Luxury Shoppers in Sweat Pants—or Why You Shouldn’t ‘Pretty Woman’

It’s one of the oldest clichés: Don’t judge a book by its cover. And yet, that is especially tricky in this industry, which is devoted to providing a nicer cover for a customer’s book. 

In the last few decades, our collective idea of acceptable attire has shifted, and dressing down has become more acceptable in the workplace and in public. Which means that the shabbily dressed guy hesitantly entering your store may be a rock star, plumbing contractor, or dot-com millionaire.

Many longtime retailers say they have learned not to make assumptions about consumers based on what they wear. But veteran sales trainer Kate Peterson of Performance Concepts says, “The industry still struggles with the prejudging issue,” especially with regard to security. 

“We have spent a good deal of time teaching people to keep an eye out for anyone who appears to be ‘out of place’ in our environment,” she says. “Too many frontline salespeople have managed to translate that to mean ‘anyone who does not look like me.’ Unfortunately, caution has given way to profiling, often in the most offensive sense.”

The Jewelers’ Security Alliance, however, doesn’t include dress in its red flags for jewelers on spotting potential bad guys.

“It’s very difficult to judge someone’s buying power by how they dress in today’s world,” says John Kennedy, JSA president. “If something seems really out of line, you need to give it extra security attention. That doesn’t mean denying someone service or taking other dramatic action. You just have to be more careful.”

Luxury shoppers being sized up in sometimes-obnoxious ways remains so common that the blog Fashionista coined a name for it—being Pretty Woman’d, after the movie scene everyone remembers. 

Recently, some Harvard Business School researchers sent gym-clothes-wearing shoppers into Milan boutiques. The results suggested the Pretty Woman effect may actually work in reverse: 

Pedestrians were more likely to think that a well-dressed individual was more likely to have the money to buy something in the store. Shop assistants thought the opposite. Those more familiar with the luxury retail environment were more likely to assume that a gym-clothes-wearing client was confident enough to not need to dress up more, and therefore more apt to be a celebrity making a purchase than someone wrapped in fur. 

And so a blogger for Fashionista, in a well-worth-reading post, decided to test this out, and entered a slew of upscale New York City stores dressed in sweat pants. And she found just the opposite:

Don’t go to fancy stores in sweat pants if you want people to fawn over you. True, there were some exceptions, but overall I was passed over—even when there were no other customers around. Not a great feeling.  

Seems like a big disparity—but Peterson says she’s not surprised that salespeople in Milan and Manhattan reacted differently.

“It speaks to both the cultural definition of ‘inappropriate’ and to the level of sophistication of the retail employee,” she says. “Reasonably smart employees in high-end retail stores in Milan would likely be able to differentiate a pair of $1,500 sweats from a pair of $15 sweats.” But obviously, the Manhattan employees couldn’t. 

All this shows the folly of prejudgments, as tempting as they may be. The salespeople in the Manhattan boutiques who sized up their dressed-down visitors thought they were being smart and sophisticated. But they were actually demonstrating that they were posers.

In the future, those ignored shoppers might decide to shop at home, where no one is judging them on how they dress. Remember, we live in an age where consumers no longer have to visit a store to buy what they want. More than ever, making snap judgments about shoppers is, as Roberts’ character put it in Pretty Woman, a “big mistake. Huge.”

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JCK News Director