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Sales Associates Explain How to Be a Better Shopper

First: Listen to the people whose job it is to help you.

Pretty Penny Oakland Photo: Aaron Wojack

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Shopping is fun, or at least it should be. But sometimes it can be frustrating, because you can’t find what you need, or because you have to meet your significant other’s parents in a couple hours and you have nothing to wear and you’re already late. And sometimes, shopping is humiliating, because all your cards get declined and you can’t just melt into a puddle like Alex Mac.

Often, we forget that there are people — real live human beings! — whose job it is to make the experience of shopping in a store as successful as possible. When I’m shopping, I almost always brush off sales associates with a casual “just browsing, thanks!” so I talked to several of them who do this for a living to find out what I’ve been missing out on, and how we can all do this thing better.

The best time to shop for variety is right when the merchandise arrives.

We spoke to three people who work in retail — Sal Murgo, the senior vice president and general manager of Barneys on Madison Avenue; Ale Tarver, the store manager at New York-based multi-brand boutique Assembly; and Dan Mercurio, the store and floor manager at Extra Butter’s Rockville Centre in Long Island, New York.

Each had a similar answer for the best time to shop for new things: right in the beginning of every season. For a store like Barneys, that means August for fall, October for winter, January for spring, and March/April for summer, according to Murgo.

At a store like Assembly, Tarver recommends coming during the local fashion weeks in February and September. “That's when we get all the new arrivals and the really special items that sell out shortly after fashion week,” she explains.

Sales are the exact opposite.

“If you're looking for deals and things like that, counter-seasonal is always best,” Mercurio says. He adds that the holidays are great for deal-hunters. “That’s when you're going to be really fortunate when it comes to getting deals. I know specifically at Extra Butter we always offer a constant 30% off the sneaker section,” he says.

Tarver agrees the best time is after Thanksgiving. She adds the middle of summer is another time “when the sales start getting deeper and deeper.”

Stay plugged into social media — not your inbox — for alerts on sales.

Tarver points out that virtually every store in the real world is also on social media, and getting a heads-up about the hottest items or deals is as simple as following your favorite stores. “I know a lot of people have cluttered inboxes. Social media is more filtered,” she says.

Mercurio says social media is especially important for a store like Extra Butter, which sells the type of limited-edition items that can leave empty-handed customers salty. “We don't do the hook-ups,” he says. “We give everyone the information once we have it so there’s that level playing field.”

But you should still sign up for the newsletter anyway.

If there’s a store that you really like, though, make room in your inbox for it. The newsletters are going to have the most comprehensive information on sales, new arrivals, and general store news. “Our newsletters are huge for us,” Mercurio says. “Things like flash sales, free shipping, and general discounted product are always going to be featured on that bi-weekly.”

If there’s a store that you absolutely love, go one step further. Major retailers like Barneys offer store credit cards, and signing up for one gets you first dibs on promotional events (both in-store and online) and gets you access to special cardholder events throughout the year.

Or, even better, put the screen down and make friends.

“The most foolproof way to guarantee you are in the know is to build a relationship with one of our sales associates,” Murgo says. “They are constantly in communication with their clients.” Murgo says that Barneys associates will “send photos as soon as collections are available in store” to their most dedicated shoppers.

This practice also happens at boutique shops like Assembly. “It takes time for items to get shot for web, so if you establish a relationship with a sales associate, sometimes you get sent cell phone pictures. That's the best way to get the most exclusive heads-up about new arrivals,” says Tarver, who insists that this is available to the average customer, not just big spenders. “Just walk up to us and say hi. Just a normal conversation is good.”

Be a transparent shopper.

One of the most helpful things a shopper can do is be honest about who they are, what they’re looking for, and how much they want to spend. Tarver says the information that’s really helpful is knowing what you intend to do with an item once you leave the store with it, like “whether they're looking for an outfit to wear every day to work, or if they have an active lifestyle,” she says. “Or, if you're going to an event and you're shopping for a wedding or a dinner, knowing that really humanizes the experience and it becomes easier to direct customers to the right piece.”

Laying out all your requirements is also the fastest way to get it all done. “Be completely transparent with your shopping mission,” Murgo says. “For example, if you are looking for a gift and have a budget in mind, say that and we can help you find something special.”

Stay on your toes.

If you’re hoping to buy an item that typically sells out quickly, Mercurio simply recommends doing your research. “If you know what's coming out, and not even necessarily what store is getting it, you're already ahead of the curve if you've done your research.”

Don’t be an asshole while you’re waiting in line.

Mercurio acknowledges that being a decent human in line can be a “double-edged sword.” It’s hard for anyone to keep their cool when they see people cutting in line, but he believes the best way to do this is for everyone to police themselves and make friends with people in line with you.

“My main advice I would give to anyone is have patience and just stay in line,” Mercurio says. “If you have to use the bathroom or grab food, make sure that the line is aware of that. Most of the time, these people on line aren't going to screw you over.”

Or anywhere else, for that matter.

Not so shocking: Being a good shopper is about as easy as being a good human being. The people we spoke with reported annoyances like clothes left in clumps on the dressing room floor, litter, a “too-cool attitude,” or a sense of superiority over sales associates. “We are here to serve you and help you out, but why not make it a pleasant experience for the both of us?” Mercurio asks.

The TL;DR: Use your lifelines.

Shopping without bringing in a sales associate is a lot like going on Who Wants to Be a Millionaire? and not phoning a friend. Sales associates know their store’s inventory, how it fits, and what it costs better than most, and they genuinely like the interaction.

“At Barneys, our clients become our friends and we really enjoy learning more about them,” Murgo says. Mercurio adds: “At the end of the day we work retail, and I got into this industry because I genuinely enjoy customer interaction.”

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