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Hey, Quick Question: When Did Sales Associates Become 'Personal Stylists'?

And is there always a difference?
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Welcome to our column, "Hey, Quick Question," where we investigate seemingly random happenings in the fashion and beauty industries. Enjoy!

As brick-and-mortar retailers continue to struggle, we've spent a lot of time covering what many of them are doing to stay afloat. Some are adapting features like omnichannel, AI and touch screens in fitting rooms that are decidedly new and tech-focused, while others are going a more old-school route, using humans to improve the in-store experience — or, at least, to make it sound like they are.

While high-end retailers have offered what they call "personal shoppers" and "personal stylists" to provide more personalized assistance for years, it feels like there's been a significant uptick in retailers (some of them on the more accessible end of the market) offering and publicizing these roles, and we've become less clear on what they actually mean. Is this just a fancy new word for a sales associate?

Traditionally, they're hired to go above and beyond what is expected of a typical sales associate. Take Capitol, a luxury boutique in Charlotte, NC, for instance. The shop employs a team of in-store personal stylists whose duties might include (but aren't limited to) bringing product to clients' homes, handling alterations, shipping boxes to Madame Paulette for dry cleaning, helping clients pack and traveling with clients to get them ready for events. Founder Laura Vinroot Poole feels this strategy is what has kept the store successful from the recession through to today's turbulent retail landscape. She strategically hires people with liberal arts degrees and pays them competitively in addition to offering a commission.

"People want relationships. You can buy anything anywhere with e-commerce, so I think especially at the luxury level, you want to feel warm and fuzzy at the end of that purchase; you want to feel good about it," she says, adding, "I think that department stores don't think that way. It's not a typical way to think ... [but] they should be thinking that way."

One of said department stores is, to a certain extent: Nordstrom has offered personal stylists for as long as we can remember, but has been making a bigger push for them recently (The Atlantic interviewed one last year) as it's revamped its stores and, last month, opened a store in Los Angeles called Nordstrom Local that only employs personal stylists and has no inventory. All are free to make an appointment with.

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Personal stylists have also been popping up at more affordable retailers like J.Crew, Topshop, Anthropologie, Banana Republic, Macy's, Lane Bryant and even H&M. This is where things vary. While some might offer levels of service close to those provided by higher-end stores like the ones mentioned above, others do little more than a typical sales associate. They might require booking an appointment, spend a little time asking about your preferences and needs, pull a variety of things in your size and pass along their contact info afterwards. Based on job descriptions found online, most are part-time and don't require prior experience or a college degree. Meanwhile, Aritzia calls its regular sales associates "style advisors." (It should be noted, however, that Aritzia does have exceptional customer service for a relatively affordable retailer in that its employees are actually nice and helpful.) In addition, Abercrombie currently calls its salespeople "brand representatives."

Whether these people are actually doing the work of personal stylists or are simply made to sound like they are, the reasons for their increasing ubiquity are the same. With competition from e-commerce, the in-store experience has to feel much more personalized these days. 

"If things aren't off-price, online or local, you're having a damn hard time selling them," says retail consultant Jan Kniffen. "This personalization thing falls into that local category." He also sees the recent boom in personalized products and in-store customization options as part of the same trend.

The service can also be an effective method of customer retention and repeat sales — that is if the customer actually does hit it off with the stylist and they stay in touch.

E-commerce companies are catching up, though: Net-A-Porter recently launched an at-home personal shopping service called "You Try, We Wait," where a person will bring the item to your house and make sure it fits before leaving. There are a number of personal styling startups, like Stitch Fix, which just filed for an IPO. Many companies are using AI to style customers, help them shop and/or simply show them product it thinks they'll like when they visit. Rent the Runway began opening stores that employ personal stylists, too.

This move towards personalization shows no signs of slowing — both on and offline — and the segment of the population that's too busy to shop and/or needs a little help getting dressed is sure to have more options than ever. But remember: There's a pretty big difference between, say, a celebrity's personal stylist and one that works at your local mall.

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