Ann Hurst

Today was my last day on the floor as a seasonal sales associate. I’ll return Tuesday for inventory, and after that sporadically, if my manager needs the help. (She’s been wonderful; it’s the least I can do.) I had hoped to leave on a high note, and I was on course. About an hour before I clocked out, though, a pre-holiday customer returned several Ferragamo wallets and a $200 scarf. My sales total for the day: nearly $700 in the hole. My worst day by far. And I didn’t see it coming.

Today was quiet, a stark contrast to the bustle of just a week ago. “These two months, forget it,” one retail veteran told me. “When it is so quiet, time passes so slowly,” another said, prowling our sprawling department, ready to pounce on any prospect. I spent much of the day preparing for inventory, first in the stockroom pointing a clumsy pistol-shaped scanner at price codes of merchandise lined up on shelves stacked floor to ceiling, then later on the main floor, pawing through handbag after handbag to make sure each has its own price-coded ticket, and making new ones for ticketless bags.

For once, there was time for reflection on telling moments and even snatches of conversation with my co-workers, halted instantly, of course, when a customer approached.

Here are a few memorable moments and telling lessons.

Dashing Hopes—Gently: My colleagues are smooth as silk in the fine art of saying no. Today, yet another customer came by to ask if we had a replica of the wallet she has been using for many years. She held it aloft trophy-like. It was huge, well-worn, and well-stuffed. “It is a suitcase,” one colleague whispered to me as we watched K in action. K, a champion saleswoman who bears a marked resemblance to ‘40s movie actress Claudette Colbert, apologized in her warm, friendly, smoky voice, her words pleasantly accentuated by the exotic tones of her native Farsi: “No, ma’am, we don’t have one big and important like that.”

Decision Dilemmas: Buying a handbag is a very personal thing. Choosing can be difficult, since handbags are often expensive, they must be comfortable to carry, easy to use, and complementary to a woman’s personal style. “Which handbag looks most like me?” an astonishing number of women asked me. Me, a perfect stranger until a few minutes before the query.

Just this week, a well-dressed blond woman strolled into the handbag department with her husband. She had a noticeable presence about her. She was tall and carried herself almost regally. Her hair was cut short and sleek; she wore an expensive-looking, black, three-quarter length jacket over black pants, and she was directive in her manner. Bossy, even—until decision time. And then, she handed several bags to her husband and completely deferred to him. “Which one shall I get?” she asked. “I prefer the organization of this one,” he said, settling on the handbag that she will carry. Incredible.

Only in Palo Alto: Why is it that customers bring their dogs with them while they shop? Are the owners making a personal statement? Or is this their idea of walking the dog? I definitely am missing something. Not long ago, I greeted a couple—and their dog, a well-fed golden retriever. It leaped on me and slobbered all over my face. “Isn’t he cute?” the owners said, enthusiastically. “He likes you!” Now I like dogs, too, but I’m not crazy about them jumping in my face and slobbering. I forced a smile and patted the animal into a sitting position while its owners leisurely admired our Coach and Fendi handbags, clearly with no intention of buying anything. As soon as they left, I raced upstairs to wash up.

Moxie 1: The prize has to go to a twentysomething woman who has a Fendi she was contemplating returning. She didn’t have it with her, and she was inquiring about our return policy. How long have you had the handbag, I asked. “About a year,” she replied. Is something wrong with it? I asked. “No,” she replied. “But I’m tired of it and I’d like another one.”

Big Whopper Award: One woman returned an obviously used handbag nearly five months after buying it. While the store’s return policy is quite generous, I couldn’t help myself. “You’ve had this bag for a long time,” I noted, when she gave me the receipt. “It looks a bit beat up,” I continued. “Oh, my daughter’s had it at school, and we just couldn’t get it here.” I fished inside for the price tag, and a quarter fell out and rolled onto the floor. “Mom” jumped into action and stepped on it, trying to hide it with her toe. I pulled out a fistful of coins, an eraser, and other detritus. “Of course she didn’t really use it,” she continued. “My daughter carried it for two days. It was uncomfortable. It hit her right here,” she said, contorting her hip and pointing somewhere between the waist and the hipbone. I handed her the coins, along with credit for the full $29 purchase price. It was quite a performance for a cheap handbag. She left quickly.

Mom and Daughter 2: Today, sweet Mildred, who will turn 84 in March, decided to open an instant credit, which would entitle her to 10 percent off everything she buys in her first 24 hours. I rang up a fur hat for her, a jaunty chocolate brown with a generous rabbit fur trim. “My mother loves hats,” her daughter explained, midway through the transaction. Credit approval came in so fast, Mildred had barely had time to sign her full name on the electronic signature plate. I congratulated her on the speedy credit approval. “Well it should be,” she said. “I have always paid my bills in full. Every time.”

Moxie 2: On my second day on the floor, a young, preppie-dressed woman thrust two handbags at me to ring up. I was the only sales associate on the floor and a small line began to form at my register. “Muffie” handed me a fistful of coupons. Which bag and which combination of coupons is the better deal, she asked curtly. Now understand: At this point, I had barely conquered the basics of how to work the cash register. The intricacies of the various coupons had not been part of our training. The coupons themselves are little minefields of small print, listing the brand names and items excluded from the discount offer.

I took the coupons and started flipping through them, looking for one earmarked for handbags. As for which combo was the better deal … yikes. Meanwhile, she picked up her cell phone and placed a call. By this time, several other customers had gathered in line behind her. Said Muffie into the phone: “I am standing here at (the store) and as soon as This Clerk (intoned snootily) figures out the coupons, I can be there by 2 …” It was 1:45. She kept chatting into the phone, oblivious to her role in the transaction procedure. I’m ready to smash her, but I keep smiling, promising myself whatever I write about this experience, I’m putting her in.

Moxie 3: Then there was the transplanted New Yorker, who dropped by to pick up a birthday gift for a friend, along with a bunch of small items: headbands, pillboxes, various forgettable stuff. Midway through the transaction, she said she wanted the purse, an undistinguished brown micro-fiber handbag priced at $29.99, one of the cheapest we have, sent to her friend in Los Angeles, but she didn’t have her friend’s address. And, by the way, she said, she needed to pick up her daughter from school, so “hurry up.” I begin processing the transaction as fast as I can, and her cell phone fails. I dial the Los Angeles number on the store phone and hand her the receiver. Answering machine. She launches into an animated message. “Happy birthday,” she sing songs. “I’m at (the store), actually, buying your gift. I need your address. Listen, call Ann. What’s your number?” she hisses to me. I can’t believe it. She is buying a birthday gift for a friend, yet she is turning over the details to her birthday friend and me to work out. And she takes off.

Mom and Daughter 3: “Look at these two,” K, my co-worker, said just before she headed out for lunch today. “They come, they leave, they get a few steps outside the department, and they return. Always they ask for a price scan.” They are looking for the perfect bag—at the perfect price.

“Can you believe, they cannot leave us. This must be a very magical place.”