People who do not have the time or the ability to go shopping for clothes, gifts, groceries, and other items use the services of personal shoppers. Personal shoppers shop department stores, look at catalogs, and surf the Internet for the best buys and most appropriate items for their clients. Relying on a sense of style and an ability to spot a bargain, a personal shopper helps clients develop a wardrobe and find gifts for friends, relatives, and employees. Though personal shoppers work all across the country, their services are most in demand in large, metropolitan areas.
Personal Shopper Career History
For decades, American retailers have been working to create easier ways to shop. Mail order was an early innovation: Catalog companies such as Montgomery Wards and Sears, Roebuck and Co. started business in the late 19th century to meet the shopping needs of people living in rural areas and small towns. Many consumers relied on mail order for everything from suits and dresses to furniture and stoves; Sears even sold automobiles through the mail. Shopping for food, clothes, and gifts was considered a household chore, a responsibility that belonged to women. By the late 1800s, shopping had developed into a popular pastime in metropolitan areas. Wealthy women of leisure turned downtown shopping districts into the busiest sections of their cities, as department stores, boutiques, tea shops, and cafes evolved to serve them.
As more women joined the workforce after World War II, retailers worked to make their shopping areas more convenient. Supermarkets, shopping centers, and malls became popular. Toward the end of the 20th century, shoppers began looking for even more simplicity and convenience. In the 1990s, many companies began to market their products via the Internet. In addition to Internet commerce, overworked men and women are turning to personal shoppers, professional organizers, and personal assistants to fulfill their shopping needs.
Personal Shopper Job Description
Looking for a job where you get to shop all the time, tell people what to wear, and spend somebody else’s money? Though this may seem to describe the life of the personal shopper, it’s not quite accurate. For one thing, personal shoppers don’t get to shop all the time; they will be spending some time in stores and browsing catalogs, but they’re often looking for something very specific and working as quickly as they can. And they do not so much tell people what to wear as teach them how to best match outfits, what colors suit them, and what styles are most appropriate for their workplaces. Yes, personal shoppers spend someone else’s money, but it’s all for someone else’s closet. So, if you’re not too disillusioned, read on: Working as a personal shopper may still be right for you.
Personal shoppers help people who are unable or uninterested in doing their own shopping. They are hired to look for that perfect gift for a difficult-to-please aunt. They work for senior citizens, or people with disabilities, to do their grocery shopping and run other shopping errands. Personal shoppers help professionals create a nice, complete wardrobe. All the while, they rely on their knowledge of the local marketplace in order to do the shopping quickly and efficiently.
Some personal shoppers use their backgrounds in other areas to assist clients. Someone with a background in real estate may serve as a personal shopper for houses, working for a buyer rather than a seller. These house shoppers inspect houses and do some of the client’s bargaining. Those with a background in cosmetology may work as image consultants, advising clients on their hair, clothes, and makeup. Another shopper may have some experience in dealing antiques and will help clients locate particular items. An interior decorator may shop for furniture and art to decorate a home. A personal concierge performs errands for clients as varied as walking the dog to making dinner reservations and purchasing theater tickets.
Personal shoppers who offer wardrobe consultation will need to visit their client’s home and evaluate his or her clothes. They help their clients determine what additional clothes and accessories they’ll need, and they offer advice on what jackets to wear with what pants or what skirt to wear with what blouse. Together with their client, personal shoppers determine what additional clothes are needed to complete the wardrobe, and they come up with a budget. Then it’s off to the stores.
Irene Kato owns I Kan Do It, a personal shopping service. She offers a variety of services, including at-home wardrobe consultation, closet organization, and gift-shopping. “Most of my shopping so far has been for clothes,” Kato says. “I have a fairly good idea of what I’m looking for so I don’t spend too much time in any one store if I don’t see what I want right away. I can usually find two or three choices for my client and rarely have to shop another day.” Kato spends about two to three hours every other day shopping and about two hours a day in her office working on publicity, her budget, and corresponding with clients. Shopping for one client can take about three hours. “I have always enjoyed shopping,” Kato says, “and especially like finding bargains. Waiting in lines, crowds, etc., does not bother me.”
Personal shoppers often cater to professionals needing business attire and wardrobe consultation. A smaller part of their business will be shopping for gifts. They may even supplement their business by running other errands, such as purchasing theater tickets, making deliveries, and going to the post office. Many personal shoppers also work as professional organizers: They go into homes and offices to organize desks, kitchens, and closets.
In addition to the actual shopping, personal shoppers have administrative responsibilities. They must keep business records, make phone calls, and schedule appointments. Since personal shopping is a fairly new endeavor, personal shoppers must be expert at educating the public about their services. “A personal shopper has no commodity to sell,” Kato says, “only themselves. So it is twice as hard to attract clients.” She also to two professional organizations that help her network and develop her business: Executive Women International and Giving Referrals to Other Women.
Personal Shopper Career Requirements
Take classes in home economics to develop budget and consumer skills as well as learn about fashion and home design. If the class offers a sewing unit, you will learn about tailoring, and you can develop an eye for clothes sizes. Math, business, and accounting courses will prepare you for the administrative details of the job. English composition and speech classes will help you develop the communication skills you’ll need for promoting your business and for advising clients about their wardrobes.
Many people working as personal shoppers have had experience in other areas of business. They have worked as managers in corporations or have worked as salespeople in retail stores. But because of the entrepreneurial nature of the career, you don’t need any specific kind of education or training. A small-business course at your local community college, along with classes in design, fashion, and consumer science, can help you develop the skills you will need for the job. If you are unfamiliar with the computer, you should take some classes to learn desktop publishing programs for creating business cards and other publicity material.
“I seem to have an empathy for people,” Irene Kato says. “After talking with a client I know what they want and what they’re looking for. I am a very good listener.” In addition to these people skills, a personal shopper should be patient and capable of dealing with the long lines and customer service of department stores. You should be creative and able to come up with a variety of gift ideas. A sense of style is important, along with knowledge of the latest brands and designers. You’ll need a good eye for colors and fabrics. You should also be well dressed and organized so that your client will know to trust your wardrobe suggestions.
Exploring Personal Shopper Career
If you have spent any time at the mall, you probably already have enough shopping experience. And if you have had to buy clothes and gifts with limited funds, then you know something about budgeting. Sign up for the services of a personal shopper in a department store; in most stores the service is free, and you will get a sense of how a shopper works. Pay close attention to the information they request from you in the beginning, then ask them later about their decision-making process. Irene Kato advises future personal shoppers to work a few years at a retail clothing store. “This way,” she says, “you can observe the way people dress, what shapes and sizes we all are, how fashion trends come and go, and what stays.”
Professional men and women with high incomes and busy schedules are the primary employers of personal shoppers. Shoppers may also work with people with new jobs requiring dress clothes, but also with people who need to perk up an old wardrobe. Personal shoppers may work for executives in corporations who need to buy gifts for large staffs of employees. Some of their clients may be elderly or have disabilities and have problems getting out to do their shopping. Department stores and specialty boutiques also hire personal shoppers to help customers and provide personalized service beyond that offered by the store’s regular retail sales staff.
Start-up costs for personal shoppers can be very low; you may only have to invest in a computer, business cards, and a reliable form of transportation. But it could take you a very long time to develop a regular clientele. You’ll want to develop your business part time while still working full time at another, more reliable job. Some of your first clients may come from your workplace. Offer free introductory services to a few people and encourage them to spread the word and hand out your business card. You’ll also need to become very familiar with the local retail establishments and the discount stores with low-cost, high-quality merchandise.
“My friends and colleagues at work,” Irene Kato says, “were always complimentary on what I wore and would ask where I bought my clothes, where they could find certain items, where were the best sales.” Kato was taking the part-time approach to developing her personal shopping service, when downsizing at her company thrust her into the new business earlier than she’d planned. She had the opportunity to take an entrepreneurism class at a local private university, which helped her devise a business plan and taught her about the pros and cons of starting a business.
It takes years of dedication, quality work, and referrals to create a successful business. Personal shoppers should expect lean early years as they work to build their business and expand their clientele. After a few years of working part time and providing superior service, a personal shopper may develop his or her business into a full-time endeavor. Eventually, he or she may be able to hire an assistant to help with the administrative work, such as client billing and scheduling.
Personal shoppers bill their clients in different ways: they set a regular fee for services, charge a percentage of the sale, or charge an hourly rate. They might use all these methods in their business; their billing method may depend on the client and the service. For example, when offering wardrobe consultation and shopping for clothes, a personal shopper may find it best to charge by the hour; when shopping for a small gift, it may be more reasonable to charge only a percentage. Personal shoppers charge anywhere from $25 to $125 an hour; the average hourly rate is about $75. Successful shoppers living in a large city can make between $1,500 and $3,000 a month.
Personal shoppers have all the advantages of owning their own business, including setting their own hours and keeping a flexible schedule. But they also have all the disadvantages, such as job insecurity and lack of benefits. “I have a bad habit of thinking about my business almost constantly,” Irene Kato says. Though personal shoppers do not have to deal with the stress of a full-time office job, they will have the stress of finding new clients and keeping the business afloat entirely by themselves.
Although personal shoppers usually work from a home office, they still spend a lot of time with people, from clients to salespeople. They will obviously spend some time in department stores; if they like to shop, this can be enjoyable even when they’re not buying anything for themselves. In some cases, personal shoppers visit clients’ homes to advise them on their wardrobe. They do a lot of traveling, driving to a department store after a meeting with a client, then driving back to the client’s with the merchandise.
Personal Shopper Career Outlook
Personal shopping is a new business development, so anyone embarking on the career will be taking some serious risks. There is not a lot of research available about the career, no national professional organization specifically serving personal shoppers, and no real sense of the career’s future. The success of Internet commerce will probably have a big effect on the future of personal shopping. If purchasing items through the Internet becomes more commonplace, personal shoppers may have to establish places for themselves on the World Wide Web. Some personal shoppers currently with Web sites offer consultation via e-mail and help people purchase products online.
To attract the widest variety of clients, personal shoppers should offer as expansive a service as they can. Professional organizing is being recognized as one of the top home businesses for the future; membership of the National Association of Professional Organizers is growing each year. Personal assistants and personal concierges, those who run errands for others, and virtual assistants, those who provide professional services to businesses and individuals in a virtual environment rather than a traditional office, have also caught the attention of industry experts, and programs are available to assist people interested in entering these fields.