What Your (Ex) Shopgirl Wants You To Know About “Pretty Woman”

I should probably start out here by telling you that I have never seen “Pretty Woman.” I wasn’t allowed to watch it when I was a kid–not because of the prostitution angle–but because my mom did not care for Julia Roberts. Or, really, romantic comedies in general. I never got around to seeing it later, for whatever reason. Now, it’s the 25th anniversary of the movie, and although I thought I had nothing to say about it, it turns out I do.

You see, there is one scene with which I am explicitly familiar, having worked in retail for about ten years. It’s the scene where she goes in and the snobby salespeople tell her she doesn’t look fancy enough to be shopping there, and then she goes out shopping and spending lots of money and comes back to the boutique to go “BIG MISTAKE. HUGE.” or whatever.

I can totally see how it’s a very cathartic moment. Everyone likes seeing a snob get their just desserts. If you want an extra boost of catharsis, you should probably know that anyone who talked like that to a customer, regardless of what they were wearing, would be fired pretty immediately. I have never seen this happen any place I’ve worked.

However, I think that because the scene is so cathartic, people are often just waiting for their “Pretty Woman” moment–which, on occasion, creates some antagonistic tension with other people who are just trying to do their job. I had more than a few people come in to places I’d work and reference that scene, as if trying to “test” me, and I’d just say “Well, I’ve never seen that movie, but in case you are concerned, I am very nice and not a jerk!” Because what else can you say?

Although my shopgirl days are long behind me, I thought I’d hand out some helpful tips for people concerned about getting “Pretty Woman’d.”

1. Hello isn’t a sales pitch.Several times a day, I’d say hello to people as they walked in the store, only to be snapped back at with “JUST LOOKING!” Which, you should know, is quite jarring. Obviously, we get that no one wants to be pressured into anything, but if we didn’t say “hello,” it would be weird, and also you’d think we were Pretty Woman-style snobs. Basically, it’s a trap.

If you don’t say hello back, generally we are going to assume you want to be left alone, and will probably not try to chat with you until it’s clear you are considering something.

2. We do make snap judgments on what we think you can afford, but there’s a reason. Back in the day, I always did what we call “purse scans” or “shoe scans.” We’ll clock certain jewelry. This wasn’t so we could give people with fancy purses better service, but to have an idea of what to offer them. Personally, I didn’t want to put anyone in the position of showing them a $500 dress right off the bat and having them feel bad because it wasn’t in their price range. Someone carrying a Chanel bag isn’t going to bat an eyelash at that, but I know that if someone were to show me a super expensive thing the second I walked into a store, I’d walk right out of it just as fast. I figured it was better, when it wasn’t completely obvious, to start with things a little more normal-priced and move up if that’s what it seemed they were into.

A lot of what I did involved making a lot of snap judgments– for the purpose of making things easier on the customer. I have great spacial recognition skills or whatever you want to call it, so no one ever had to tell me what size they were. People really liked that about me. I could look at their hair and their outfit and find the thing they’d like best in the store in under a minute. With people who had shopped with me for a while, all they had to do was walk into the dressing room and I’d just run around and grab things for them.

3. We aren’t following you because we think you’re stealing. One of the places I worked had two storefronts. If a customer walked into the second storefront, someone went along with them. Why? To be available if they had any questions or might need a dressing room.

It’s such a fine line to walk in between not wanting to overwhelm people and being too standoffish, when you don’t know the customer. I’ll be honest, if I’d been standing there by myself all morning with no one to talk to, it is entirely possible that I was just thrilled to see another human.

4. There’s a lot you don’t get about commission. First of all, making snide jokes about the way we earn our money right to our face is a crap thing to do–especially when you’re insinuating that we’re lying to you because of it. Here’s the thing! If we sell you something that actually looks awful, you return that thing, we don’t get our commission, and you never shop with us again. We sell you something that looks great–even if it’s less expensive–you love it and come back to us always, and things work out great for both of us. Dig?

Also, be aware that if we DO work on commission, that taking an hour to help you pick out a $30 pair of earrings is time we could have spent earning a bunch more money. It’s fine, and it’s part of the job, but like, being appreciative of someone doing their best to help you is always a cool thing to do.

5. Pretty much no one at these fancy stores is a rich person looking down on you. Yeah, I was pretty much never able to afford any of the things I sold, especially considering that I was in school most of the time. In fact, when I first started, I was such a naïf that I was shocked that people casually bought dresses that cost $500. I added everything people purchased in terms of guitars (the most expensive thing I’d owned at that point) and would think to myself “WOW! She could have bought three guitars with that!” Half the time I’d be comforting a client crying in a dressing room because her friend got a Birkin before she did, and I wasn’t even sure how I was gonna make rent.

6. You’re not ever going to “surprise” anyone by buying a bunch of expensive stuff. While sure, we’ll pick up on certain obvious indicators of wealth, it’s hardly as though those are infallible, immovable characteristics. Not everyone who has money flaunts it, duh. So no one is looking at you going “Ugh, what does she think she’s doing here?” because for all we know, you are a secret millionaire and also maybe just a really nice person.

7. At the end of the day, if you want the best service, it’s better to be kind than to be a big spender. As in pretty much any other service industry, retail often means dealing with a lot of unpleasant people. If you go into a store expecting rudeness, things are going to be awkward. If you think being rude to salespeople makes you look rich and important, trust me, it doesn’t. And actually being rich doesn’t mean you can get away with it either. I will tell you, there is one major chain store I will not shop at ever because the heiress was super rude to me and threw clothes at me as though I were a hanging rack. I didn’t care how much she spent, but I never worked with her again.

The people who were just kind and friendly to me though? Shit, I went above and beyond for them. I took them out for cocktails, I texted them when something I thought they’d like came in, and years later I’m still friends with a couple of my best clients.

It’s like anything else, treat people well, treat service workers like they are actual humans with a full range of thoughts and emotions, and they’ll treat you well in kind.