When I heard that my editor had decided to deploy me to Dallas, where I would be “embedded” on Neiman Marcus’s NorthPark sales floor for a couple of days in early February, I flashed to my own two brief retail experiences—not exactly fond memories. The first was a six-month stint at the Gap when I was 16 that was a purgatory of folding shirts in complete silence, and the second was as a part-time sales associate at a high-end women’s boutique in Boston during college. I have the spider veins to show for both jobs, but the latter was a lesson: I don’t have what it takes, and not only because I was run ragged on my feet all day. Making it to the level where commissions are big enough to earn a Mercedes G550, a giant house in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and an American Express black card—like my former boss did—requires a rare skill set, a combination of life coach, confidant, personal shopper and, of course, sly salesperson, with the patience of a saint.
Upon assignment the cynic in me immediately concluded that the unspoken angle here was to witness the curious species of a Southern shopper in her native habitat. Ideally she would waltz in, dripping with oil money and all the bad taste it could buy, and drop five figures on a platinum bolo tie or some such tacky designer atrocity. A stereotype for sure, but one that a Neiman PR person did nothing to dispel, with a dress code–related e-mail that suggested I “whomp up” my makeup to get into character. “This being Dallas,” it read.
And so I dutifully engaged with the hotel mirror, drawing on eyeliner and red lips, and made my way to the store only to find myself garishly turned out, at least cosmetically. According to the aforementioned e-mail, a subdued Akris pantsuit was considered proper attire—in line with what most of the clientele wear, not to mention Leslie Kinder, one of the sales associates I was set to assist. A willowy blond in her mid-40s with an understated bob and sweater-and-pants combo, she came across as chic schoolteacher more than Dallas retail expert. As she put it, “People think of the TV show [Dallas], that everyone has big hair and big makeup and rides a horse, but that’s not the case.”
Patrick Tichacek, the other fortysomething associate I would assist, was also elegant, in a classic pinstriped suit. Both he and Kinder are career salespeople, having worked at Neiman’s since 1982 and 1991, respectively. He started as holiday help and eventually cycled through various positions before landing in shoes, while Kinder, the Piazza Sempione specialist in designer sportswear, came on after closing a string of activewear stores she’d owned with her husband in the Eighties. “I had no idea this would become a career,” she says. Asked what keeps them so loyal, Tichacek, Kinder and virtually every other associate I encounter say they like the variety—the job brings something new every day—and the customers. I suspect that commissions are a big draw as well, but everyone seems too discreet to say so.