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AROUND THE VALLEY

A Gifted Shopper

Holiday: Busy executives and regular guys rely on Macy's Carol Levin to select, wrap and ship the perfect present for everyone on their list.

December 20, 1997|ERIC SLATER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A corporate retailer locked in a near-epic struggle for the holiday dollar of well-heeled Angelenos, the Macy's store in Sherman Oaks is not prone to divulging company secrets.

As store spokeswoman Kathy Fishburne Bornstein puts it: "We're careful about what we say."

The corporate veil of secrecy, though, is mere gauze compared with the discretion of Carol Levin, whose small office on the store's first floor is tucked away near the Waterford crystal, just behind the Christofle silverware.

Levin double-locks the door to her office. Her assistant is the only other person with a key. She won't drop names. She won't drop hints. And she certainly won't talk numbers.

Whatever your Christmas shopping burden, you're most certainly an amateur compared to Levin, a professional shopper at Christmas and year-round. As a Macy's personal shopper, Levin is privy to an astonishing amount of intimate information: what brand of underwear this business mogul prefers, what size dress that actress really wears, and this time of year, the biggest secret of all--who is getting what for Christmas.

The impeccably groomed and serious Levin could tell us. But then, it seems, she'd have to kill us.

"The people I work with," she says, "deserve total privacy."

In a time when dollars are sometimes easier to come by than hours--and in a town where giving expensive stuff is almost as important as getting it--personal shopping is a profession that has perhaps come of age.

Although some shopaholics believe Levin may have the best job in the world--spending her day spending other people's money, then winging off to France to study up on Baccarat crystal or London for a lesson on Wedgwood china--there is far more to it than that. Especially around the holidays.

Levin, a former television producer who has been a paid shopper for eight years, specializing in the "table-top" section of the store, has an entire file dedicated to clients who collect Lladro ceramics.

She wears a pager home and checks in frequently with her answering service.

Almost butler-like in the way she measures her words and shields her clients from other salespeople, let alone nosy reporters, Levin has learned to keep elaborate records of what she bought for who to give to whom, and when. After all, Mom probably doesn't want the same Wedgwood gravy bowl in the Runnymead pattern two years in a row.

She calls Tiffany collectors when a new decanter arrives--but only those who like to be called when a new decanter arrives--and tells clients to hold off on the Gucci purchase if Gucci is going on sale next month.

William Benbassat, president of Culver City-based Reliable Health Care, has handed over nearly a half-million dollars to Levin this year--$60,000 to $70,000 during the holidays alone--to buy gifts for employees, clients and loved ones. After four years of shopping with Levin, this is the kind of service he gets:

"Carol called me up the other day and said, 'By the way, Bill, it's your mom's birthday on the 21st, what have you done?' I said, 'Oh my God.' And she said, 'Don't worry about it, I've already picked out the outfits.' "

A couple of upscale St. Johns Knits that his mother, who turns 77 today, will love, Benbassat predicted.

In addition to the standard, if pricey, Lalique or Tiffany candy dish Benbassat gives clients, Levin also helps him find gifts that stand out in the predictable world of corporate giving, the kind he believes recipients will remember rather than rewrap and pass on to someone else the next Christmas: a Kitchen-Aid five-quart mixer, for example, a Calphalon saute pan.

While some of the rich and famous hire their own personal shoppers, Macy's and other large department stores provide the service and pick up the tab. Levin and a handful of other personal shoppers at the Sherman Oaks store then earn a commission off their sales.

While her services are available to anyone and everyone--a point Levin stresses by pointing to a Christmas card from "two regular guys" named Paul and Bob she often helps shop--the very notion of a personal shopper strikes some as haughtily upper-crust.

"When you care enough for someone else to pick out the very best," cracked one critic, sarcastically tweaking the slogan of a well-known greeting card company.

In modern Los Angeles, though, Levin and her endlessly loyal customers argue, an expert shopper can actually help harried buyers choose more personal gifts. With a few choice bits of information about the recipient-to-be, Levin can round up a handful of possible items in minutes, keeping the shopper with the short attention span from grabbing the first thing he sees and heading for the checkout line.

Two-thirds of her customers are men, who can fire at her brief pleas for help, like Robert de la Vara, head of the outpatient lab at nearby Providence St. Joseph Medical Center.

"Candlesticks," De la Vara said to her this week.

After seeking Levin's help in buying nearly $1,000 worth of gifts, he had just his girlfriend left to buy for.

"Something kind of rustic. She has a new, heavy kind of table."

Thirty seconds later, Levin hoisted a heavy, almost medieval-looking silver candlestick. De la Vara grinned. "That was easy," he said.

He later commented that he thought they were $70 for the pair--not apiece--but what the heck, it saved him a lot of time.

He's been coming to Levin for several years. She ships things for him. She wraps things for him. She already knows, he says, that his mother likes all kinds of outfits, "as long as it's tight and black."

"My hardest decision," he says, "is what do I get Carol for doing all this?"

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