Ann Hurst

Ann Hurst

A weeklong electronic journal.
Jan. 4 2001 6:00 PM

Ann Hurst

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Nearly three hours into my day, and I am nearly $200 in the hole. I have sold a few inexpensive Nine West bags, but my totals are still in the negative zone when I idly check my numbers during a morning lull.

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Returns.

No telling who has brought what, or how much they are worth. I rarely ring up the returns on merchandise I have sold, the ones that count against me.

I had expected today to be slow—this morning young moms with babies in strollers meandered through the handbags department, looking for nothing in particular. The pace picked up around noon. Almost everyone was nice, polite, and willing to wait his or her turn. It was a good thing: I was the lone sales associate in the department.

Early in the afternoon I spot a tall, striking-looking woman wearing snug black jeans and a black sweater that set off her copper-colored, shoulder-length hair. She is hovering around the Ferragamo belts, one of the better (and most expensive) lines. She wants to see some of the belts that have fallen to the floor inside the display case, an open-top cabinet, maybe 42 inches tall, with two vertical shelves on which belts are hung on specialty nails. The space between the shelves is narrow—four, five inches tops. I grab the pole we use to reach handbags on high shelves, thinking we might use it as a grappling hook, and with luck, snag the loops holding the price tag or the security sensors. I dip the hook to the bottom of the cabinet, feel a connection, and maneuver the hook to reel in the booty. No luck. Everything falls off, just out of reach.

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The woman offers to try it, and I hand her the pole. "What we need is either a big wad of gum or a small child that can slip inside," I murmur after a few minutes of no progress, but she is either too focused on her fishing or (rightfully) ignoring me. I find a hanger, and between the two of us maneuvering our tools, we pull about a dozen belts from the bottom of the bin. She momentarily stops her recovery effort as two women walk by behind us. "Portuguese," she says. "It's really odd to hear it here."

"You're a Portuguese speaker?" I ask.

"Yes, I'm from Brazil, although I know I don't look it," she replies, accent free. "Not too many redheads there."

While she contemplates the belts, I turn to assist another woman, who is in a hurry to find a Ferragamo wallet big enough to hold her checkbook. In pursuit of the exact size, color, leather finish, and buckle, I sort through every wallet in the case—and the drawers below. A couple of times, the Belt Woman wanders by and volunteers how much she has loved her Ferragamo wallet, which she's carried for several years. The wallet shopper asks me to hold the pebbled, black leather one with the large gold clip for an hour.

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Back to Belt Woman. She definitely wants the belt, on sale for $59.99. She has a similar one, which she wore all summer, and "it looks so sweet with pants."

She is in no hurry, and we spend a leisurely few minutes fondling Ferragamo pieces and chatting along the way. She'd also like a wallet, she says, like the one I had just put on hold, since hers is well worn. Plus, she'd like the cranberry red purse, which had just been added to the group marked 40 percent off, and the fabulous black leather bucket, also reduced 40 percent in price.

By this time, we have bonded—must have been the fishing!—and as I head to the cash terminal, I offer to show her my favorite piece in the entire department, an exquisite, black velveteen shawl. It's lined with a perfectly aligned leopard-motif silk print in shades of gold, brown, copper, and leaf green. It's fascinated me, because there are pockets in the lining, and I've been curious about just how one utilizes pockets in a shawl. She tosses it around her shoulders; it looks fabulous, and we speculate about where one could wear it.

"If it's under $200, I'm going to have to take it," she declares. I scan the price barcode; $179, still on sale. Wow! Surprise. She adds the shawl to her pile. Then, two more wallets ("future gifts") and one last scarf ($200). Total sale: about $1,500.

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It dawns on me: I am out of the hole. (At least until more returns are registered.) And these past few minutes have been great fun—somewhat akin to shopping with a friend. Yet, no matter how comfortable the patter or revealing the conversation, the relationships that emerge are fleeting and deceptively purposeful.

I am still getting to know my place as a sales associate. In truth, I am just there to ring up the sales and make the experience enjoyable. (Duh, welcome to the service industry!)

Which makes the visits of old friends and colleagues special treats. In their presence, I am more than employee number 045120. I become a person again, with the privilege of partnership in the conversation. For now, their reactions are priceless. There's a definite pattern.

Often, it begins with a double take, often including a quick look at my nametag: "Ann Hurst. What are you doing here?"

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Shortly before Christmas, a writer who used to work with me was eyeing the Desmo bags, which are kept locked in a case. I called out to her by name, delighted to see her. "Ann Hurst. What are you DOING here?" she asked.

"Well, I've never done retail, and I thought this might offer an interesting perspective on Silicon Valley," I reply.

"What are YOU doing here," she repeats again and again, eyes searching my face for some hint of how deeply she should probe. Years ago, I was her editor's editor, and I can understand her surprise—OK, shock—seeing me in my sales associate's role. We continue the dance for a while, and I am convinced she thinks I had a great fall that I dare not mention.

"It was time to do something new and completely different," I tell her.

My close friends and former boss think my foray into retail is hilarious, but beneath the laughs they understand. It's worth noting that they have been especially interested and supportive around Friends and Family double discount days.

The truth is I really do want to see the world from a perspective other than a newsroom, and during these few weeks I have learned a lot about people, shoppers in Silicon Valley, management and leadership (there's nothing like being on a low rung on the ladder to get new insight, especially after being on top), the retail business, and me.

Mostly, I am quite humbled, and I understand why sometimes the sales associate cannot quickly complete what seems a simple transaction on the sales terminal. (The computer rules, and it's not always logical or intuitive.) I know what it's like to be the single sales person on a floor, when there are multiple customers eager to have their needs met. I know why sometimes it seems to take forever for phone customers to get even a basic response in a timely manner, or worse, to get stuck on hold. I also know that a surprising number of sales associates not only are not stupid (as in "that stupid clerk") but might indeed have impressive credentials. E, for example, who started working at the store when I did, has a doctoral degree in European economic history.

But today, I am the only "stupid clerk" around, and by the end of the day, thanks to Ms. Ferragamo and a string of others, I clock out with sales totaling nearly $4,500. Not bad. I am just relieved that I was not the original sales associate for the woman who came while I finally was grabbing a quick bite of lunch at 4:30, my first respite of the day, which had begun seven hours earlier. She dropped off six of the trendy and expensive Kate Spade bags, all of which she wanted to return. Total value: nearly $2,000. Now that would hurt.