In a sun-dappled alcove in Los Angeles, shopper Karen Ashkenazi modeled a black, yellow and pink A-line dress in front of a floor-to-ceiling mirror.
Her personal stylist had chosen the garment, along with the black ankle boots that reflected in the polished marble floor. Other specially selected outfits hung on a rack nearby, next to a lush flower arrangement.
“They know my style so well,” said Ashkenazi, 30, who lives in West Hollywood, Calif. “I’ll buy something 100 percent of the time I’m here, even when I wasn’t planning on it.”
Such service is the norm at upscale boutiques and in the salons of celebrity stylists. But Ashkenazi was at Los Angeles’ Grove shopping center getting pampered at Topshop, a fast-fashion chain known for its $20 tank tops and costume jewelry that has shops inside Nordstrom stores in Seattle, Bellevue Square and Southcenter.
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Other mid-tier retailers have begun offering personal stylists, often at no charge. Even grocery, furniture and discount chains such as Target have launched versions of the service.
All this coddling is part of a hard-nosed strategy by retailers to boost profit in a tough economy. With customers shopping online for bargains, bricks-and-mortar merchants are trying to lure them back with an upscale experience that’s affordable.
Many of these companies are taking cues from luxury brands, which are generally outperforming other retail segments.
“Stores are trying to separate themselves, and personal stylists are one way to soft-sell more product,” said Marshal Cohen, chief retail analyst at consumer-research firm NPD Group.
Many programs are so new that they’ve yet to have a meaningful effect on sales. But boho-chic retailer Anthropologie has seen demand for its stylists increase 50 percent in five years, said Christina Frederick, who manages the service for the chain. Same-store sales at Anthropologie were up 8.4 percent in the first quarter.
TV makeover shows such as the TLC network’s “What Not to Wear” have made women comfortable turning to coaches for help. So have sartorial websites and how-to videos on YouTube.
“Fashion has really evolved in the last 10 years with the blog age, Pinterest and so on,” Frederick said. “More and more women are seeking to achieve their own unique style and not look like everyone else.”
Over at Topshop, clients who sign up for the personal-shopping service get first dibs on the fresh merchandise — about 300 new styles a week — while avoiding the hoi polloi clawing through the racks.
The service books about 80 appointments a week from customers as diverse as 15-year-old girls and 50-year-old mothers, said Soulmaz Vosough, who runs Topshop’s program.
She likens the service to a combination of a “concierge and also your girlfriend who gives you advice.”
Several Banana Republic stores in San Francisco, New York and Chicago also offer complimentary stylist services.
Zara is advertising free sessions with a personal stylist to help customers “navigate the collection.” H&M said it planned to launch personal stylist services in certain stores “in the near future.”
Not to be confused with personal shoppers, who are essentially gofers who fill shopping lists, stylists put together outfits and dispense fashion advice. They’re often on a first-name basis with their clients and know their sizes and preferences. Some work off of a commission — sometimes at a higher rate than regular salespeople. Others earn a salary.
Those that thrive must be versatile and willing to hustle. Take it from Maritza Arrua, director of retail operations for the vintage-inspired retailer Johnny Was and a personal stylist for the chain. She helps put together outfits for walk-in customers as well as her 10 regulars, who include mothers, businesswomen and older clients.
Arrua often pulls designs for traveling customers and has run deliveries to several local hotels. When stores get photos of incoming merchandise, she’ll call her regulars with ideas. To complete a look initiated at Johnny Was, she’ll sometimes refer shoppers to other brands and stores, sending them to Barneys for flats or Nordstrom for wedges.
“I’m constantly taking pictures on my phone and emailing clients,” she said. “I’m not above anything; we try to accommodate as best we can.”
Uber-personalized service is even expanding beyond fashion.
High-end grocery chain Dean & DeLuca has helpers who are called “personal shoppers.” West Elm furniture stores have “home stylists” who offer free consultations.
Even Target has gotten in on the act. The discounter launched its Beauty Concierge program in the Los Angeles area in May to help customers make sense of “what can be an intimidating department,” the company said.
The next frontier, according to analysts, is the Internet.
U.S. online retail sales will reach $262 billion this year, 13 percent more than in 2012, according to Forrester Research.
Rent the Runway, a website that lends designer gear to clients, opened a physical showroom in Manhattan’s SoHo district last year offering face-to-face appointments with personal stylists. With a 140 percent increase in appointments so far this year, Chief Executive Jennifer Hyman said expanding to more showrooms “is the natural next step.”
Two-year-old online service Stitch Fix uses more than 20 stylists and proprietary algorithms to figure out which fashions to send to clients. Customers get packages of five items chosen from the company’s South San Francisco warehouse, each piece costing $60 on average.
With each use, patrons’ profiles become increasingly personalized based on their budget, body type and preferences. The website also accesses customers’ social-media profiles and Pinterest boards to fine-tune selections.
“Women are increasingly becoming superwomen, raising their kids while having a job, basically doing everything,” Stitch Fix Chief Executive Katrina Lake said. “We feel like we’re part of that story and trying to be a solution.”