as an economic equal. But, I couldn't really give a rats ass what some two -bit clerk at Bloomies thinks of me.

Many sales people in high-end stores are lower middle-class strivers with serious adequacy issues.

If sales people were so wealthy, they wouldn’t be salespeople selling luxury goods. They would be BUYING the goods from these stores. Never understood why sales people at upscale stores have attitudes. They are the ones who need to be working to get by (most of the time) - not the people shopping in the stores.
I'll echo what many of the other commenters said-- if you are working in any kind of store, you should treat everyone in a friendly, courteous manner. Yes, you may be working on commission and not want to waste your time, but it's a mistake to make assumptions about anyone's spending potential based on their appearance.
But that said, I've been on both sides of the counter. I worked in a clothing store when I was in college-- trendy but not high-end. What I learned from that job is that most customers treat salespeople like dirt. The NY Times "Class Matters" interactive graphic on class components puts retail salespeople at the 42nd percentile-- I was surprised it was even that high, as sales jobs are not usually thought to be very prestigious.
When I had that job, I didn't work on commission, so I didn't really have a stake in trying to latch onto rich customers. Most of the time, I was friendly because it just seemed to be the right thing to do. But other times, if I was tired or having a bad day, I didn't smile at people and I probably looked like I had an attitude sometimes. And I kind of did! I was barely making more than minimum wage and the job kind of sucked. Whenever a customer really talked down to me, it was some small comfort to think that I'd be going back to my fancy college where I'd be preparing myself to, I don't know, rule the world someday.
The point is, if people think they are being looked down upon, they may feel like looking down on others is their only defense. And as the comments and article showed, both sales people and customers seem to look down on anyone who doesn't, or doesn't seem to have money.


Adrienne said...

I thought the comment about buying online was spot on! For my birthday last year I bought a Movado online. Not only did I not have to worry about snobby sales people and "making appearances", I also got a discount!

The only time I want to deal with sales people is when I don't what the hell I'm doing. Most of them are pretentious or superficially nice or just plain annoying.

Anonymous said...

In general I am a very friendly person. I like to chat with salespeople about all sorts of things EXCEPT what I am purchasing.

Is that odd?

So the times I come across as rude are when they ask me all sorts of questions about why I am there, etc.

Anonymous said...

I once went to the Frette store on Rodeo Drive thinking about buying a gift. At the time, I had NO idea just how crazy expensive the store is.

I tied up my dirty little dog to a tree outside and was heading in, when the salesman told me to bring her on in. He gave her treats and chatted very kindly with me while I tried not to fall over while looking at the prices.

You see? It all depends on the individual sales person.

Anonymous said...

We were once treated very badly by a "DC official" who turned out to be the guy guarding the dump. Once we realized that, we didn't exactly forgive him, but we understood, felt a bit sorry for him and...yeah...mocked him a bit (very bad treatment).

We figured he was compensating for having such a disrepected job by tormenting two lost people isntead of being helpful or letting us leave.

I've occasionally had trouble with store clerks (not being rich or looking rich myself) but I don't have distinct memories, just some vague recollections. It must not have bothered me much.

Anonymous said...

Regardless of profession, people who treat others differently because of perceived class differences are usually just inadequate. Best advice I was ever given was those who really have money usually don't flaunt it.

It is funny though, I have an acquaintance who works at Needless Markup. Once he grabs my wrist to say - Oooh! I like your leather cuff! See mine? It's Louis Vuitton! I chuckled and said mine's Old Navy - $7. A bit pretentious, but I'm 33, he's 43, I have property and a decent 401K, he's renting and looking for a daddy to be his 401K. Oops, was that condescending? :)

Anonymous said...

From my experiences, I agree with Rob in chicago. People that I know with money don't flaunt it. It's nobody's business. My mom and I used to go shopping in high end stores wearing sweatpants and tshirts. The salespeople never noticed us until my mom was ready to make a purchase and then the people were VERY nice. I like it if someone greets me in a store-whether they think I'm shoplifting or just trying to be helpful. I'm more likely to buy if someone pays attention to me.

Oh, I also notice that people with "less money" LOVE to talk about how cheap they got something if you compliment them. I hate that because I don't care how much you spent. I just liked whatever it is you have. I'm not going to buy it either way. I'm too cheap, oops frugal. :)

Rhona said...

It is so true about the sales people in high-end stores. When I visited NYC, I went to this chocolate store called Tishauer, or something like that, and the sales people were so snobby. I was like, what the hell. I found it strange and assumed that maybe they made great amounts of money b/c they all dressed nicely. I guess they just adopted the snobby attitude by working in Rockafella Centre. So stupid.

Anonymous said...

When I was 20, I was looking to buy a new car. I had recently inherited money and was prepared to pay cash. I went to a Corvette dealership where I was told to, "Come back with your daddy". So, I went across the street, bought a Chrysler Sebring Convertible, and then drove back by the Corvette and told the guy I was prepared to pay twice as much for one of his cars before he insulted me... Oh well, his loss. Five years later, I still have my Sebring and couldn't be happier with it!

M said...

I live overseas, and the salespeople are so rude everywhere! At first I thought it was the language difference, but now that I sprechen sie Deutsch (at least enough to communicate in a store), they are still rude. Makes me long for the friendly salespeople back in the States!

Rachella said...

I have my own nasty little protest again classism. Whenever I buy an expensive item such as a nice pair of shoes or a bag, (and, by nice, I don't mean Coach) I purposly dress terribly. Granted, it may take longer to get service, but I'm not an indecisive shopper. I usually know exactly what I want. The salesperson who is nice enough to talk to me gets the commission. The places I've been treated the best, even when dressed head-to-toe in Primark are, the Apple stores in London & San Francisco, Sacks Fifth Avenue, San Francisco, Macy's New York and Liberty of London. The worst has been Neiman Markus In San Francisco and Barneys in Beverly Hills.

Unknown said...

Where is the "NY Times Class Matters interactive graphic on class components"? I'd be interested to see that.

But, back to the topic of interacting with salespeople...part of the difficulty is how each of us want our shopping experiences to be -- which may vary not just from person to person, but even day to day for the same individual. As opposed to one of the posters above, most times I want the store personnel to just leave me alone (but be readily available when I need them, such as checking out). But sometimes I want lots of interaction because I have no idea what I'm doing or looking for. Contradictions, see?

Anonymous said...

You mentioned salespeople at the 42nd percentile on that graphic, but actually it was 25th. It was "retail sales workers supervisors" who were 42nd. They have actuaries at the 43rd percentile, not much higher. Now, it is true that almost nobody knows what actuaries do and, therefore, they don't have all that much prestige. But a fully credentialed professional actuary makes about as much as a doctor or a lawyer and way more than database administrators who were in the 83rd percentile and the third highest ranked job (after doctors and lawyers). They have accountants in the 71st percentile, but a joke in the profession is that CPA stands for "Can't Pass Actuarial exams."

I wouldn't take the New York Times graphic too seriously.

Unknown said...

Eh, never mind about the NY Times request; I found it.

Fecundity said...

I'm one of those people who generally wish to be left alone unless I want help with something. I try to look nice when I shop, not because I think it'll get me better service, but because the clothes I'm trying on look better on me if I've bothered to do my hair and makeup. That being said, I'm usually wearing a casual shirt and jeans.

You're probably right about snobby salespeople having inadequacy issues. They are acting the way they think rich people act towards poorer people, and since their representative sample is how snobby people treat sales clerks, they come off a bit harsher than is necessary.

But, if you think it's rough working retail (which I've done and hated), try being a maid in a motel. I did that the summer before I got married. I remember several particularly harsh comments from people.

One elderly couple had a tag from a cruise boat on their luggage. I asked them if they'd had a good time and said how much I'd enjoyed that ship when I was on it. They smiled condescendingly and told me that it was of course much nicer to be a passenger than to be the 'help'. Another guest assumed I couldn't read one day when I handed him his newspaper. And a third was nice enough to ask if I knew where Hong Kong was when I made the mistake of having an opinion about the CNN commentary he was watching on the handover of Hong Kong to China after 99 years of British rule.

Just for clarification, I was on the cruise line as a paying guest. I certainly can read and do so voraciously. And I was very much aware of both the political situation and geographical location of Hong Kong.

Good rule of thumb: Never assume anyone is less worthy or intelligent than you are, no matter what job they're working or what they may be wearing.

Peachy said...

If I've had a rude customer service shopping, in an airport or elsewhere, I'l try to get the person's name and then report them. It usually doesn't result in anything, but it makes me feel better hoping they get talked to by their boss.

Always be willing to ask for something if the company offers. You never know you might something free, or upgraded.

Carol said...

I used to drive "The Titanicmobile", named so because my future brother in law asked me, when he first saw it, "Where did you get that car? Off the Titanic?" It was a little rusty. Ok, it was actually more rust than car. And you could see the street when you drove by. But it got me to work every day and it was paid for.

After some saving, my brother took me to a car dealership, where I intended to pay cash for a "better looking" used car. It would've been easy money for the salesman. but nobody would even talk to us, since they saw my "trade in vehicle". (I wasn't going to trade it in, of course, but apparently they weren't impressed with it no matter what.)

I was a little amused and a little disgusted with the whole episode, so I decided to drive the Titanicmobile for a few more months. It took all I had not to go to the manager of that dealership and tell my story. But I figured they aren't worth my time if I am not worth theirs.

Anonymous said...

While I agree that these days it is harder to tell who is rich versus who is poor by the way they dress, I think you can still tell a great deal. Take a walk through a poor neighborhood and take a walk through a rich neighborhood and you'll see the people dress very different. And even with things like jeans, you see rich people walking around in jeans but you can tell they are expensive jeans often times. You go into nice stores and see t-shirts for $100, its not poor people who buy those. This is just a part of the fashion cycle. 10 years ago even Wall Street started to dress down because dot-com was all the rage and that industry was very casual so Wall Street mimicked it to some degree. But as soon as the dot-com bust happened Wall Street went back to the $2000 suits and whatnot. I deal with a lot of dot-commers, not the garage guys but people who have actually succeeded, as well as a lot of VCs, and I've yet to see any that really dress down. The VCs of course where nice clothes, even if they are casual, and the techies in general tend to dress more casual but still dress well. They don't walk around in dirty jeans and t-shirts. Typically khakis and button downs or polos - and expensive ones at that.

The world isn't completely topsy turvy - usually what you see does reflect reality.

Anonymous said...

I once worked in loss prevention at Saks Fifth Avenue in Chevy Chase, MD. Once day I'm scanning the store in the security room and I notice an attractive black woman with two children that looks very familiar and I knew I had seen her somewhere before. When I first noticed her she was on the second level, where the high-end couture was located and as I kept trying to place where I had seen her before I noted that not one single salesperson approached her to ask if she needed help and by the look on her face I could tell that she was annoyed by the lack of service. All of a sudden I realized it was Juanita Jordan, the (now ex-wife) of Michael Jordan. Here this woman has assets of hundreds of millions of dollars, most likely a AMEX Black Card, and impeccable credit, but because she's dressed down in jeans and a flannel button down no salesperson is giving her the time of day. At that point I called a woman I knew that worked in jewelry on the first floor and let her know about it. Renee (the saleswoman) went straight to Mrs. Jordan and offered her help. Im sure that the other sales staff were kicking themselves for being snobs and letting the commission on $55,000 (1/2 of that amount Mrs. Jordan spent on discounted merchandise) get away.