Initially my role was envisioned as a Barbara Ehrenreich– style immersion, a terrifying prospect that (thankfully) proved implausible. College gig notwithstanding, I’m not remotely qualified. In addition to the store’s logistics—cash wraps, coded stockrooms—and transactional procedures, of which I knew nothing, Neiman’s sales associates sell across all departments, and thus must have a working knowledge of everything the store carries, from lipstick to crystal decanters. Then there’s Neiman Marcus’s customer service (the store is known for it), based on long-term relationships between client and associate, which assures that no regular client would shop with an unknown like me. Seeing is believing: Tichacek’s shelf in the shoe stockroom is decorated with photos of his clients’ kids, their pets, his “work wife”’s dog and, finally, a small snapshot of his real wife, torn from a local magazine’s party coverage page.
Kinder’s attachment to her clients is obvious when a regular stops in to do a little advance research for a friend in need of a mother-of-the-bride dress. The woman also picks out a few pairs of shoes for herself and buys Valentine’s Day candy for her kids, all on Kinder’s watch. Afterward, the client wants Kinder, still on the clock, to join her for lunch, a practice that’s not only permitted but encouraged in the name of nurturing Neiman’s precious customer relationships beyond the sales floor. Kinder tells me, “I went to her wedding; I’ll go to her children’s weddings.” Lunch is declined due to my presence, I presume (I have been introduced as a trainee).
What’s interesting is that neither Tichacek nor Kinder subscribes to the hard sell, yet people can’t seem to restrain themselves around them. After Tichacek tracks down a Roberto Coin diamond dog-bone necklace in fine jewelry for one client, he returns to his home base in shoes. In comes a 50-ish woman in a sleek Celine suit matched perfectly to her gray Yves Saint Laurent Tributes. Though her shopping allegiance lies firmly with Tichacek’s colleague, it doesn’t stop her from soliciting his opinion on the length of her pants (Too short? He gets down on his hands and knees to tug at them), not to mention her hair color (Too highlighted? Maybe, but a single process will look fake).
Of course, no matter how nice and sincere and interested one is, the point of all this client-associate contact is to sell. Since early February is one of the store’s slowest times of year, as I’m told over and over, walk-in traffic is minimal. No regular clients are scheduled during my day with Tichacek, yet he sells some strappy Christian Louboutins here, some Chanel logo thongs there, Tory Burch mules, a pair of Toms slip-ons and, to a tough-to-fit size nine AAAA, Dior ballet flats. Even if it wasn’t a record-setting day, the sheer impact of eight hours in debilitating Louboutin heels on marble floors made my New York cubicle seem like an oasis.