Shopping for an Opinion

Many top retailers offer personal shoppers free of charge and now you can also do it online.
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Who said only the wealthy can afford personal shoppers? These days, it is a free service offered by most department stores, and in some cases, available on the Internet. So you can look like a million bucks without spending a million bucks.

Theoretically, it won't cost you a penny to locate that must-have Marc Jacobs dress or those perfect Dunhill cufflinks. But you might have to outsource shopping services to find the Apple iPod carrying case from Fendi that holds as many as 40 of the trendy personal jukeboxes and goes for a mere $1,500.

Retailing, by definition, is a service industry. The word "retail" is partially derived from the Old French "re" plus "tailler", which means "to cut" or "to tailor." As such, personal shoppers tailor merchandise selections to a customer's special needs or purposes.

Neiman Marcus

(NMGA)

,

Bloomingdale's

and

Macy's

, both owned by

Federated Department Stores

,

Nordstrom

(JWN) - Get Report

and

Saks Fifth Avenue

(SKS)

each offer free personal shopping services.

But somehow, consumers -- especially those in the upper middle class -- are often intimidated by or feel unworthy of having a personal shopper. "People fear the personal shopper," said Kristin Bentz, luxury market analyst at New York-based Kinney & Kinsella, a creative services firm. Very few consumers actually use personal shopping services, she said, often because they are uninformed.

Clearly, however, the demand for luxury items is there. Luxury spending has rebounded from an early 2003 drop. Retail experts have speculated that moderate shoppers are "trading up" for unique products, especially after many curbed spending as the start of the war in Iraq prolonged uncertainty about the strength of the U.S. economic turnaround. Indeed, the momentum of luxury spending has proven its staying power so far in 2004.

Shopping List of Dos and Don'ts

So, where to begin? If you've never had a personal shopper before, what are the fashion faux pas to avoid? Do you have to buy everything -- or anything -- your helper recommends? And, should you tip?

First off, consumers don't realize most personal shopping services are free and that -- surprise! -- personal shoppers are happy to serve. Additionally, personal shoppers are not always commission-based and usually do not accept gratuities, said Bentz. They probably won't even mind if you don't purchase any of the items they've recommended and generally don't want you to feel compelled to buy, either.

Convenience should be one of your biggest motivators for getting a personal shopper. "Personal shopping, back in the 80s and 90s was

seen as too indulgent, too extravagant. Now, with so many single working women, people have much more disposable income than in the past and less time," said Bentz.

"It's a time saver," she added. "It's not about ego; it's just about being savvy." In effect, retailers who offer personal shopping are "selling time," according to Bentz.

Neiman Marcus is known for its customer service already, said Bentz. "If you spend $12 on Bobbi Brown lipstick or $400 on a pair of Manolo Blahniks, you're treated the same way and get the same level of service," she said of the company. "That's what the personal shopping service

at Neiman Marcus involves."

Accordingly, personal shoppers will show you items in your budget. There is a catch, however: communication. Telling your shopper your exact budget will curb potentially awkward moments when, for instance, you just couldn't live without an item but find out later it costs twice your budget.

Therefore, one mistake customers make is not being honest with their personal shopper, said Bentz. "People are so afraid to admit their price range," she said, but disclosing your exact budget makes everyone's job easier.

Nordstrom's personal shopping service -- called Personal Touch -- doesn't require a minimum purchase, said Deniz Anders, a company spokeswoman. Many customers come looking for an entirely new seasonal wardrobe, an outfit for a special occasion or even when just "trying to find that perfect white shirt," Anders said.

Shoptalk Makes a Difference

Usually, Nordstrom's consultants speak with customers on the phone first to find out likes and dislikes, why the service has been requested and budget constraints (if applicable). "That way, when they come into the store for the first time, the shopper will already have pulled some looks for them. They will have different looks already set up, all the way down to the shoes or handbag," said Anders. Then, the customer and consultant can shop the floor together.

Along the same vein, communicate exactly when you'll need certain items and any personal preferences, such as if you only wear solids or prints, said both Bentz and Anders.

In addition, Nordstrom's consultants, who are commission-based, educate customers on current trends. They also help them find a way to make in-demand styles look good on the customer and make them feel comfortable about wearing them.

Another faux pas would be expecting the personal shopper to do anything other than shop for what you've requested. For example, don't expect the personal shopper to baby sit your kids or find your daughter a prom dress.

While personal shopping services might not charge a fee for regular service, you might expect certain charges if you request that items are brought to your office or home. The retailer could waive those fees if, for example, you're buying merchandise that needs extensive alterations or you're spending over a certain threshold, noted Bentz.

For those not wanting an in-person personal shopping experience, both Neiman Marcus and Nordstrom offer certain services online. Neiman Marcus has personal shoppers respond to your preferences filled in via a questionnaire. Customers can request to be contacted either via phone or email. Nordstrom offers a live Web-based chat Monday through Friday from 6 a.m. to 8 p.m. PDT with a beauty specialist.

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In the end, you might not have to tip your personal shopper, but you should try to refer friends and family to them and use them again yourself if satisfied with the service.

For her part, Bentz feels so strongly about personal shopping services that she predicted retailers who don't offer such services run the risk of becoming far less competitive in their sectors and could eventually go by the wayside.