What Julia Roberts Taught Me about Shopping

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Feb 16, 2017

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At age 12, I watched Pretty Woman and realised two things: Men with white hair were not necessarily old, and salespeople could be mean to you, just because you didn’t dress or look right.

Since Richard Gere was unlikely to visit my hometown, the first realisation didn’t stick.

The second realisation, that what impression you gave when shopping mattered (even if you were shopping to change the impression you gave) – this one blew my mind, and does even now. It’s akin to cleaning your house before your housekeeper comes, because you fear judgment.

“Do you know what mascara is?”

The incident that prompted my rant today is one that happened last week: I went to a mall, as so many of us do now to complete the holy trifecta of weekend activities – a movie, lunch and then some light retail therapy to forget the week gone by. The movie’s female protagonist had sported a deep marsala lip colour for quite a few scenes, driving me and my friend to agree that our lives, too, could change overnight, but for the lack of a marsala lip.

So we headed for a globally renowned, multi-brand makeup store to buy one – and smilingly expressed our desire for a “dark lipstick, like burgundy, maroon or something” to the very prettily made-up sales associate. He looked us up and down and smirked.

“Perhaps we should start with the basics.” he said.

It was at that point that the world went slightly grey.  We looked at each other, old friends of more than a decade, and realised neither of us was wearing any makeup.

“I think, before dark lipstick, we could explore some liner, or perhaps kajal? And some mascara? For your eyelashes? Have you ladies used mas-ca-ra before?” he enunciated carefully, making half-circle motions with his hands.

My friend and I were mortified. And even more mortified about being mortified. Here we were, two grown women, who had bought and used makeup regularly, being shamed for not wearing any – or so it felt. Perhaps that store saw a lot of women who’d never used makeup before. Perhaps India is still a growing market and, thus, salespeople need to figure what the customer knows and doesn’t know. Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps.

But it didn’t feel like it.

“Big mistake. Big. Huge.”

This wasn’t even the first time that either of us had experienced this kind of rude customer service. Slinking out of shops feeling shamed, stuttering, stammering or seething silently when a judgmental salesperson asked us if we knew that the store was expensive, or being told that a dress was for a ‘Western-mindset customer’ when we were attired in Indian clothes – an impromptu poll produced many blood-pressure-raising stories. We’d all learnt to deal with rudeness in our own ways, but the sting remained.

The CEOs of Abercrombie & Fitch and Lululemon made headlines in the worst way recently when they made disparaging remarks about customers’ sizes and negative impacts on the coolness or durability of their brands. Retail studies have shown that rejection or condescension makes some customers more desperate to buy that brand. Social rejection makes the individual work harder to be accepted – the basic principle practised by every high school mean girl.

But at some point, we all must accept that we’re no longer in high school.

Play it again, Roy Orbison.

After being asked if I knew what ‘mas-ca-ra’ was, I smiled. And reminded the rude salesperson, gently, that I’d asked for lipstick. So could he show us what they had in darker colours please? He sniffed and brought back two shades from two different brands. I asked if he had anything else.

“Not really,” he said.

Really? In a time when black and green lips are dominating runways, there are only two shades in dark red? I asked to see the manager, and repeated my request, along with some feedback on the first salesperson’s attitude. We were assigned a new salesperson who showed us at least 20 shades – across brands. The temptation to walk out without buying anything, in protest, was strong. But we both purchased shades we liked and wore them the next day, to oohs and aahs.

It’s taken me over a decade, and watching reruns of Pretty Woman, to learn and remember to react in these situations where I have to strike a balance between being comfortable with my subsequent behaviour — that is, quiet and confident rather than red-faced and defensive — and demonstrating to the person, and the world, that I will not be treated this way.

It is taking brands longer to understand that their leaders’ and employees’ behaviour will impact their bottom line, permanently. (Both Abercrombie & Fitch and Lululemon caught onto customer power only after the fact, when low sales led them to jettison their CEOs.) It’s extremely unlikely that me, my friend, or our extended social circle will go back to that make-up store. Whatever retail studies might show, the world has changed. In this age of inclusivity and tolerance, where protest marches are burgeoning against world orders, there is no place for someone who wants to make you feel bad – ever, and especially when they’re taking your money.

Just ask Julia.

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Written By Akhila Vijaykumar

Akhila Vijaykumar is a writer with experience across advertising and journalism. Occasionally, the crossover does make her demand truth from soap and try to cajole quotes into starbursts, but no harm no foul. She loves books by Terry Pratchett, dogs and pizza, often at the same time.

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