Counter Offensives

Of course, there is a fine line between knowing, personalized attention—which many New York women, especially the bigger spenders, do want—and pushiness. Sephora, which originally marketed itself as a refreshing reprieve from aggressive department store cosmetics clerks, has morphed into its own treacherous beehive, with headset-wearing clerks buzzing around customers and proffering skin-care questionnaires. When a young Henri Bendel sales clerk with spiky brown hair and tight black pants last week offered a frozen customer stepping in from the cold not just a makeover but a new hairdo—“Would you like to try some Fekkai in your hair? He makes really great stuff, have you heard of him?”—well, we would expect no less of one of the last great retail grande dames of midtown.

But when even owners and managers of downtown stores with more local clientele are “reinvigorating” their staffs into perky Pollyannas, you know that things have to be bad.

“It’s hard because I’m not a store that likes to push people too much, but you have to have them try to get out there a little bit more and try to talk to the clients more,” said Jill Bradshaw, owner of the boutique I Heart on Mott Street in Nolita, where sales started a month earlier than usual this fall.

“I think everyone is aware of how the economy has affected the business,” she continued. “And our employees are definitely aware of interacting more with people, trying to give them a little more hands-on than usual, and trying to really be a part of helping out with everything. But it’s hard, because you can’t really force people to buy things.”

Minji Kim, owner of Min-k, an accessories boutique with locations in Nolita and the East Village, said that business in October was fine but that November has dropped precipitously.

“I’ve definitely retrained my sales force; I’m also very much working in the stores now just to cut overhead,” she said. But “I’m not going to tell my girls to push. That’s definitely not my philosophy. If anything, I want people to be more attentive and nicer and not be on the phone.”

Ms. Bradshaw pointed out that a customer can always push back, demanding an even better bargain for her willingness to whip out her credit card: “If it was reasonable, I’m sure I would be willing to consider it, depending on what [the item] is,” she admitted.

Even Ms. Bendet of Alice + Olivia, who disdained the 57th Avenue salesperson swarm, has tried a gentler persuasion tactic: offering Champagne during evening shopping events at her Nolita and Bryant Park stores. Ashley Blanch, manager of high-end lingerie store Kiki de Montparnasse in Soho, has been handing out signature candle sets to those who spend at least $295. “It’s been mentioned once or twice that in times like these that the people really turn to their sex lives,” she said hopefully. “So we’re really trying to ride on that idea.”

Counter Offensives