The lost art of browsing

Kevin Cowherd

February 01, 1993|By Kevin Cowherd

I had just stepped into the men's store and was walking past the obligatory table heaped with reduced-price sweaters when the first sales clerk came at me.

"Can I help you, sir?"

No thanks, I said. Just looking.

Immediately his face darkened. Sales clerks in clothing stores these days are trained to irritate and badger customers until they buy something. And here I wasn't letting him have any fun.

"Our ties are 20 percent off," he said hopefully.

No, I said, don't need any.

"Our new wool-blend blazers are in."

Thanks. I'll just look around.

With that, he turned and stomped away in a snit.

Thirty seconds later another sales clerk came up fast and hard on my right.

This one was even more of an eager-beaver than the first one, with the same kind of righteous look on his face as a career Moonie.

"Help you, sir?"

No, no, just looking.

"Show you our poplin suits?"

Not today, thanks.

"Well, I'm over here if you need me."

Thanks, but I think I'll be . . .

"The name's Tod. With one 'd.'"

This time a full minute went by before another sales clerk cornered me by the corduroy pants.

"Anything I can help you with?"

Just looking, thanks.

"Looking for anything specific?"

No, no, nothing specific.

By now, of course, I was readying the Bic pen in my jacket pocket for the moment when I was going to have to stab one of these people.

When the fourth sales clerk made a run at me two minutes later, I was so unnerved that I sprinted from the store and ran to the other end of the mall, ducking into a Hickory Farms store until I stopped hyperventilating.

Apparently, there is no such thing as browsing peacefully in a men's store any longer.

The thing is, men's stores used to be wonderful places to visit. For the most part they were run by sullen, disinterested men with bad hairpieces and pear-shaped bodies who wore yellow tape measures around their necks and all but ignored their customers.

If a customer dared to ask for help, the sales clerk would sigh and roll his eyes and trudge wearily over to where the customer was standing, like he was doing you a big favor.

Occasionally, when business was slow, four or five sales clerks would huddle in the middle of the store to chat.

But the subject of the impromptu meeting was never anything deep or business-related -- usually it had to do with some chesty woman who'd just walked in, or whether to order Chinese for lunch.

God, they were great places to shop! Quiet, peaceful places where you knew up front you'd be treated like dirt and left alone.

Then . . . something happened.

Suddenly a whole new breed of sales people seemed to pop up in the men's stores.

These were hard-eyed and intense young men, with slicked-back hair and French cuffs and the overpowering scent of Polo trailing after them.

And they wouldn't leave you alone. Even if you made it perfectly clear you were just browsing, they'd follow you around like a well-trained springer spaniel.

Now, it has reached the point where you practically have to wave a silver crucifix in their face to make them back off.

Of course, for the opposite clothes-shopping experience, all you have to do is go to one of the hip jeans stores in any mall.

I was in one the other day when I made the mistake of approaching one of the requisite giggling 17-year-old sales clerks with a question about a shirt.

The conversation, as near as I can recall, went like this:

"Excuse me . . ."

"Huh?"

"Do you have this in a different color?"

"Different color?"

"Yeah, like navy blue?"

"Navy . . . blue?"

At first I thought it was me. I thought maybe I was having some sort of intense past-life episode and had inadvertently lapsed into Mandarin Chinese.

Or maybe I was having an out-of-body experience, and the poor woman was so riveted by the sight of my eyeballs fluttering and my soul flickering in white light that she was understandably having problems concentrating.

Then I thought: Nah, maybe she's just kind of slow.

Sure enough, it turned out to be Door No. 3.

And you wonder why people wear their clothes longer these days.

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