Fashion When does a sales assistant's attentiveness cross the line? Though they mean well, some shops take customer care too far.
The shop stalkers
Do you sometimes feel like you're being followed? You get a chill up the spine, the hairs on your neck stand on end, you suddenly feel peculiarly alert and self-conscious, as if someone is watching you? You clock a shadow flashing past the mirror and you turn around and... There she is, hovering a couple of feet away, looking intently at you. Its the shop girl. You can snarl all you like; you can confront her, snap at her or even try to pretend she isn't there, but at some point you're going to have to acknowledge the absurd fact that you are being stalked in a store by someone who thinks that this is the best way to serve you. Shes not trying to offend you; shes not trying to scare you out of the store. She has simply been told by her employer that this is how she must do her job.
Those familiar with the shopping process elsewhere in the world London, say, or Paris, or even the commission-driven New York may find this somewhat disconcerting. When people start to trail behind you in a boutique, scrutinising your every move, you will probably feel guilty even before you've browsed the first rail. After all, when this happens in most stores, it is because you don't look wealthy enough to be shopping there. To these zealous custodians of luxury goods, you are either a potential shop lifter or a time waster and both species are to be abhorred and watched with a falcon-like gaze. In Bond Street, you will be made to feel deeply uncomfortable if your jeans are from New Look or your bag is by Accessorize. Its short-sighted, yes (after all, affluent people are often the richer because of their thriftiness) but its understandable. Here, however, that is simply not the case. For reasons best known to themselves, those in charge of customer service techniques in the UAE appear to have decided that the limpet method is the only way to go.
I have to declare an interest here: I frequently prep for still-life fashion shoots in the shops of Dubai and Abu Dhabi, and as a result I spend more time shopping and experiencing shop rage than most. However, if this were just a problem for those of us whose job it is to trek around the shopping centres picking up fantasy wardrobes, I could accept it as an occupational hazard. But when I conducted an informal survey among the shopping fanatics of my acquaintance it turned out to be a universal bugbear. Rich, poor, male, female, groomed, scruffy... It seems that there are no barriers to shopping with a shadow in the UAE. According to the victims I spoke to, some of the worst offenders are the most expensive shops. In my experience, this is definitely the case. I recently endured a serious stand-off over the leather goods cabinet in an exclusive boutique (I moved to the left; he moved to the left; I moved to the right; he moved to the right. Even as he served another customer, I could see him through the mirror, eyeing me as I tried on sunglasses).
Many shoppers seem to have had overbearing assistant issues in the larger make-up emporia, where browsing is discouraged by a plethora of sales girls trying to spray perfume at you and cover you with eyeshadow. "They're just trying to sell you something, but they are very pushy," says Deborah Hannah, 46, who lives in Abu Dhabi. Acting on several hot tips, I ran the gauntlet of blusher buying at Marina Mall the other day and, true to form, no sooner had I entered the shop than a girl leapt in front of me, jack-in-the-box style, beamed at me and asked if she could help. A polite smile and a shake of the head sorted that out, but at each counter I received the same eager treatment, together with a few attempts to sell me random products in which I had shown no interest. It might seem churlish to carp at such enthusiasm were it not that, when I finally came to pay for my purchase, there was a lone harassed woman dividing her time between gift-wrapping for one customer and taking payment for the others. Several minutes later I gave up and departed sans make-up.
Of course, what this teaches us is that the sales assistants are not really to blame: if someone has been told that good customer service is to follow the shopper around in case she is needed, while the management have mis-deployed the staff on the sales floor, then its not exactly the fault of the girl with the inch-thick make-up. Its a delicate balance to strike: after all, how often have you been infuriated at staff standing around arguing about clothes tags or singing along to appalling soft rock while you attempt in vain to give them your money? Different shopping habits also play a part: while some people prefer to be left to browse anonymously, others appreciate the extra attention from the sales staff, and if you are about to drop a couple of hundred grand in Dior then you probably expect to be treated with extreme deference.
Luckily, some shops get it right every time and receive universal praise from dedicated shoppers. One of those is S*uce, where a personal relationship with the customer is encouraged. Melina Mitri, from S*uce, points out that a huge amount of work goes into creating an enjoyable shopping environment. "So much attention is paid to the details of shop design and in-store atmosphere. S*uce staff are there to complement that experience by being aware of each customers needs and giving a personalised service, be that simple shop assistance or style advice."
Another highly praised store is Boutique 1 in Emirates Towers and Jumeirah Beach Residence, where an abundance of chicly attired attendants or personal stylists wait politely at their posts ready to leap when needed. They are also willing to handhold their more demanding customers around the shop, and are equipped with an in-depth knowledge of the stock and the brands. "We often organise mystery shoppers to monitor our performance level," says a spokesperson for the store. "We have a very diverse customer base, from all the Emirates as well as from the GCC, Russia and Europe, and they tend to be quite fashion-forward and cutting-edge, but we train our staff to be able to accommodate all styles of fashion. And we have two members on the training team: one who educates our store staff on the brands, their heritage and the key pieces for the season, and one who trains them on the processes and procedures on the shop floor."
The new Dries Van Noten store in DIFC has astonished the style cognoscenti, too, simply by virtue of its staffs welcoming manner and knowledge of the brand. There's no doubt that they are fairly interactive with the customer but their genuine passion for the product is infectious and impressive. Saks Fifth Avenues fine jewellery department is also singled out for praise: "Staff are friendly and attentive, but keep away. A small lift of the head is enough to get one scuttling over, but otherwise they stay at a comfortable distance. And they really know what they are talking about," says the Dubai-based stylist Sarah Maisey. The menswear and homeware departments of Harvey Nichols are highly rated too (though the womenswear and accessories departments don't fare so well with committed fashionistas).
So how to shake off your shopgirl shadow and actually get down to enjoying your mall outings? "I have found the best way to get away from staff is to simply outrun them, and I'm a big fan of complicated store layouts as a result. I have become an expert at weaving at high speed," says Maisey. Deborah Hanna has a different approach: "It used to really bother me in the beginning, because it made me feel so uncomfortable, as if they thought I was a shoplifter. But you know, in Abu Dhabi, thats not the case. They've just been told to act like that. Now I just tell them I'm browsing and give them a stern look. That usually works."
Employing a little empathy can reap big rewards, too. After all, the attendants are not there specifically to annoy you they really do want to help, so use them: they'll carry your fitting-room finds, seek out other sizes and colours and know the shop stock backwards, which is invaluable if you're looking for something specific. My own view is that attack is the best form of defence: rather than running away, simply take the initiative and seek out eye contact with the shop assistant as soon as you enter the store. A friendly, confident "hello" and a businesslike nod and smile establishes you as someone who is at home in the store, and who is not to be intimidated into leaving, trying things on or buying new perfumes that you don't want. The alternative? Try a head of garlic, a rabbits foot and an evil eye amulet.