There is no right answer

This year, one of my New Year's resolutions was "Suffer more for beauty." And I'm pretty pleased with this resolution. I mean, I'm not wearing mom jeans over here, but I'm definitely the kind of girl to choose comfort over style. Hence, my shoes are all flats, my makeup is minimal, and I never, ever blow dry my hair.

But this year, I decided to take a stand against comfort. I'm 29, for god's sake, and if I don't look my best now, well, it just might be downhill from here. So I bought heels. They crunch my toes, but when I wear them at work, I get a little confidence kick. I bought makeup I've never had before - concealer, eyebrow pencil, a nice new blush. I even sprung for a curling iron. I'm spending more time in the mornings, but I'm feeling better when I walk out the door.

Encouraged by my resolution, my sister got me a Sephora gift card for my birthday. A lovely present. However, before hitting the store, I decided to peruse their website. You know, to prepare myself for the crushing tide of possibilities.

I find beauty stores extremely overwhelming. The issue is simple: how can you possibly know if this facewash or that lipstick is going to change your life? They all say they will, so which one can you trust? I usually end up going for a brand I know, or the nicest packaging, or something that smells good. But this time, I wanted to arm myself with a bit more information. A little pre-shop on the website would surely help with that.

And it did. As I scanned the hair-care products, I noticed little tags that said "Best of Sephora." Now this, I like. This I can get behind. Because it's based on data. I clicked on a "Best of" styling product, Frederic Fekkai Glossing Cream. I assumed the tag meant that this product had more reviews, and more positive ones, than all others like it. So I started reading.

"This stuff is so addicting it is my personal hair crack."

"Works wonders on my hair."

"Boy! This stuff works so well."

"This glossing cream will make your hair shine! I always get compliments when I use it."

"Up until I discovered FF, I sort of begrudgingly bought hair products, because I never saw the results I wanted and felt like I was throwing money down the drain. However, this line has totally changed all of that.
I like this product because it doesn't contain any alcohol, and really moisturizes your hair. I've colored my hair this past year and this has saved my hair and really reversed much of the dryness that was making my hair unmanageable."

That last one really stood out, because I can relate. I too have bought hair products begrudgingly. I too have seen a lack of results. I too have dry, colored hair.

Plus, many of the negative reviewers said things like, "I used too much and it didn't work." Idiots, I thought. I noticed myself selectively filtering out the negative reviews, and becoming more and more excited with each positive one.

Now of course, I don't know any of these women. But in my head, the 5-star reviewers were all hip young account executives living in Manhattan. They were all stylish and gorgeous and the only thing missing from their routines, until now, had been Frederic Fekkai Glossing Cream. This product had to be mine.


So, I arrive in Sephora and manage to find the product before a single salesperson interrupts. I look at the label, I smell it, and I'm set. Now I'm standing there, looking for something else to buy with the rest of my gift card, when a saleswoman seizes the opportunity. "Can I help you find anything?" "Oh, um, I'm all right." "I see you've got the Glossing Cream! Can I show you something else?" She starts taking me to another wall of the store. "But everybody said...," I trail off, realizing I'm talking about people I don't actually know.

She holds up another product, similar in size, called Oscar Blandi Silk Polishing Cream. She starts telling me how she likes this one better, because unlike Fekkai, it doesn't have any alcohol in it. Hang on. I remember one of the reviewers saying that Fekkai had no alcohol. Now I'm really confused. Who is right?

The woman reads the Fekkai label and pronounces one of the ingredients. "See, this has pro-py-lene gly-col." Admittedly, that sounds like alcohol to me, and the last time I read a beauty magazine, it said to steer clear. Okay, I say, and I take the Oscar Blandi product. This is when the decision becomes a bit like a battle of lightsabers.

Blandi has a cooler bottle, but Fekkai has cooler graphics. The saleswoman said Fekkai has alcohol, but some reviewer said it didn't. I flip both products over to compare ingredients. The first five are exactly the same. No help. The saleswoman said she liked Blandi better, but couldn't give me a real reason why. Fekkai is one dollar cheaper. A million voices say Fekkai. One saleswoman says Blandi. Perhaps she was on commission from Blandi. Perhaps her quota this week said "Push Blandi."

I start to put Blandi back on the shelf. But then I pause. The saleswoman is pretty, and she has nice hair. Suddenly I think back to all those reviewers. Who are they, anyway? I don't see a million women on the street with gorgeous hair! Maybe they just like Fekkai because it brings their hair from nasty to acceptable! Or maybe they're all pimply 13-year-olds! It's crazy how quickly I turn on this crowd. I don't know them, they are essentially fictitious, and suddenly, I can change their features to fit my case. But I can't dispute the fidelity of a salesperson, standing right there in front of me. I put Fekkai back, and walk to the register with Blandi.


There are two very human instincts at play in this story, and they just so happen to be diametrically opposed. On the one hand, our rational mind says "More people = more credible." It's like "Ask the audience" on Millionaire. With that many folks in the crowd, we trust them to reach sound consensus.

On the other hand, our emotional mind says "Real person = more credible." A connection to another human - even something as tiny as eye contact - is massively influential. Seeing is believing, and it's hard to trust someone who is really just words on a page.

In this sense, shopping is actually made more difficult by the internet. Real people do battle with virtual people all day long in our heads. And with so much conflicting information, we are encouraged to maximize. We are led to believe that there is one right choice, and a thousand wrong ones, and that if we can only find the right one, we will have won. In turn, we become so scared to make the wrong decision, that we search and search and search for objective advice. Fact. Truth. 9 out of 10 doctors. Something to let us purchase without regret.

In that moment in the store, I wished I could go back to the website and read comparable reviews on Blandi. I wished I could personally meet and shake hands with all 500+ Fekkai reviewers, see what they looked like and how similar they were to me. I wished for apples-to-apples. But in the absence of that ability, I had to make the decision on my own. What if I chose wrong? It was paralyzing.

Well, I now firmly believe that the biggest difference between these two products is brand. I truly expect that if I had purchased the Fekkai product, it would work in quite the same way. So the lesson here is, there is no right answer. Maybe on Millionaire, but not in the real world. Two things can simultaneously be good. And I can't trust salespeople any more than I can trust anonymous Sephora website reviewers. The only person I can trust, is myself.


In all my life, this was possibly the most anxiety-ridden purchase I've made. I felt confused and annoyed for the rest of the day. I went home and checked the reviews on Blandi, seeking validation that I didn't screw up. Only 21 reviews, but all were positive. In fact, many said very similar things to the Fekkai reviews. Smoothes your hair, makes it glossy, yada yada. I suddenly realized that nobody's opinion mattered now except mine. So I tried the product. And you know what - it was great. Thank god.


Money talks

Friends. It's been a while!

I hope you'll excuse my lack of writing in this space. But a lot has changed in the past six months. I got married, changed my name, and - perhaps most importantly - got a new job. I am no longer a Retail Planner; I am now called a Senior Strategist. The new title is hot, huh? But it means that my focus, at least professionally, is no longer solely in retail.

That said, I am still a curious shopper. I will continue to write, though perhaps less frequently, as the curious shopper. I still do a ton of shopping, and I still think about how to improve the user experience. I still carry a camera everywhere I go.

That said, I was unfortunately not carrying a camera at the scene of this post, because I was in Barcelona. This amazing city is unfortunately full of pickpockets, so we thought it best to carry as few valuables as possible. I hope my retrospective shot of the bag will suffice.


So we chose Barcelona for our honeymoon. Why? Besides the amazing architecture and gorgeous coastline, we were ready for some shopping. And you can't get more chic than Europe. We actually made a game out of spotting the hipsters, the whole trip looking for men and women that we deemed "tres chic." (I'm aware that this phrase is more French than Spanish, but let's not focus on that).

So we're having lunch in a plaza when we spot two tres chic guys. Dressed alike, they must be employees of some superhip store. We finish our lunch and follow them around the corner, hoping for a totally cultural, uniquely Spanish boutique. What do we find? Hugo Boss.

But this is fine. We're not aware of a Hugo Boss store in Chicago, and even if there was one, this is Hugo Boss Barcelona. Surely it's awesome.

So we walk in. The place is like a fashion museum. Every skirt and blouse is hanging just so. There is one, maybe two of each item, giving the distinct sense that you should only hope you fit into an extra small. There are tres chic salesmen everywhere, in fitted shirts, slim trousers, skinny ties and shiny shoes. I'm suddenly aware that my hair is messy and I'm wearing flip flops.

But I hold my head high and start browsing, taking extreme care not to mess anything up. I pull out a coat and let out a gasp. It's breathtaking. Immediately an employee is there, asking if I'd like to see it. He starts taking it off the hanger, then pulls out the tag. "The cost is 685 Euros." I grimace. Defeated, I say "Okay well...I guess that's out of my price range." He puts the coat back.

I almost give up right then, but decide to keep going. If I left now, I'd seem like even more of a loser. And I might have money! They don't know!

I find some pants with potential and a shirt I like, but the sticker shock has me reeling. (Remember that Euros are almost double dollars these days). So instead, I make my way downstairs, where my husband (eep!) is about to try on pants.

Huh. His salesperson is acting a lot friendlier than mine was. She's showing him the selection, finding his size and making suggestions. And the pants? When he comes out of the dressing room, I have to clap. "Tres chic," I repeat, "tres chic." We decide that this huge bump in quality and fit is worth the price, and that this will be his big-ticket souvenir. We can't afford ten pairs of Hugo Boss Barcelona pants, but we can afford one.

Or maybe two. I start to think it's my turn, so I head upstairs to grab the pants that caught my eye. Now the salesman is suggesting a blouse to try them on with. Okay, well this is a nice change of attitude! When I come out of the dressing room, it's my husband's turn to applaud. The pants are ridiculously flattering. They meet every single one of my pants criteria. Long enough, low enough, tight enough, the right color, the right waist, even the right pockets. These pants were made for me. I felt I had been searching for them all my life.

And then the whirlwind really hit. One saleswoman was handing me the suit jacket that went with the pants. Oh, they are part of a suit? Another was handing me 3-inch heels to complete the outfit. Wow, my legs look amazing! The original salesman was asking if I'd like coffee or water. As I checked out my completely transformed power businesswoman self in the mirror, he was holding out a silver tray with a champagne glass of water. I had gone from an inconvenience to the star of the store.


As we stood at the register, me still sipping from my lovely water glass, I was feeling euphoric. Here we were, a power couple. A couple with careers. Careers that needed pants. We were not tacky American tourists. We had money and we meant to spend it. Spend it on...

"Excuse me? The machine is not accepting your card."

My face felt flush as I asked the man to try again. Perhaps something was wrong with the machine. He tried again, then called the service line. As he spoke Spanish into the phone, my husband and I exchanged nervous whispers. "There's nothing wrong with our debit card...right?" "Shouldn't be, I put an international alert on it." "And it's worked fine so far." "Unless this is more than we have in our account..." "Oh yeah..."

The man hung up and proclaimed, "It is not the machine. It is your card. Do you have another card?"


As we walked away from Hugo Boss Barcelona, we felt like a couple of clowns. Who did we think we were, millionaires? Sure, we have jobs but we're not the kind of people who can prance into shops and spend hundreds on a whim! No, we were just two Americans, probably broke from paying for a wedding. We felt really, really embarrassed. Like phonies. I just kept asking myself, what happened in there?

Well, I think I know what happened in there. Frustrated because of poor treatment, I'd felt a need to prove my worth. "I'll show them," some part of me probably said. "I'm somebody. I'm worthy of your clothes. I can afford you." And then, out of my defiant overconfidence, an elite club had opened its doors. For a brief moment, we took a peek into the world of wealthy people. And it was thrilling. Special treatment is quite the rush.

But when it sweeps over you, it tends to mask reality. As we walked back to the train, we asked each other the hardest of questions. Could we really have afforded that? Are we really Hugo Boss customers? Was this whole card thing a blessing in disguise? Were the pants just not meant to be? Who do we think we are?


Well, as it turns out, our card was fine. We went to an internet cafe and checked our balance. The funding was there. We went home anyway and grabbed a credit card. Then, because I felt that I could not leave Spain without those pants, we went back to the store. The salesman kindly tried our original debit card again, but no dice. Somehow, that card and that machine were just not meant to be.

But our other card worked fine, so we got the pants. What we also got was a reality check. A serious examination of our place in society. We're not broke, but we're not millionaires either. Buying clothing at Hugo Boss was immensely exciting, but we can't do it every day. Maybe someday, we'll have another chance to be treated like rock stars. Maybe someday a regular store will treat everybody like rock stars. But until that day comes, we're back to America and back to reality. Paying off our credit card like everybody else.


The devil you know

I recently became a responsible homeowner! The process was full of twists and turns, such as a 4-month delay in construction, but I am finally home. The place is great. Sorry for the lack of posts.

As part of my new status, I feel invested in not only my condo, but my neighborhood too. I have a sudden urge to support local businesses. Probably because if they win, I win. So I'm seeking out the local restaurants, drycleaners, nail salons, dive bars and flower shops.

But grocery shopping - well, that's different. I know my old Jewel so well I could fill my cart with my eyes closed. So I'll admit, I've been going back to the old store, in the old neighborhood. It's just a few minutes out of my way.


People don't like change. Especially when something is good. But even when things are just okay, we typically prefer the devil we know. We sacrifice convenience or comfort or even excitement, in order to avoid change. We do crazy things, like continuing to use our old hairstylist in our old hometown, ten years after we left for college! Because letting a new person cut your hair - well, that's a huge risk.

And resistance to change is virtually part of our DNA. The Massive Change exhibit talked about how ancient man was hardwired to fear change in nature, because it literally signaled near-certain death. So we're not just homebodies or stubborn. Change is hard for us humans.


So there's this grocery store just a few blocks from my new house. I'd seen billboards for the place as I drove, but never really given it serious consideration. The signs say things like "Welcome back to the days of good advice from your grocer." They show a balding man with an apron and a smile. The logo has a 1950's soda shop sensibility. Does it appeal to me? Meh. My first reaction was, "They probably carry a bunch of obscure products and no-name brands. I better stick with Jewel."

However, when a neighbor mentioned that the store was decent, I gave it a second thought. I mean, it's only a few blocks from my home - way closer than Jewel. And I certainly don't get advice from Jewel, old-fashioned or otherwise. Maybe this store did fit my values. It was at least worth a try.

So I walk in, and the store is humongous. I'm talking Wal*Mart-sized aisles, and Costco-high ceilings. More warehouse than soda shop. This inspired a mixed reaction: Sweet, maybe their prices are low, followed by Ugh, I'll have to weed through zillions of products. My first thought was definitely not "local grocer." Where was the produce guy spritzing the tomatoes? Where was the pimply teenager sweeping the floor?

Besides comparing the store to its own branding, I also found myself comparing it to Jewel. But in this regard I was further disappointed. I spent a full hour wandering Strack & Van Til that first time, head up, taking in every sign. You might say I was mapping the store's layout to my mental blueprint of a grocery store. And when it didn't match up, I kept thinking, "This isn't where Jewel puts the cereal" and "This isn't how Jewel does its endcaps."

But it didn't seem fair to compare the store to competitors or branding. I was on a search for authenticity, after all, so I decided to run a little test.

As I navigated the produce section, I came upon the fresh herbs. Now typically, I don't buy fresh herbs because of the waste. No recipe requires much more than a pinch of this or a sprig of that, and inevitably, a big clump of greens goes bad in my crisper. But as I eyed the cilantro, I had an idea. I would take only as much as I needed, and then see if the checkout person would charge me. Because a real "local grocer" would pass it by the register with a wink.

So I literally took two stems of cilantro, weighing basically nothing, and stuck them in a plastic bag. The price was 69 cents a bunch.

When I got to the checkout, the cashier said "Is this cilantro?" I smiled and said "Yeah, though I only needed a little bit, heh heh. Hope that's okay!" She said "Sure, it's fine," and rung it up at full price. 69 cents.

I left disappointed. Not only was this store WAY different than Jewel, it was SO not the "good old-fashioned advice" place I'd been picturing. Even though my expectations were probably unfair, they weren't met and I was let down. I resigned to never go again.

However...it was so close to home. A two-minute drive. And it's not like this place was worse than Jewel. Just...different. Is different necessarily bad?

The following week, I decided to give it one more try.

This time, I wasn't quite so freaked about finding my way around. I remembered where to find the cereal, and that lemonade was over by juice, around the corner from milk. I was able to shop my list more efficiently, and this allowed me way more freedom to explore new areas (an olive bar! a fancy cheese cooler!) I spent less time, but I think I bought more.

And you know what else, the staff seemed infinitely friendlier too. A stock boy helped me locate ricotta cheese, without seeming the least bit annoyed. When the bagger discovered that my glass milk bottle was leaky, she cheerily ran to get me another. And when I was just out the door, another staffer ran after me to hand me the cinnamon I'd left at the checkout! It seemed like this time, they were going above and beyond. Like a local grocer would.

But the best part was when I saw the grocer himself. I turned and there he was, the man from the sign! Walking into an office that said "Management." It felt like a flash of 1950's dream sequence. I liked that he wasn't just some random old dude - he was actually the real manager of this very store. And knowing that he advertises in my neighborhood (and is probably struggling to compete for customers on my very street) is enough to endear him to me. Maybe next time, he'll come out and give me some good advice.


The devil you know is still a devil. The devil you don't know could be worse, or it could be better. But the chance is probably 50/50, so isn't it worth a shot? I know that many retailers hesitate to make any major changes to their stores, because of the outcry that typically follows. Loyal shoppers of 40 years throw up their hands and go elsewhere. But I urge retailers and shoppers alike to reconsider. Be patient, and give it a second try.

Because when everything is new, it's totally overwhelming. The first time we shop for the same products in a new place, it's essentially a search for familiarity. It's like seeking out McDonald's in a foreign country.

But the next time we visit that country, we venture out. We turn down new streets and sample new tastes. Likewise, the second time we shop, the comfort level is way higher. We can find our repeat purchases more easily, so we have more mindspace to discover something new. I can't buy fancy olives until I've found the milk.

This world is full of disappointments, and it's easier to remember them than the pleasant surprises. However, if there's something you've been hanging on to, admittedly or not due to a distaste for change, I encourage you to sample the devil you don't know. It might not be such a devil after all.


Shopping for The Dress

First of all, before everyone freaks out, no. This is not The Dress. Just the first one I tried on.


So as you all know, I've got a wedding to plan. This is a thrilling, emotional, stressful journey in which my money is taken from my wallet in all sorts of new ways.

You see, the wedding industry knows that every bride is secretly irrational. They know that if they push the right buttons, brides will turn to piles of cash before their very eyes. Buttons like, "This is the day you've been dreaming of, ever since you were a little girl!" "Your wedding only happens once!" "It's the happiest day of your life!"

But let me get this straight: It's the happiest day of my life...therefore I should spend $120 per person on dinner? My wedding only happens once...therefore I should pay $6,000 to rent a room? I've been dreaming of this day forever...therefore I should buy $2,000 worth of flowers? Are you people nuts?

These people are not, in fact, nuts. The problem is, they think I am. They think all brides are. And to be honest, many brides ARE nuts. Their standards are raised, their price gauges busted. It's all so expensive, what's another $3,000 for the dress?

Oh, the dress. That marvelous pile of satin and tulle, that giant white cream puff of lace and beads.

That overpriced, overhyped tearjerker that you only wear for ten hours! Of every nuptially-related search that I've gone through so far, shopping for my dress has been by far the most ridiculous. People, if it's been a while since you were married, or if you have yet to go through this crazy time, let me share with you a little transmission from the desperate, manipulative and utterly backwards world of wedding gown shopping.

In order of increasing weirdness:

The appointments. One cannot simply walk into a bridal shop and start trying on dresses. Oh no. One must make an appointment. These relics of the past serve to hammer home the "personal service" point, but man, are they annoying. Mainly because they slow everything down, a la "Our next appointment is two weeks from Tuesday." But also because you walk in, already feeling this big obligation to buy. For that hour, you are the only customer in the store. I don't need any more pressure!

The clamps. Gowns in the store are called "samples," and all samples are a "sample size." If this size is too big for you, which it probably is, stores will clamp the dress together to make it fit. I am not joking when I say that these clamps look like they were recently used to hold the 2x4's on the bandsaw down at Ace Hardware. They are huge and strong, come in all sorts of bridal colors like Home Depot Orange, and are incredibly difficult to squeeze.

Therefore, shop attendants must double as construction workers, complimenting you on your figure, pulling the dress tight, then clamping it tighter with every ounce of strength they've got. The clamps look and feel completely wrong for this environment, which is otherwise all soft and pink and ruffly. Yet every shop I've visited uses them. Could some aspiring wedding entrepreneur please come out with proper dress clips, so stores could stop using this clumsy workaround?

The partial nudity. Dressing rooms in gown stores are HUGE. Plenty of room for your mom, your sister, your friend, your attendant and her assistant. Pretty much the whole store could fit in there, and they sometimes do. But is there another, smaller room for you to get down to your skivvies? Nope. You've got to dress and undress, dress and undress, in front of all those people.

Fortunately for me, I've had a smaller entourage (sometimes even going alone) and been blessed with only one or two employees in my room at a time. But still. If I'd known about all this standing around in a corset and undies, I might have shaved my legs.

The lack of browsing. Wedding stores tout their personal service like they invented it. What this means is that when you arrive, you describe your taste, then THEY choose the dresses you see. It's rare to find a big, open store with racks for browsing. Rather, a woman rushes back and forth from your room to "the back," pulling only dresses that she thinks you will like.

This process may work well in theory (she makes real-time adjustments to her selections based on your reaction to each dress) and has grounding in operations (if customers handled all the dresses, they would get dirty faster) but it still feels really opaque to me. Like I am some rich idiot to be catered to, rather than a consumer with any control over what I see. I often leave thinking, "Man, I only tried 9 dresses and I know she has hundreds back there." How is hiding the product a good way to sell it?

The veil. Right at the end, when you've found a dress that just might be The One, the attendant says, "Oh sweetie, that looks fabulous! Here, let me get you a veil." She slides the comb into your hair, and suddenly your whole head is framed in a halo of white lace.

I must admit, this works a little too well. Even on me, the most skeptical shopper, the most hyper-aware of this type of trickery. Veils are probably Sales Tool Numero Uno at bridal shops, because with a veil on your head, it's no longer dress-up. It's the real deal. It's like HOLY CRAP I AM TOTALLY GETTING MARRIED. It's thrilling and scary and magical. And you know what happens - I just integrate the dress I'm wearing right into that vision. Of course later, when I'm stewing over my options, it's hard to mentally separate the two. So reader, beware the veil and its powers of influence. Keep your focus on the dress.

The lack of information. This is the weirdest of them all. Let's say you've found a dress you like. It fits your style, flatters your figure, makes you feel like a real bride. But let's say your mom isn't there. What might you want to do next? Perhaps get her opinion? How about taking a picture? Many stores say no.

And the reason for it is even weirder. Historically, bridal shops have always had exclusivity agreements with designers. So a particular brand might only be found at one store in all of Illinois. This creates the impression that you can only buy this dress in this store. And stores have ridden the exclusivity wave for years, because a bride in Chicago could only really buy gowns in Chicago.

However, as the internet gains traction as a viable gown resource, the possibility of brides price-comparing and 'buying the same dress somewhere else' becomes even greater. There are discounters and consigners and Craigslist and you can even buy cheap knockoffs from China. So stores are freaked out - after all, they're losing their competitive edge. Their response strategy? Limiting the amount of information that a bride can leave with. If she can't look it up, she can't find it cheaper. Hence, no photos.

But surely you could write down its brand and style name, so you could look it up for future reference? Nope. Many stores literally rip the labels out of sample gowns, so that you cannot even tell which dress you are trying on.

I read about this shocking tactic in a handy book, but found it hard to believe until I experienced it firsthand. I was in a pretty posh store, and I liked a dress by designer Melissa Sweet. But it was pricey, and I wasn't ready to buy. I asked the owner, "Which dress is this again, so I can remember it?" She said, "It's the Melissa Sweet." I said, "I know, but which one? I know they all have style names, or numbers or something." "Nope," she said, looking down at her hands. "That's all you need to know."

Wow! Wow. Well, all I need to know is that I won't be making my purchase here!


Of course, all of these elements serve to make me, the bride-to-be, feel completely helpless. I can't walk in off the street, can't feel comfortable in the dressing room, can't browse a wide selection or pick my samples, can't take pictures, and sometimes, can't even know what I'm trying on. It's retail manipulation at its worst, and I'm getting pretty tired of playing the game.

Now of course, I want a beautiful dress. I want a dress that is as unique as I am. I want a dress that will make my boyfriend cry, that will make the whole room gasp, and that will still look awesome in photos 50 years from now. This is no small request! Therefore, this is already no easy shopping trip.

But I also think that finding the dress is intricately tied to the retail experience surrounding it. I haven't found my dress yet, and I think it might be because I haven't found my store yet. Sure, I am looking for an ivory gown with a mermaid cut, lightweight material, tasteful ruffles, no beads, no sparkles, no lace, and some type of sash or bow. But I am also looking for a low-pressure environment with friendly, honest, forthcoming employees, lots of choice, and the ability to deliberate in private. Oh, and no veils until I say so.

Wish me luck.


Take my return, please

Through a series of fortunate events, my little brother recently managed to win himself a copy of Microsoft Office Ultimate during a Halo 3 tournament on campus.

For those of you who don't know Noah, my 20-year-old brother is a bona fide scary-smart genius. He's also a typical sophomore in college, strapped for cash and struggling to stay on top of his workload. He does not want or need Microsoft Office Ultimate. Like, at all.

But he enters this video game competition. The whole thing is designed around raffle tickets. The incentive to stay in the game longer is not one top prize, but simply more chances to win the raffle. Noah drops out in the first round, but he decides to hang around on the off chance that he might still win.

When his ticket number is called, the college crowd actually laughs at him. They all seem to think that Office is a sad, sad second place prize (first place was an Xbox). They yell things like "You can download it for free!" One kid approaches him a few minutes later, saying "You know, I could actually use that - I'll give you 20 bucks for it?" Noah hesitates, then takes the kid's number just in case.

When he gets back to his dorm room, my brother looks up the product, just in case. OH MY GOD. MS Office Ultimate ("Ultimate" being the key word) is a high-end bundle of productivity software valued at over $700! Cha-ching! Who's laughing now?

And so, his journey to cash in begins.

First, he brings the bright yellow box to Best Buy. But he's turned away. Their policy: "Sorry, we can't take returns without a receipt if they are over $100."

Then, he goes to Circuit City. Again, a no-go. Their policy: "Actually, we do carry that product but after scanning this particular one, we're showing that it wasn't bought at a Circuit City."

Next, he tries CompUSA. His third rejection. Their terms: "We flat-out don't take returns without a receipt."

Finally, he heads to Office Depot. Here's how the conversation goes.

Noah: I want to return this. Will you take it back?
Office Depot Guy: Sorry, we actually just sent back our entire shipment of MS Office, because the new ones are coming out.
Noah: Oh.
ODG: But wait just a minute, let me see that box - this IS the new version! Okay, here is your store credit for $727.

SEVEN HUNDRED BUCKS TO OFFICE DEPOT. That is what he has won. That is actually pretty awesome, if you like office products. (Or know someone who does - Noah ended up trading it for cash with a small-business-owning family friend!)

Of course, what his dorky older sister finds most interesting about this story is the varying return policies of these four stores. To rewind for a sec, a return policy exists to a) please unhappy customers and b) thwart criminals who steal, then return. And it has to be a balance between the two. So let's review.

Best Buy: Must have receipt if over $100. This sounds like a businessperson's decision. "Well, let's look at the numbers here. It seems that 20% of the items stolen account for 80% of the loss, so let's draw the line somewhere that sounds reasonable to a shopper...okay, $100." Basically, if people want to steal cheap things from Best Buy, and return them with no receipt, Best Buy is willing to let that go. Because they don't want to piss off Joe Honest whose universal remote is broken and his wife threw out the receipt. They are okay paying thieves for their own smaller-ticket items, as long as they're not also paying them for plasma TVs.

Still, I think Best Buy's policy is a bit confusing. I'm sure they get lots of customers scratching their heads: "How does the item being $100 relate to my ability to return it?" And technical close-calls: "It was $100 when I bought it, but now it's on sale for $79.99?" It sounds like a good compromise, but it's probably more annoying for shoppers, while still being somewhat amenable to thieves. Grade: B+.

Circuit City: Product must have been bought at their store. This seems reasonable for consumers, and the store is smart to scan the item. However, what if the product was stolen at their store? Would the scanner tell them that? (That would be really cool - front line employees could be nabbing unsuspecting criminals!) If it doesn't tell you whether the item was bought or stolen, though, this policy has little merit in stopping crime. It does, however, make good sense for honest customers, especially honest customers who live in the digital age. Grade: A if the scanner knows, A- if it doesn't.

CompUSA: No returns without a receipt. This is the most old-school, black and white, 'it is or it isn't' kind of policy. It reminds me of a simpler time, before everything we touched had electronic copies. CompUSA must be a tricky place for thieves to make headway. It's probably also a place where lots of honest customers get pissed. Grade: C.

Office Depot: We just want your product. I think this must have been a fluke. Stores typically don't take back extra items because it adds to their inventory. Inventories are planned so that the store sells everything it has. If you start accepting every Joe Schmo's unwanted products, you suddenly have an imbalance. Maybe this employee thought to himself, "That Office Ultimate is gonna be the hit of the season - it can't hurt to have an extra one on our shelves!" But this is pretty shortsighted, and I'm doubting it's company policy. My brother was a customer, bordering on dishonest, and he walked away with a giant store credit. No price minimum, no package scan, and no receipt. I have to imagine this place is somewhat easy to scam. Grade: D.

Ultimately, stores don't want you to return things. They want to take your money and give you stuff. However, as our society becomes more and more full of choice, we as consumers become increasingly indecisive. Return policies are our safety net, and stores actually use them as a selling point. "We're low-commitment," the policies tell people. "You don't have to be sure with us." They make it easy for shoppers to buy on impulse, and to buy more than they really need. "We can always return it," we say to ourselves.

Here's what I'd like stores to do. I can guarantee you they'll never do it, because it runs counter to human nature, but here it is anyway. If you want to return something, we will give you half of what that item cost. You want to return a $60 dress? Here's $30. What, you decided you don't like it anymore? Oooh, sorry. Shoulda tried it on first.

I know, I know, this would force people to actually make real decisions in the store. It would also cause them to truly consider the price of something, in relation to its worth. Which is something we all seem to have forgotten.

Stores will never do this because of all the excuses - something broke, didn't fit, the giftee hated it, dog ate the receipt, and on and on. They know humans aren't perfect, and that we need this Plan B. But I still think some responsibility should fall on our shoulders. If stores would give shoppers fewer choices and less return-policy flexibility, I actually think we'd become smarter, better shoppers. Plus, thieves would have to find something else to do.


Where it counts

Folks, it's that time of year again. Welcome to Round Two of the Bathroom Blogfest. Bloggers around the world will be asking and answering questions about the importance of restrooms in the customer experience.

I, however, have a slightly different kind of question. It's a bit more...personal. This question was posed to me many years ago, when I was a teenage counselor at summer camp. It shocked me, and it may shock you too.

On the first night of camp, before the kids arrived, the counselors were playing getting-to-know-you games. One went like this: the camp director would call out a category with two options, and we'd self-organize into groups based on our choices. For instance, he'd say "Peanut butter: creamy or crunchy?" The creamy folks would run to one side of the room; the crunchy folks, the other. We'd all laugh and high-five over our shared preferences. The game went on for a while - "Airplane seat: window or aisle?" "Superpower: flight or invisibility?"

But then came a question that reverberated throughout the big rec hall. "Toilet paper: crumple or fold?"

Wait - people fold?

I had no idea anyone folded their toilet paper. What, like, in half? In thirds? In origami cranes? I was shocked and intrigued. But no time for questions - I ran to the crumple team, where everyone was hysterical. We crumplers were cracking up with lines like, "Hell yeah I crumple!" and "Who has time to fold?" Meanwhile, the folders were looking at us like we were heathens: "Those people scrunch up their toilet paper?" "Do they not care about anything?"


As you may know, I am forever preoccupied with an ongoing quest to better understand the details of people's everyday lives. Not only their shopping lists, but their secrets, their morning rituals, what they have in their bags, wallets and fridges. And today is no exception. Dear reader, please take my poll.

Thanks. I can't tell you how excited I am to see these results.

Now, when I heard this question for the first time, not only was I surprised to learn that people did things differently than me, I was amazed at how enthusiastic the two sides became. We immediately bonded within our groups. I think there was even some chanting, along the lines of "CRUM-PLE! CRUM-PLE!" Men and women, old and young, we all cared passionately about our TP.

And we still do. I would argue that toilet paper represents the make-or-break moment of the restroom experience. If it's great, everything else can be forgiven. And if it's bad, or (gasp) gone, well, all the scented soap in the world won't bring it back.

Because let's get specific for a moment here. There are a number of ways in which we physically interact with the bathroom around us. Our feet touch the floor. Our hands touch the doors, the flushers and the faucets. Sometimes our waists touch the counter. But our nether regions - invariably our most personal, private parts - touch one thing and one thing only. So what are we going to care most about?

Now I don't think any sane consumer would articulate this if asked, but I believe that every other element in a restroom only serves as a clue as to whether or not the toilet paper is good. When I'm waiting in line, I'm subconsciously evaluating all these elements, in an effort to guess at what the TP situation will be. If I step into a restroom and the floor is marble, I heave a secret sigh of relief. I know it'll be plush. And if I step into a restroom and there is garbage on the floor, fear strikes my heart. I check to make sure there is some in my stall before I even shut the door.

Now sometimes, the toilet paper is inconsistent with the rest of the experience. In this case, I typically weight TP higher when casting my overall vote. If the bathroom is nice but the toilet paper is thin and abrasive, it speaks volumes. I now know that this store/office/restaurant has tried to make surface improvements in order to wow people, but the fancy tissue box and designer art are only aesthetic. This place doesn't really care. And conversely, if the bathroom is nothing special but the toilet paper is soft and durable, with ribs or quilts or clouds, I feel that the place is reaching out to me. That they are saying, "We know where it counts."

Like any experience, we expect bathrooms to be consistent. And obviously, women and men would love it if they were all havens of comfort and relaxation. But in reality, they can't all be the Shangri-La of restrooms, and I understand that. My assertion is simply that if you were going to do one thing to improve your restroom - just ONE thing - that one thing should be to upgrade your toilet paper. People will appreciate this on a much deeper level than if you went for fancy faucets. It's, shall we say, closer to home.

Whether you crumple or fold, welcome to the Bathroom Blogfest!

For more Bathroom Blogfest all week long, please check out:

Adaptive Path
Blog Till You Drop
Checking Out and Checking In
Customer Experience Crossroads
Customers Are Always
Customers Rock!
Diva Marketing
The Engaging Brand
Fast Company Now
Flooring the Consumer
K+B DeltaVee
Library Bytes
Life and Its Little Pleasures
Practical Katie
Purple Wren
Qualitative Research
Results Revolution
Spirit Women
The Ultimate Corporate Entrepreneur


Show a little care

Ladies and gentlemen, today we're going to talk about etiquette. Retail etiquette.

To help you understand the early roots of my interest in this topic, I'd like to start with a song from my childhood. It's by Carol Johnson, a singer who heavily influenced my musical upbringing. I listened to this song from the tape deck of my Chevy Astro van, while my mom drove me to and from gymnastics. And in those formative years, long before the advent of Retail Planning, one song forever altered my perspective on proper in-store behavior. The song was called "Show A Little Care."

(Yes, I still remember the words, twenty years later).


Mrs. Jones hangs up the clothes, in the store where she works each day
Folds and stacks, and straightens the racks, arranging a nice display
But those messy shoppers, they get so sloppy, they leave things in a heap -
And a tangled mess, is all that's left, of the work she did so neat.

Would you do a thing like that? No way!
Would you do a thing like that? No way!
Now who would do a thing like that? No, no, no, not me!
Show a little care for the people out there, who care for you and me.


Oh, that poor, dear Mrs. Jones. My heart went out to her. And as the song clearly stated, I was taught from an early age to not "do a thing like that." I wouldn't be a messy shopper. No way! It was burned in my brain.

But is helping out, really helping out? You be the judge. Test your retail etiquette with this fun quiz.

Question 1:
You're in a clothing store. Sweaters are folded neatly on a table. You start looking for your size. You unfold a medium, then a small. The small looks right, so you decide to take it. Quick: what do you do with the medium?

a) Fold it back up as neatly as you can
b) Leave it unfolded
c) Hide it behind a plant

In this scenario, I tend to go with "a." When I unfold something and decide not to pursue it further, I make my best attempt to recreate the corporate-issued, store-perfect folding protocol. But I fail. I fail every time. I wasn't trained! I don't know the sleeve trick! Try as I might, I simply cannot make the sweater look like all the rest. So am I really helping?

My guess is, I'm not. I feel like the correct answer here is "b." The employees are going to have to re-fold it anyway. Still I wonder, do they appreciate my attempt? Do they come over later and say "Aww, this customer really tried!" Or was my childhood direction misguided? Grounded in an ideal reality that would never come to pass? I want to help Mrs. Jones. I just don't know if I can.

Question 2:
Now you're ready to try on some clothes. A salesperson shows you to a fitting room. You try things on, you shuffle hangers, you toss things in the "yes" pile and the "maybe" pile. You finally decide to buy one thing, and leave the other six. Quick: what do you do with the unwanted items?

a) You hang them up, and bring them around the store, putting them back where they belong
b) You hang them up, and bring them to a reject rack just outside the room
c) You leave with the shirt you are buying. The salesperson can deal with it.*

*It's her job, right?

I face this dilemma on a regular basis, and I must admit, I'm not consistent with my choices. On very rare occasions, when the store and staff are nice, I will actually go with "a," because I actually feel like helping. Typically, though, I'll go with "b" if said rack exists. But if I'm tired, or if the staff aren't around, or if the store's already a mess, I'll just walk out. Sorry, Mrs. Jones. Maybe if your dressing rooms were neater or you were nicer, I'd feel more of an obligation.

Question 3a:
Now you're in the grocery store. You pick up a bottle of ketchup, put it in your cart, and continue shopping. Halfway through the store, you remember that you bought ketchup last time, and you totally don't need more. You are now in the paper towel aisle. Quick: what do you do with the ketchup?

a) Bring it back to the ketchup aisle
b) Leave it in your cart
c) Stick it on a shelf next to some Brawny

Come on, people. You know you go with "c." At least, I do.

Question 3b:
What if the item had to be refrigerated? Like cheese, or yogurt?

Question 3c:
What if you were in Whole Foods?

Basically, I think the question "How polite are your shoppers?" can be easily answered with "Well, how polite are your employees?" Because it's not like I'm univerally kind, or universally careless. I mean, I re-fold sweaters in J. Crew, but I also leave ketchup in Aisle 9. This is partly because the staff at J. Crew give me smiles, and the staff at Jewel give me blank looks. People, respect is a two-way street. I would not hide the ketchup at Whole Foods.

I'd like to think Mrs. Jones is retired by now. Maybe her little boutique lives on, run by her daughter. Or maybe The Gap moved in next door and put her out of business. Either way, I'm glad she showed a little care. If stores would show me a little care, I'd gladly return the favor.


You've lost me

So here's the scenario. You call up a fabric store, curious if they have a particular brand of quilting ruler. (The reason why you need a quilting ruler in the first place is, um, outside the scope of this post). A kindly-sounding woman answers the phone. She has to go and check, and she graciously asks if you can be placed on hold. You agree. No problem.

Time passes. During this time, you experience profound psychological shifts. The very essence of your humanity is called into question. Here is the progression of your thoughts:

00:21 That woman sounded so nice. I'll bet she has adorable grandchildren.

00:59 She must be walking past the wrapping paper, the ribbon, the fabric, the yarn, and the scissors! I hope all this walking doesn't hurt her kind, old feet.

01:37 This hold music is boring.

01:59 She's definitely looking through the rulers right now.

02:42 Maybe she's looking for the head of the ruler department, and he is on the other side of the store. I bet she's paging that guy right now.

03:15 Maybe the head of the ruler department is outside, taking a smoke break. I bet that guy's a total jerk. I bet he and my lady get in workplace disagreements all the time.

04:15 Man, I've been on hold a long time. It's been at least ten minutes!

04:54 Oh my god, where is this woman? Is she just taking her sweet ass time? Does she not have the capacity to walk more than 10 feet an hour?

05:33 Why does Jo-Ann Fabrics hire idiots? Maybe they have some affirmative action policy for slow, stupid people.

06:17 That woman is probably taking HER smoke break! I bet she forgot all about me! Or she thought I wouldn't wait - that's it! She probably thought to herself, "Well, it's been so long now, that chick on the phone MUST have hung up by now." God, I feel stupid for ever trusting a word she said.

06:48 Oh jeez, I hope she hasn't fallen under a ream of chenille and broken her hip! Then I'd feel terrible! I'm such a mean, impatient person. Okay. I can wait. Breathe in, breathe out.

07:26 All right, that's it. I don't care anymore. I don't care if she's still looking, if she's stopped looking, or if she's trapped under a mountain of rulers and is eating her own arm off. I have waited on hold for what feels like twenty minutes. I want out. I'm hanging up.

07:29 No wait, I can't do it. What if she's just about to pick up the phone? What if she's been looking high and low, searching through dusty catalogs and moldy storage basements, and she's got the ruler in hand? And she's worked SO HARD to find this for me, and she comes back, and she hears a dial tone? She'll kill herself! I can't do that to another human being! I'll wait.

07:45 But seriously, how long does it take? I mean, how big is the store? How many rulers must she look through? And I'm using cellphone minutes, people! I'm not one of those thousand-minute-per-month schmos, either! I'm talking 450! Every minute is precious! You are messing with my currency! Jo-Ann, you are robbing me point-blank - and I'm letting you do it! That's it, I'm hanging up.

07:51 Oh god, so help me but I can't do it. I just can't do it. She could be inches away. She could be scarred and bleeding, the paramedics pushing her bed on wheels, sirens blaring, ten firemen clearing the path from the accident site to the phone, and she's yelling "The ruler! I've got the ruler!" I can't let her die, mission unaccomplished!

08:12 Pick up the phone...NOW. Okay, NOW. Come on, lady. Get back to the phone...NOW.

08:25 Oh my god oh my god oh my god! What to do what to do what to do? Finger is trembling over the "End" button.

08:35 Please don't let my karma be forever ruined!

08:36 Beep.

Employee at Jo-Ann Fabrics, I'm sorry. You lost me. I had all the best intentions, but I no longer care about the ruler. I'm sure you have adorable grandchildren.


I got engaged!

It was pretty freaking wonderful.


Help us look good

I recently bought new glasses. If you've ever gone through this process, you know that it can be agonizing.

First, you try on every single pair that remotely piques your interest. You hold onto the 'maybes' and try them again. Then you switch and check, switch and check, until you've narrowed it down to one pair. Even then, when you've chosen your candidate, you still have to scrutinize your face from every possible angle, look in every mirror in the store, and double-check against all the other pairs AGAIN in order to be absolutely sure you've found the best glasses for your face.

The process reminds me of the phenomenon that happens when you say a particular word too many times. Eventually, that word sounds funny. Any word can sound funny, if you say it enough times. (Try it!) Likewise, after checking my own face in the mirror six hundred times, it started to look funny. I began scrutinizing my features. God, my nose is long. God, my eyes are close together. Am I normal? Or am I funny-looking? Just like with the word, the familiar becomes strange.

So I finally found my pair, but I wasn't completely sold. They were the best pair in the store for me, but they didn't look Fabulous. They just looked Good. I realized this might be because I still thought my own face looked weird. So I tried something else.

I took my hair out of its ponytail, rumpled it a bit, put on lip gloss, and smiled. This time, I thought the glasses looked great. My decision was made.


This leads me to a very basic insight: People buy things when they look good. But it's not just the new item that has to look good. It's everything. When I looked better overall, the glasses looked better too.

This insight can be quite useful for shoppers. If your goal is to buy a new pair of jeans, go shopping on a "thin day." If you feel good about your body, the jeans will practically buy themselves. If you want a new bathing suit, go shopping when you are tan. If you want new shoes, get a pedicure, and wear the clothes that you'll wear with the shoes. Et cetera.

Likewise, don't shop for clothing after a night of alcohol and fried food. Don't shop for makeup when your skin is terrible. Unless, of course, you don't actually want to buy anything.

This insight is also useful for retailers. If you want girls to buy your prom dresses, don't make them try them on in their white gym socks. Give them heels, for god's sake. They will look ten times better, and will be more likely to buy the dress. Who knows - they might even buy the shoes too.

So my appeal is this: Stores should find ways to make their shoppers look better. Easy touches like flattering lighting, color in the dressing rooms, and relevant accessories will help someone like the way they look.

Or better yet, why don't stores combine shopping with beauty? You enter the store, get a facial and your hair blow-dried, then look at outfits. Man. I would end up buying so much more this way. Because I get my hair done what, four times a year? But after walking out of the salon, I feel that I am at my absolute best. The top of my game, if you will. If I were to shop right then, who knows how much I would spend. I'd probably love everything I tried, because in the mirror was this fabulous me with perfect hair. The glasses would look better, the dress would look better, I bet even the purse or shoes (or lamp or car) would look better.

Now the downside, of course, is that this can become a distortion of reality. And that's where the line begins to blur. Stores that use "slimming mirrors" face ethical controversy. And there's always the risk that someone loves the dress, gets it home, and hates it. "This looked so much better in the store" is a complaint I've definitely heard. But on the other hand, let's face it - consumers today are still seeking a suspension of reality. Permission to forget who they really are, and become someone better.

Here's my stance. If the retailer helps you to simply perceive yourself as looking better, then that's pretty close to lying and I feel it's a disservice. But if the retailer helps you to actually look better, with substantive beauty services or advice, then I think that would be great. Oh, and profitable too.


I bought the glasses. They were perfect. And as I wore them each day, a funny thing happened. I would almost subconsciously recall the feeling I had about them in the store. It was a very private, personal feeling, something along the lines of "I look so smart and sophisticated." And you know, that feeling lives on, somewhere deep inside my brain. So even if the store had only made me look better during that brief "first impression," I've decided the first impression is critical. Not only for swaying me to buy the product, but for actually shaping my attitude towards the product during its lifetime of use.

So retailers, help us look good. We will like how we look inside your walls, buy more products, AND feel better about those products long after we've paid our credit card bills.