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.
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.
Things are more eventful the next day in Kinder’s world, where the big ticket is a mother and part-time model, late 30s, desperate for party attire to wear while she and her husband are in Miami for the Super Bowl. It’s a return trip from the day before, when the client had to rush out to pick up her kids, so Kinder has readied a fitting room of options, a typical protocol so that a client can avoid the bother of shopping the store. Nearly three hours and seemingly endless Roberto Cavalli and Gucci tops later, carpool duty again interrupts. But this time the customer finishes with an impressive haul of shirts, six in total, one of which Kinder has located in another store and arranged to overnight to the woman’s hotel in Fort Lauderdale.
While Kinder rings up the sale—good clients don’t need to pay before exiting the store—I’m directed to dresses, where Favi Lo, a 13-year Neiman’s vet in her early 40s, has been texting and sending photos of furs, on sale upstairs, to a client who has flown in on her private jet. She and her husband are the type of people whose names are on buildings (they’re in the energy business), and Lo says she has been working with this client for at least 10 years. A few years ago Lo attended the husband’s birthday extravaganza.
It sounds like this could be a true Dallas moment in the making. Then a sparrow of a blond, 60-ish, in classic tan cropped trousers, an amazing black Piazza Sempione trenchcoat and Tory Burch Reva flats, appears. She’s as refined and sophisticated as her clothes. As it turns out, she already owns three furs—“two long, one short, so this isn’t exactly a necessity,” she says, adding that she wants something not so serious, maybe a chinchilla. Unfortunately, all the chinchillas are gray, which she says would make her husband think of Cruella De Vil. So she has Lo model some other coats, which is kind of sweet if vaguely upstairs/downstairs–esque.
In the end, a mink ($7,500) is paid for by check in an apparent effort to keep the charge off the credit card of the client’s husband. “I just wanted to buy myself a Valentine’s present,” she says. Then out of the blue Lo asks if she needs mascara (she does), which is not an entirely random question but rather a savvy, studied move by Lo, who clearly knows what this woman wants before she does. Then it’s back to dresses, where a Milly cardigan has been pulled from another department with the client in mind. She glances at it and nods. Another sale is done. Lo walks her to her car, and the two make plans to get mani-pedis together tomorrow.
Now it’s 5:30, and Kinder hasn’t eaten a thing all day. Still, she’s a pillar of composure, not to mention unwavering professional commitment, while I’m borderline hypoglycemic and virtually crippled. She’s on her way to hand-deliver an item accidentally left behind by the Super Bowl–bound client, and I’m retiring—for good—to room service and the king-size bed at my hotel.
But before Kinder can leave, another client’s husband calls with a status update on his wife, whose shopping trip was thwarted by major, last-minute surgery that doesn’t sound cosmetic. Naturally, a Valentine’s present is in order. “I asked him when he wants to come in to look,” says Kinder. “But he said, ‘No, you know what she likes. Just put it on my bill.’”
Stylist: Victoria Petro Conroy; Prop Stylist: Marcus Teo; Tray: courtesy of Buccellati.