Some midpriced stores try personal stylists

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Posted: Monday, September 9, 2013 12:00 am

In a sun-dappled alcove in Los Angeles, shopper Karen Ashkenazi modeled a black, yellow and pink A-line dress in front of a floor-to-ceiling mirror.

Her personal stylist had chosen the garment, along with the black ankle boots that reflected in the polished marble floor. Other specially selected outfits hung on a rack nearby, next to a lush flower arrangement.

“They know my style so well,” said Ashkenazi, 30, who lives in West Hollywood, Calif. “I’ll buy something 100 percent of the time I’m here, even when I wasn’t planning on it.”

Such service is the norm at upscale boutiques and in the salons of celebrity stylists. But Ashkenazi was at Los Angeles’ Grove shopping center getting pampered in Topshop, a fast-fashion chain known for its $20 tank tops and costume jewelry.

Other midpriced retailers have begun offering personal stylists, often at no charge. Even grocery, furniture and discount chains such as Target have launched versions of the service.

All this coddling is part of a hard-nosed strategy to boost profit in a tough economy. With customers shopping online for bargains, bricks-and-mortar merchants are trying to lure them back with an upscale experience that’s affordable.

Many companies are taking cues from luxury brands, which are generally outperforming other retail segments.

“Stores are trying to separate themselves, and personal stylists are one way to soft-sell more product,” said Marshal Cohen, chief retail analyst at consumer research firm NPD Group.

Many programs are so new that they’ve yet to have a meaningful effect on sales. But boho-chic retailer Anthropologie has seen demand for its stylists increase 50 percent in five years, said Christina Frederick, who manages the service for the chain. Same-store sales at Anthropologie were up 8.4 percent in the first quarter.

TV makeover shows such as the TLC network’s “What Not to Wear” have made women comfortable turning to coaches for help. So have sartorial websites and how-to videos on YouTube.

“Fashion has really evolved in the last 10 years with the blog age, Pinterest and so on,” Frederick said. “More and more women are seeking to achieve their own unique style and not look like everyone else.”

Over at Topshop, clients who sign up for the personal shopping service get first dibs on the fresh merchandise — about 300 new styles a week — while avoiding the common shoppers looking through the racks. The service books about 80 appointments a week from customers as diverse as 15-year-old girls and 50-year-old mothers, said Soulmaz Vosough, who runs Topshop’s program.

She likens the service to a combination of a “concierge and also your girlfriend who gives you advice.”

Several Banana Republic stores in San Francisco, New York and Chicago also offer complimentary stylist services. Zara is advertising free sessions with a personal stylist to help customers “navigate the collection.” Bebe’s stylists choose outfits based on clients’ preferences, sizes and purchase history.

Patrons of J. Crew’s free program can ask stores to open early or close later.

H&M said it planned to launch personal stylist services in some stores soon. Guess’ program, which started last year, is in 30 North American stores. Its stylists get monthly training in fashion trends.

The stylists put together outfits and dispense fashion advice. They’re often on a first-name basis with clients and know their sizes and preferences. Some work on commission, often at a higher rate than regular salespeople. Others earn a salary.

Those who thrive must be versatile and willing to hustle. Take it from Maritza Arrua, director of retail operations for vintage-inspired retailer Johnny Was and a personal stylist for the chain. She helps create outfits for walk-in customers as well as her 10 regulars, who include mothers, businesswomen and a client in her 60s.

Arrua often pulls designs for traveling customers and has run deliveries to several hotels. When stores get photos of incoming merchandise, she’ll call her regulars with ideas. To complete a look, she’ll sometimes refer shoppers to other brands and stores, sending them to Barneys for flats or Nordstrom for wedges.

“I’m constantly taking pictures on my phone and emailing clients,” she said. “I’m not above anything; we try to accommodate as best we can.”

Even Target has joined the act. The discounter launched its Beauty Concierge program in the Los Angeles area in May to help customers make sense of “what can be an intimidating department,” the company said.

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