Have you ever walked through a department store and been assaulted by fragrance pushers, poofing their scents into your face and asking you to try their fine line of products? It may surprise you to learn that not all of the perfume poofers work for the store, some actually work directly for the manufacturer. Their job is to appear to be be a normal store employee, while steering you towards the scents sold by their real employer.
They’re called “freelancers,” and one such freelancer working at Barney’s in New York stepped to The Consumerist with the low-down on how this high-end trick turns, inside…
Our tipster, name withheld upon request for fear of retribution,
- “Beware when shopping this holiday season, the Barneys employee suggesting fragrances for you may not be a Barneys employee at all.
It may come as a surprise to most customers at New York’s high-end retailers such as Bergdorf Goodman and Barneys, but most of the employees you see behind the counter in fragrance and cosmetics departments aren’t actually employed by the stores where they work. Known in the industry as “freelancers” because they are not technically full-time employees, these skin care and fragrance “specialists” work directly for the manufacturers whose products they are hired to push from behind the counter. These employees rarely disclose their bias, preferring to understate their obvious preference with lines like “Let me show you a beautiful…” or “Here’s a really nice…”
It’s understandable that this system of freelancing at department stores has become so widespread. The companies employing the freelancer benefit by having someone at the store to promote their products exclusively. Of course, if a customer requests or prefers another item instead, the freelancer must help the customer. This is how retailers benefit – they receive the freelancer’s labor for, well, free, and the customer gets the impression that Barneys has hired an army of employees to help customers find the products that they are seeking.
Of course, a few savvy customers have realized that not every employee behind the counter is a store employee, and a few ask the too-enthusiastic freelancer to divulge where their employment lies. However, it’s a sad state of affairs when a legitimate business feels it needs to lie in order to sell its products. Most of us believe that the phrase
“carpe diem” “caveat emptor” no longer applies to American businesses, except for the fake Louis Vuitton purses and cashmere sweaters sold on 5th Avenue outside these high-end luxury retailers. Once a customer steps inside one of these businesses, a whole different standard applies. What’s next – General Mills freelancers dressed in supermarket uniforms touting the benefits of their latest sugar-filled cereal? It appears to be yet another form of ad-creep, like product placement in television shows.
Unfortunately, freelancers are not the only ones to watch out for – store employees cannot be fully trusted either. Like the freelancers, they too are biased towards certain products, and not only the higher-priced products that will increase their commission-based pay. Motivated by “spiffs” (cash bonuses), counter-managers and associates promote certain fragrances or other products and receive anywhere from $10-$25 per item sold from a given company. Other more creative “spiffs” may be awarded to whichever associate sells the most of a given product over a certain period of time such as a few weeks. Fortunately, spiffs are not as widespread as freelancers and are less of a cause for bias, for the most part. Spiffs tend to be found on harder-to-sell high-priced products.
Does this mean that the only appropriate course of action is to ban freelancers and spiffs altogether? I would like to think not. Despite the shortcomings of the freelancing system, there is a benefit. Because freelancers typically only work for one line of products, they tend to be more knowledgeable about the ingredients, quality, and cost of the products within their chosen line, while store employees have less detailed knowledge about the many product lines that they sell. As for spiffs, when it comes to fragrances at least, my personal opinion is that they are not immoral. Fragrances are not meant to “solve” anything and serve no medical or practical purpose. When one sells a fragrance, one is selling an idea such as “elegance” or “sexiness.” As long as a customer is smelling the fragrance before purchasing it, it appears that a purchase is not being made based upon faulty information. However, when it comes to skin care, a spiff entices the store employee to – I won’t say lie – mislead the customer, touting the benefits of a certain product with an unmistakable enthusiasm while downplaying the benefits of another. Skin care employees function as over-the-counter street doctors, and as such, have an air of legitimacy and responsibility despite never having taken the Hippocratic Oath.”
The biggest problem with freelancers is lack of disclosure. Freelancers should wear a nametag to indicate who their real master is. — BEN POPKEN