'Pretty Woman' redux

Everybody remembers the scene where the Julia Roberts character, dressed in faux-hooker attire, is given the brush by a couple of nasty saleswomen at a Rodeo Drive boutique. The truth, then and now, is that you don't have to be a (supposed) streetwalker to be treated as if you have the plague. Thatís especially true if you donít fit a certain profile. WSJ reporter Christina Binkley, who covers the fashion scene, found her share of snootiness during a recent visit. At Van Cleef & Arpels, a saleswoman frowned and offered a suspicious "Can I help you?" Being nice to customers is an especially big deal these days because luxury retailers are trying to broaden their selection to attract more, ahem, real people. Hereís more:

I decided to gauge just how inviting Rodeo Drive's stores are with the help of [Dan] Hill, who is president of Sensory Logic, a company based in Minneapolis that helps businesses from Target to Toyota connect emotionally with patrons. Mr. Hill employs "facial coding," a technique of reading and using facial expressions to elicit the most profitable emotional response in a customer. The premise is that feelings occur more quickly than thoughts and play a more effective role in purchasing decisions, so businesses need to appeal to our emotions. This is territory plumbed eons ago by Madison Avenue's ad men, but it's been harder to put into practice in many retail stores.

[CUT]

The Van Cleef saleswoman sent us out the door with little more than her scowl. She probably did some decoding of her own, reading accurately that we weren't her day's big spenders. We had dressed like professionals with an hour or so to shop, with Mr. Hill tie-less in a dark business suit and me pairing a long, tailored Emanuel Ungaro vest with dressy black wool pants. Yet it's risky to make assumptions based on looks in Los Angeles, where that guy in ratty jeans may be Steven Spielberg. Emmanuel Perrin, president and chief executive of Van Cleef's North American operations, later told me that the saleswoman's reaction was "exactly what we do not want to achieve." Van Cleef's second rule of customer service, Mr. Perrin said, is: "Do not profile anyone who is walking in the store." His first rule? "A customer should receive a warm and authentic welcome," he said.

[CUT]

We hadn't made it inside Yves Saint Laurent before Mr. Hill stopped, struck by the mannequins in the windows. "This is contemptuous," he announced, pointing to the down-stretched arms with hands flexed as though to ward off intruders. Contemptuousness in a store display actually can be a good thing in a high-end shopping district, Mr. Hill explained, "because it suggests superiority. But if [contempt] is directed toward me by the clerk, then it's devastating," he continued, pressing open the glass doors. As we gawked, a saleswoman sailed past, one corner of her mouth slightly turned up. Two upturned mouth corners make a smile, of course, but a single upturned corner amounts to the way the homecoming queen regards the president of the math club, according to Mr. Hill, who whispered, "She just gave us a contempt expression." An Yves Saint Laurent spokeswoman declined to comment.

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Mark Lacter
Mark Lacter created the LA Biz Observed blog in 2006. He posted until the day before his death on Nov. 13, 2013.
 
Mark Lacter, business writer and editor was 59
The multi-talented Mark Lacter
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