By now most of us fashion obsessives know how to get our hands on an It bag: Call the store the minute it appears on the runway, pay in advance, and maybe bribe the salesperson. But when you need to stock up on all your major purchases for the season, what’s the best way to get what you want without wasting hours on multiple unsuccessful shopping trips? Is it possible to put together a new wardrobe without combing the shelves? Do only celebrities and high rollers get the attention of the sales staff? Though you may not get the store to shut down so you can shop without distractions–like, say, Jennifer Lopez can–and you would probably have to do some big-time spending to penetrate a designer’s private studio, your shopping experience can still be easy and pleasurable.
Few people realize that VIP status at stores is there for the taking. Forget trolling racks to find your size, running from floor to floor to put a complete look together, waving down an inattentive salesperson, or lugging bags around all day. Have someone else do it for you. Don’t worry–you don’t need a celebrity paycheck; most major stores offer personal shopping at no extra cost. (They’re able to afford this luxury because the hope is you’ll be spending more money than if you were shopping alone.)
“People should feel special, whether they are beginning shoppers or they have reached the pinnacle and can buy anything they want,” says Elaine Mack, Bergdorf Goodman’s head personal shopper. “And they can achieve this by working with a personal shopper.” The process couldn’t be simpler. If you are a first-timer, a private session usually entails having an initial dialogue about your likes, sizes, clothing needs, and budget. “It can be 10 to 30 minutes,” says Mack, followed by an appointment lasting anywhere from one to four hours. And when you arrive at the store, voila–you’ll have a stocked dressing room waiting. From there you’ll start wardrobe building. Your fashion pro will ensure that everything fits (or is tailored right there) and offer a how-to on mixing and matching, accessorizing, and what to wear when.
“I don’t walk up and down Madison Avenue and flip through racks,” says Vie Luxe co-founder Marjorie Gubelmann Raein, who favors classic cuts and styles. “I like department stores and working with a personal shopper. I like the variety. You can try it on all at once and get everything altered right there, and it shows up at your house a few days later.” Just as immediate alterations are key to skillful shopping, having your bags shipped or delivered to your home after a purchase is a must. Walking out of a store bag-free lets you shop unfettered for the rest of the day. “I never walk away with a bag,” says stylist Andrea Lieberman, who works with Jennifer Lopez, Gwen Stefani, and Faith Hill and, needless to say, has spent an impressive amount of time visiting stores.
Not only do department-store shopping gurus know the ins and outs of their retail territory and the best of designers’ collections, but they’re master decoders of the varying sizes of clothing (a 6 in Balenciaga isn’t necessarily a 6 in Bill Blass). They are also a direct line to the most covetable items. “We know when the good things are coming in and where they are hidden. You need our eyes when you’re going through the store,” says Mack, a 31-year veteran of Bergdorf’s. “If there’s a certain bag that’s not on the floor because it hasn’t been replenished, we know if it’s in the stockroom. We can reserve it for you before it gets out.”
The benefits of having a personal shopper don’t stop at getting dibs on the hot pieces. “We’ll arrange lunch, set up a makeup consultation, and open up the store after-hours,” says Barneys New York studio services director Laura Mannix. “We’ll even go to your house and do your closet.” Another big bonus of making friends with a store insider is having first pick of the seasonal bargains. “You can preview the sales two or three weeks before everyone else,” says Mannix.
This same doting service is found in most small high-end boutiques as well–and it can get even more specialized (think packing your bags for trips). The one caveat? Loyalty. Building a relationship with a store and a sales associate and consistently proving your allegiance to them (by spending money) are vital to getting the best above-and-beyond service. According to Kirna Zabete co-owner Sarah Easley, being monogamous with one fashion broker pays off: “We e-mail images to our good clients, we send things out on approval, we’ll come over to your house with racks, and we’ll send alterations to your office,” she says. “We have a very sophisticated computer system that records everything you’ve ever bought. We know your closet better than you do!”
Finding the right person to be your run-way-to-reality link is essential. “It’s about starting a rapport with someone you trust, whose opinions you trust, who has your best interests in mind,” says Lieberman. “It’s like any relationship: You have to find someone you feel comfortable with.” Once that bond is established, it’s all about VIP treatment. “In my stores all of our clients are celebrities,” says Jeffrey Kalinsky of his namesake fashion meccas in New York and Atlanta. “There is nothing that we do for a person who is famous that we won’t do for someone who is not.”
Ikram Goldman’s Chicago boutique is just as service-oriented. “We couldn’t make it easier for our customers. We tell them what to wear with what, we pack for them, we give them ideas on how to put their look together,” says Goldman, who’s even helped customers get ready for big nights out, going so far as arranging pre-event hair and makeup in her store. “We do whatever makes our customers happy.”
While being pampered is certainly something we could all use, many of us just want to get our shopping done as fast as possible. In the busy lives of women today, saving time is the real luxury. “Believe it or not, most women don’t love to shop,” says Mack. “They just want it done efficiently, and working with someone who knows the merchandise is probably the biggest time-saver.” If even a personal-shopping appointment sounds too high-maintenance for you, try calling ahead and having a staffer prepare a dressing room for you. “Connect with someone on the sales floor, and they can prepull for you,” suggests Mannix.
Other ways to get in and out of a store in a flash? Keep your credit-card number on file at your favorite haunt and avoid the wait at the register. Some small boutiques will even offer house accounts to their big customers. And shop at off-peak hours. “The trick is to go right when the store opens,” says Oprah Winfrey stylist and Bazaar contributor Jenny Capitain. “You have the whole store to yourself, and everything is organized from the night before.” For city shopping Capitain also recommends hiring a car to cover lots of ground.
Perhaps the ultimate luxury in shopping would be not shopping at all. Employing a stylist like red-carpet regulars do can cost thousands of dollars a day, but there’s no need to break the bank. Learning to shop deftly and efficiently can make the difference between a failed closet-restocking mission and a successful one.
Log on and start shopping. Everyone else is.
People are making millions of dollars on the Internet (though you’re probably not one of them), and millions more are being lost on the Internet (with any luck, not by you). Stock valuations of “dot com” businesses are in the billions, but many of them are still unprofitable. Companies ponder how to make money from the Internet, and in the process online retailing has become a new economy. During 1999 consumers in North America alone bought some $33 billion of products via the Internet; this year, the total is expected to exceed $60 billion. Advances in software have made online shopping as simple as a few mouse clicks.
The holiday buying season provides an ideal time to check out Internet storefronts –so I did. Although dozens of astronomical instrument and accessory dealers have information online, they all aren’t “e-stores.” I examined only those that offered online ordering of telescopes, excluding those that required a phone call or fax to place an order.
- Adorama Inc. | www.adorama.com
- Anacortes Telescope & Wild Bird | www.buytelescopes.com
- Apogee Inc. | www.apogeeinc.com
- Camera Corner | www.camcor.com
- Discovery Store | www.discovery.com
- Eagle Optics | www.eagleoptics.com
- Edmund Scientific Co. | www.scientificsonline.com
- eHobbies | www.ehobbies.com
- Focus Camera & Video | www.focuscamera.com
- Hardin Optical Co. | www.hardin-optical.com
- Lumicon | www.lumicon.com
- Oceanside Photo & Telescope | www.optcorp.com
- Orion Telescopes & Binoculars | www.telescope.com
- Shutan Camera & Video | www.shutan.com
- Stellarvue | www.stellarvue.com
- Wolf Camera | www.wolfcamera.com
No comparative pricing was done. The “street prices” of products generally don’t vary much among retailers. Nevertheless, individual merchants can offer Web specials, such as discontinued items or discounts on accessories bundled with a telescope purchase.
The vast majority of these sites use a virtual shopping basket or cart. As you browse products, clicking on a Buy It button logs your choice. Click on a Continue Shopping button, or use the Back button of your Web browser to explore further. You can add and remove products from your cart as you wish. When done making your selections, proceed to the Checkout, where you enter payment, billing, and shipping information. Often your order will be confirmed with e-mail.
A deal-killer for me when buying anything online is not knowing the final cost of an order before entering my credit-card number. While a company may note that a shipping fee will be added, guessing how much it costs to ship a telescope –or any large, heavy object–may prove surprising. When I purchased a new computer monitor via the Internet two years ago, one company would have charged me $70 for shipping. The monitor itself was a few dollars more at the business I finally bought it from, but shipping it added only $20.
The shopping basket allows you to do as much browsing as you like without commitment. Nothing is finalized until you submit your order, and in fact many Internet users merely window-shop. Studies have revealed that consumers fail to finalize about one-quarter of their transactions in online stores. This could be because the person was just browsing, the buyer changed his or her mind (“Wait a minute, will this Dobsonian fit in the Yugo?”), or a technical problem caused termination of the session. Wolf Camera e-mailed me two reminders about my abandoned shopping cart.
Similarities and Differences
The shopping experiences at these online stores were similar. All of the sites were easy to navigate to find specific products. Of the 22 companies examined, all allowed shipping to alternative addresses (to a business or a friend) and all but one had a shopping cart. The exception to the latter was Apogee, which provided a form to fill out and submit electronically to the company. This was the least-convenient ordering method because filling out the form required you to write down (or remember) the name and price of each item.
If you’ve already done your research –perhaps by examining telescopes at a local astronomy-club meeting–and know exactly what you want to buy, it’s easy to do some online comparison pricing. However, what if you don’t know which telescope to buy? Where can you find online sales help? Numerous sites offer guidance on how to select a telescope. Diagrams explain the types of optical systems, and some sites list the pros and cons of each. In a less-rigorous method, EfstonScience and Hardin Optical divide telescopes into categories for beginning, intermediate, and advanced users.
I expected that every store would make suggestions for additional purchases. Although “Want fries with that?” tactics are mocked for their annoyance factor, add-on sales are nevertheless a lucrative tool of retailers. Some companies listed only model-specific accessories, others went farther by recommending tripods, carrying cases, and books. Display the full description for a telescope to check for add-ons. In all, only half of the surveyed companies had some type of accessory suggestions.
A growing concern about Internet commerce is privacy. Companies collect information about you when you buy online: address, phone number, e-mail address, and credit-card number. Customers presume that their information won’t be passed to mass marketers. To reassure prospective customers, “e-tailers” often display privacy statements prominently on their sites explaining what, if anything, they will do with the information they collect, and about other aspects of the online store, such as the use of “cookies” (data saved by your Web browser so the store remembers who you are the next time you visit). Thirteen of the companies offer privacy statements.
Nevertheless, some people remain uneasy about entering their credit-card numbers and having them bounce who-knows-where through the Internet. Secure transmissions encrypt information so that it will be decoded only by the desired business. While sending credit-card numbers online is of great concern, it isn’t very different from reading your card number to someone during a phone call. In September, American Express announced plans to introduce single-use credit-card numbers. Each time you want to make an online purchase, you’ll obtain a set of numbers that will be valid for only that one purchase.
Online shopping offers many benefits. You can research products, print specifications, compare prices, and find a bargain –and do it all at midnight while eating the last piece of cheesecake. There’s no wasting gas and no hard sell by salespeople. Log on and shop.
Who doesn’t want to save some dough these days? Try one–or all–of the smart ways, and get paid back with big bucks you can squirrel away into a savings account (or use for a well-deserved splurge on yourself!).
Savvy billing switches
1 “I noticed that my family’s favorite cable channels–my husband watches ESPN and the History Channel, my kids like Cartoon Network, and I watch HGTV–are covered under a basic cable plan. By paring down the extra channels we signed up for but never watched, I was able to shave off $42 from our monthly bill.” Saved: $504/year
2 “Instead of giving their grandchildren a few dollars when they come for a visit during the holidays, I asked my parents to buy phone cards for them. The cards inspire my kids to keep in touch with their grandma and grandpa a little more often, and I cut my long-distance phone charges by $17 a month.” Saved: $204/year
3 “To avoid paying extra ATM fees each week (the bank near my office charges nonmembers $2 per transaction), I take out $200 from my own bank twice a month and stash the extra cash at home. Then I take about $20 each morning before I leave for work–for free.” Saved: $144/year
4 “Since cleaning solutions are expensive, I found a way to make my own: I pour white vinegar into an old spray bottle and use it to wash tiles, mirrors, and even windows.” Saved: $36/year
5 “Snail mail can be expensive, especially if you’re sending about ten checks out each month. I save money on stamps by authorizing services I regularly pay (like day care, credit card companies, and even the electric company) to withdraw funds from my checking account. I save $40 in postage, and since the system is automatic, I’m never penalized with high late fees, which sometimes amounted to $200 a year.”
6 “I discovered that my favorite hair salon, like most, will trim bangs for a fraction of the cost of a full hair cut. Now, instead of spending $45 every two months, I stop in for a $5 trim and only go for a full cut every four months.” Saved: $120/year
7 “I saved $56 a month by bringing my lunch to work just twice a week. You’d also be really surprised how much easier it is to stick to healthy eating habits when you preplan your meals.” Saved: $672/year
8 “In order to compare interest rates between credit-card companies, I logged on to www.bankrate.com. Then I called my own credit-card company and specifically mentioned the 3 percent lower rate I was considering switching to. They agreed to match it, allowing me to save in interest.” Saved: $760/year
9 “Signing up for a free Internet-service provider, such as www.netzero.com, can save you at least $30 a month. The best part: You won’t deprive yourself of all the bells and whistles (like instant messaging and junk e-mail filters) that the other, more expensive services offer.”
10 “Since I rarely use my cell phone (and when I do it’s usually to call my husband), we decided to cancel our two separate plans ($50 a month for him and $30 for me) and sign up for a service that offered direct-connect minutes, meaning we could call each other for free. (Try the Nextel Shared Rewards Plan at www.nextel.com.) Instead of spending $80 on monthly service, we now spend only $55.” Saved: $300/year
Smart shopping strategies
11 “I buy jumbo bags of snacks (which cost half the price of those that come in individual sizes), and divide them up into plastic sandwich bags, which makes them easy to throw into each of my kids’ lunchboxes.” Saved: $52/year
12 “To create a lower-cost gift wrap, which can sell for $6 a roll, I spend $2 a roll on brown packing paper instead. Then I have my kids paint on them. This keeps them busy, and adds a sentimental touch to every gift.” Saved: $36/year
13 “A cup of tea costs $1 in our office cafeteria, but all the fixings–hot water, milk, and sugar–are free. So I buy a box of 100 Earl Grey tea bags (which is only $3), and then bring it into work to make my own tea, saving me almost $20 a month.” Saved: $240/year
Crafty cash stretchers
14 “My husband and I found that we can treat ourselves to a night on the town for a third of the price by eating dinner at’home and going out for just coffee and two top-notch desserts. The cafes generally let us linger around longer, so we feel relaxed and still have a great time.” Saved: $960/year
15 “To make an expensive shampoo last twice as long, I keep a bottle of generic baby shampoo on hand and use the luxury one every other day. In addition to allowing me to cut my yearly shampoo budget by about a third, rotating daily with this lighter alternative also prevents any residue from building up on my superfine hair.” Saved: $66/year
16 “I deduct 25 cents from my son’s allowance every time he leaves a light on in the house. It’s not the money I collect from him but the $15 decrease in my electricity bill that has really made a difference.” Saved: $180/year
17 “I cut down on dry cleaning my silk blouses from once a week to once a month by hanging them in the bathroom while I take my morning shower. The steam takes the wrinkles right out, making them look like they’ve been professionally pressed and helping me save about $50 a month.” Saved: $600/year
Swaps that save cash
18 “I save about $5 on postage and $12 on invitations each time I have a get-together by sending guests a link to www.evite.com. On the site, they can see the details of the bash–date, time, theme, and location–as well as the responses of other invitees. Reading personal notes from the people who are planning to attend generates extra excitement for the event and puts a modern, yet inexpensive, twist on all of our parties.” Saved: $102/year
19 “To encourage my kids and hubby to drink more water and less soda, I reuse water bottles with sports tops. I run them through the dishwasher, refill them with tap water, and put them in the fridge. My family is more likely to grab these bottles than fill up a glass with water on their own. Plus, it’s less expensive than soda (I save $6 a week)–and sugar-free.” Saved: $216/year
20 “I put an end to my $3-a-day latte habit (which totaled $60 a month) by purchasing a handheld milk foamer for $12. I put a thermos of black coffee in the fridge at work on Monday, then heat a mug of it in the microwave and foam my own milk each morning. It’s less caffeinated than espresso–and still a special treat.” Saved: $708/year