Are employees at some retail stores (e.g., Abercrombie, American Apparel) told to be standoffish as a selling strategy?
January 22, 2010 1:11 PM   Subscribe

Are employees at some retail stores (e.g., Abercrombie, American Apparel) told to be standoffish as a selling strategy?

I've heard rumors that, as mandated from up above, the employees are to act somewhat snobbish, rude and standoffish, thereby seeming more elite and inducing insecurity in the shopper, improving the odds of a sale. Can anyone attest to whether or not this is actually a strategy formulated from the boardrooms of these companies?
posted by GIMG to Society & Culture (14 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
I've heard plenty of anecdotal reports of the hiring process at both stores (and at A&F's subsidiary, Hollister) being based entirely on appearance and fitting into the brand image. I don't know if they actively encourage rude employees, but I'm pretty sure that a helpful, cheery demeanor isn't high on the priority list for the people doing the hiring.
posted by oinopaponton at 1:27 PM on January 22, 2010

This comment, and really the whole thread, might be helpful.
posted by These Premises Are Alarmed at 1:28 PM on January 22, 2010

Here's an anonymous Gawker tip re: American Apparel, for comparison.
posted by oinopaponton at 1:31 PM on January 22, 2010

It's not an official top-down mandate, the employees just hate their jobs.

/former Urban Outfitters employee
posted by chara at 1:45 PM on January 22, 2010 [2 favorites]

When I was in school I worked summers at the Ralph Lauren flagship store in Manhattan on Madison and 72nd.

Yes, they hire based on looks and all employees must wear their clothes (you got an allowance plus an 80% discount). But they have never told anyone to be "standoffish" or snobby to customers. If people walked in to that store and became "insecure", it had nothing to do with the employees. Most of the people who worked there were friendly, genial people and some of them were downright folksy. The store manager even stressed making the customers feel like they were in Ralph's own home.
posted by Zambrano at 2:32 PM on January 22, 2010

I have friends who shop at those places, (which is so sad, as my generation is 20 years too old to be shopping there), and on the few occasions when I've been dragged in there with them, the staff has been unilaterally horrid.

Whereas, when I shop at Nordstrom (for example), I can go to the women's department, tell the sales assistant what I'm looking for, then go sit in the comfy dressing room with a glass of sparkling water and a book while someone else brings me things to try on. Inevitably, the sales person has significantly better taste and style than I do, and brings me things that look fabulous on my difficult to drape figure. The sales assistants there are charming and wonderful to work with. I can call them in advance, and they'll have a whole stack of things for me to try when I get there. It's a fantastic experience, especially if you, like me, despise shopping, and just need some clothes.

Why anyone would give AA and AF, where the business model is to have "for lookin' at" staff on the floor, is beyond my ken.
posted by dejah420 at 2:37 PM on January 22, 2010 [2 favorites]

I worked at American Apparel for a bit. Yes, they do seem to hire based on how people look, or maybe more accurately, based on whether they fit the store's "look"*.

When I got the job, I was totally looking forward to my training day because I thought they'd tell me to be disinterested or dickish, and I thought it'd be a hilarious moment. But no one ever explicitly tells you to be stand-offish, it's more something you learn through company culture osmosis and hating your job. The closest they came to saying that I should be a jerk was when I asked my manager how friendly I should be to customers, and she said that AA tended to be more hands-off with customers than some other stores.

*although not in my case. i got the job because my friend was a manager, not because i look great in unitards.
posted by WStraub at 2:42 PM on January 22, 2010

Where are you located? I've noticed that stores in big cities are actually less snobby than their franchises in the suburbs. The suburbs shops feels they have to differentiate themselves or something, and have an attitude conveying how special they think they are. Big city shops have nothing to prove, I guess.
posted by small_ruminant at 2:43 PM on January 22, 2010

My sister works at AA. There is no security system in place for the merchandise other than staff vigilance, so they end up having to be super suspicious of everyone. The customers are all potential shoplifters, not guests. She ends up very frustrated because she watches people steal on a daily basis and has limited options to stop them.
posted by emilyd22222 at 3:04 PM on January 22, 2010

This comment, and really the whole thread, might be helpful.

The essential links in that thread regarding A&F are this well-written expose of sorts and this Salon interview with the CEO.

Dov Charney, the CEO of American Apparel is gross and puportedly encourages a pretty f-ed up corporate culture.

Here's an anonymous Gawker tip re: American Apparel, for comparison.

It looks like Jezebel did a series of posts with anonymous shit talking about popular apparel retailers by former employees:

Anthropologie Doesn't Care About Black People
Hollister: Sort Of Like "Girls Gone Wild", Only With Girls Too Young For Joe Francis
Working At American Apparel Is All It's Coked Up To Be

So, yeah, it seems the presentation of a particular brand image is emphasized more than customer service. But, as Zambrano notes, that may not actually translate into management literally encouraging poor customer service, though A&F did also get sued for discriminatory behavior towards a customer (in this case, an autistic girl).

This isn't a contemporary example, but the Gucci store in NYC used to be known for being "the rudest store in New York" at the same time as it was one of the hottest retailers in the city. Apparently, this had a lot to do with management. Aldo Gucci himself would joke about difficult customers behind their backs with employees and they followed his example. It didn't help that he would hire inexperienced kids from rich Italian families, who expected to have a glamorous job in NYC, but ended up working long hours, for little pay, for an autocratic boss. He also had annoying customer service policies (closing the store for lunch everyday, not allowing returns or refunds). This all apparently raised the cachet of the store, but Aldo wasn't intentionally providing bad service to boost sales--it was just the unexpected side effect of a weird, old Italian guy wanting to run things his exactly as he wanted, even if they weren't exactly standard US businesses practices.
posted by thewrongparty at 3:26 PM on January 22, 2010 [4 favorites]

told to, verbally, no. recruited to and taught to, in every other manner, yes.
posted by randomstriker at 6:28 PM on January 22, 2010

Adding to what thewrongparty said, here's the Jane magazine story about Dov Charney that's cited in the linked article. Creep city.
posted by SisterHavana at 8:49 PM on January 22, 2010

Anecdotal - in around 2003/4 in Morgantown, WV, we got a new Hollister in our dinky mall. Since the store was as yet unopened, some of the staff training or a meeting was held in WVU's student union (Guess they picked a large, public building easily accessible? Anyway, I digress). I was having a student group meeting near the Hollister meeting and we did hear the staff being given some interesting instructions.

The employees were not told to be rude, per se. But they were instructed to focus their attention on the good-looking, thin customers. I believe "customers that fit the Hollister image" was one the key phrase, and the subsequent Q&A made it clear they wouldn't wait on you if you didn't look good enough. I dunno. I guess it makes sense to wait on folks who look like they're going to buy something... and maybe it was just that particular manager clarifying it that way. But FWIW that's what I heard.
posted by keribear at 11:51 PM on January 22, 2010

I worked at Urban Outfitters back in 2000-2004 (-ish) and I can say that it was selected-for and partially taught through informal means. The employee handbook told you to be friendly and helpful and all that stuff, but I had more than one conversation with a manager after a hiring phase where they passed over a candidate because s/he was too much of a cheerleader. It wasn't so much that they were enforcing rude behaviour, but rather that they were avoiding chipper, over-eager behaviour.

Considering that—at least at our store—a large portion of your clientèle were suburbanite teenagers too young to work there and suburbanite moms looking to for some "funky" article of clothing to sustain the denial that they are, in fact, suburbanite moms…all of this meant that there was a financial benefit to making the store (and its employees) seem distantly, disinterestedly "cooler" than its aspiration-driven customers. It's sadistic and manipulative, yes, but welcome to marketing and capitalism, baby.

As for employee training, we were taught to be available if anybody asked for help, but not to chase them around the store and get in their faces (this policy changed as I was leaving, I think). I recall that, when the command came down from the head office that we would be installing a "greeter" at the door (mostly for theft-prevention, really), the managers at my store complained bitterly to the staff about it. They reluctantly enforced the new protocol, but constantly stated that it was a direct contradiction of the sort of atmosphere U.O. meant to establish.

In the end, Urban Outfitters seemed to select employees for—and develop them towards—being able to navigate the line between being mildly pleasant but otherwise disinterested (which is supposed to stoke a certain type of consumer desire) and being repellent (which usually kills it). In retrospect, so much of it could be defined as "We're not The Gap."

So the short answer is this: no explicit selling strategy (especially at stores that don't track individual sales), but a lot of emphasis on a "look" or "atmosphere" that takes "cool" to be at least a double-entendre.
posted by LMGM at 12:51 AM on January 23, 2010

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