SHERMAN OAKS — Carol Levin shops for a living. Immaculately dressed and loaded with ideas about the finer points of collectible crystal and designer ready-to-wear clothing, Levin is one of a small but elite cadre of personal shoppers who serve clients for such upscale stores as Macy's, Nordstrom and Bloomingdale's.
"For the people who are my clients, I have all the information they need at my fingertips," says Levin, manager of Sherman Oaks-based Macy's By Appointment, the store's personal shopping service. "If they like to buy Hanes nylons, I can call and tell them when they're going on sale. And then I can put some aside for them if they wish."
Nonetheless, the services offered by Levin and other personal shoppers are a costly item for retailers as upper-end department stores continue to struggle with their sales growth; analysts estimate that growth this holiday season for the high-end shops is expected at only 2%, compared with 6% sales growth or more over last year for more price-driven retailers such as Wal-Mart and Target.
There's also the problem of not enough help. With the unemployment rate very low, retailers have had a hard time finding people for holiday work.
"It's been extremely difficult to get enough holiday help, but the stores have responded by trying to operate with fewer people," notes Carl Steidtmann, chief retail economist for PricewaterhouseCoopers. "And they've done a good job at it with better computer management of inventories, closer relationships with their suppliers and, at the end of the day, fewer people needed to move merchandise around and fewer markdowns. That has helped their bottom line."
With these kinds of problems, why do the finer shops commit extra people to service a small percentage of their clientele?
"They've got to do this because that's the marketplace they play in," says Richard Giss, an analyst with Los Angeles-based Deloitte & Touche LLP. "They are not price-driven retailers and they've got to appeal to upper-end buyers."
Macy's in Sherman Oaks, for example, has three full-time and one part-time personal shopper. Bloomingdale's in Sherman Oaks has two and Nordstrom, with stores in Glendale and Canoga Park, has seven personal shoppers (three in Glendale, four in Canoga Park) who each service four to five clients a day.
While all personal shoppers say their gratis services are offered to any client, be it someone who is prepared to spend $5 or $5,000, many admit that the people who use their services tend to be busy executives and wealthier clients who want to leverage the shoppers' creative juices when it comes to gift buying and wardrobe stocking.
"I had this gal in a nearby law firm who had no time to do her Christmas shopping," says Joni Jemelian, an 11-year employee at Nordstrom in Glendale who became a personal wardrobe consultant two years ago. "So she e-mailed me all the people she was shopping for, her budget, their sizes, color preferences, etc. I picked out the items, had it all gift-wrapped, charged it to her credit card and had the packages sent to her office."
Carol Levin believes her company is taking personal shopping to the next level with a new computerized "clienteling" system.
"I keep all my clients' birthdays, their anniversaries, their Christmas lists in that computer," Levin says. "I'll call a client when her daughter's birthday is coming up to see what she wants to buy. Or remind someone about an anniversary."
And when the Christmas crunch is over--and many personal shoppers agree that the crunch got underway earlier than usual this year, around the beginning of November--the emphasis for them usually shifts to fleshing out people's wardrobes. Nordstrom, for example, initiated its personal shopper program in 1981 after store executives found that salespeople were picking out full wardrobes for clients. The store now has its shoppers certified in bra-fitting and shoe-fitting.
"A lot of my job is fashion consulting," notes Jemelian. "And the big thing right now is business casual."
So when Jemelian, 34, makes her initial contact with a new client, she says she concentrates on being a good listener.
"I can usually tell their age range, and with some questions, I can find out if they're conservative or fashion-forward," she says. "A lot of times I'm dealing with powerful executives, and it's important that they look good."
The key to being a successful personal shopper is not necessarily a knowledge of Lalique collector crystal or Ellen Tracy ready-to-wear, for example, but rather the ability to connect with the client and develop a close shopping link.
Paul Buckter, the director of personal shopping at Bloomingdale's New York, who started his retail career as a salesman at Barneys 21 years ago, says building trust between client and shopper is crucial.
"When I hire a new shopper, I tell them the most important thing is developing the right relationship with their clients," Buckter says. "When my clients come into the store, they often say they can't pick out something without me. That's when you know you have a client."
Levin agrees, saying that although her office is located near Macy's collector crystal department, she will often go up to ready-to-wear to pick out a line of clothes for a client and bring the clothes down to her office for them to try on.
"I've stood blocking the doorway to my office so my client can try on clothes here because this is where they feel more comfortable," she says.
It's no wonder they feel at home, given the bowls of candy, plates of cookies, drinks and homey scent of cinnamon in the air of her office.
"A lot of my clients have been with me for a long time," she says. "I give them a place to sit down, I listen to them and there's no hassle."