Personal Shoppers for the Holidays


Department stores such as Barneys, Nordstrom, and Bloomingdale's are offering their customers a personal, no-hassle shopping experience

The holidays are a stressful time, and sharp-elbowed crowds with huge shopping bags don't make it easier, especially if you have a long list of gifts to buy. But these days, more and more people are getting their shopping done away from the crowds. No, not online. Rather, customers are going to the stores and shopping in private.

Last week, for instance, at 6:30 p.m. in the private penthouse on the eighth floor at Barneys, the hip New York department store, a specially selected list of guests walked in to sip on glasses of Naia white wine and nibble on sushi for their holiday shopping. The penthouse had been converted into a showroom by Barneys style specialist Jose Parron, who picked out a wide selection of hot gift items he thought were suitable for the guests. "People go into panic mode around this time of the year—I'm going to make it less stressful and help them give with style," says Parron, whose gifts ranged from a $62 eau de toilette to a diamond necklace costing more than $300,000.

As retailers try to distinguish themselves from one another, personalized customer service has emerged a huge winner. At no extra charge, most department stores, from Bloomingdale's and Macy's run by Federated Department Stores (FD) to Nordstrom (JWN) and Saks (SKS), have ramped up their personal shopping for customers and tout it on their Web sites. It's so pervasive that even FAO Schwarz has personal shoppers to help people find toys.

This year, upscale New York department store Bergdorf Goodman took it a notch further. In September, it added 15 new personal shopping rooms, including dining facilities and a gift expert. "We not only save you time, but make you feel like a queen for a day," says Elaine Mack, head personal shopper, who has worked at Bergdorf for 32 years.

Easy Shopping

The idea is that stylists put together an assortment of gift ideas from the store according to shoppers' preferences to create a low-hassle shopping experience. Shoppers don't need to go from department to department trying to pick that perfect baby blue cashmere sweater—it will be ready for them when they arrive. Stylists also explain which items are exclusive to a store, what's in vogue, and what items are tied to charities.

At Barneys, for instance, Parron picks up the special Barneys Andy Warhol gift cards, telling guests that they are in limited supply—and the store is running out of them fast. Parron also educates guests on current fashions and trends. "Layering is really in, and so are leather beads, so if you're considering jewelry, this will be really fashion-right," says Parron, holding up a long necklace of pale-blue leather beads.

Elise Bloom, a partner in the labor department of law firm Proskauer Rose, loves the education and opportunity that such an event provides for her. Bloom was invited to the Barneys event from Indigo Experiences, a New York-based company that specializes in organizing events for individuals and corporations. Bloom brings along an out-of-town client to the event. "It provides my client a unique experience but also helps strengthen my relationship with a business partner in a social environment," says Bloom, who picked up a few Etro scarves and the leather beaded necklace as gifts.

Mass Market Trends

Such exclusive events are also becoming more popular, as luxury starts becoming more accessible to the mass market. In recent years, many luxury designers have gone down-market. High-brow names such as Isaac Mizrahi and Behnaz Sarafpour design for discount retailer Target (TGT) (see BusinessWeek.com, 3/23/06, "Isaac Mizrahi: One-Man Brand"). Haute couture purveyors Karl Lagerfeld and Stella McCartney have designed lines for cheap-chic European retailer H&M. (see BusinessWeek.com, 5/30/05, "H&M: Bringing Haute to the Hoi Polloi").

It's hardly a wonder that true luxury retailers feel the need to really differentiate. "In the past the wealthy would differentiate themselves by what they wore and carried; today you have try and make it more exclusive," says Patricia Pao, founder of retail consultant The Pao Principle. And during the holidays, besides exclusive products, harried shoppers can certainly do with the special treatment.

Gogoi is a contributing writer for BusinessWeek.com.

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