By Joanna Clay The Orange County Register.
ORANGE COUNTY, Calif
On a recent Wednesday, Sara Aplanalp pulls back an unmarked beige door at the rear of Neiman Marcus Fashion Island in Newport Beach, Calif.
She says hello to a security officer in a black suit as she signs her name on a clipboard. Within moments, she's on the department store floor, dashing across the shiny marble in 4-inch Via Spiga heels.
"You can never go wrong with a pair of Manolos," she says, handling a pair of snakeskin pumps that retail for $935. "It's all about gray. Gray is the new neutral."
Aplanalp isn't shopping for herself. She's shopping for Jeff, a 49-year-old Newport Coast resident and business owner. The shoes are for his wife. (The Register, by the way, has changed Jeff's name to ensure the holiday surprises for his family.)
The personal shopping industry, which is expected to grow 2 percent annually over the next five years, according to market research firm IBIS World, is tapping an important trend: personalization.
Consumers are increasingly shopping online. But when they're not, they want their experience to be tailored to them, IBIS analysts report.
Retailers have entered the highly competitive environment of personal shopping, once reserved for independent stylists, as a way to build customer loyalty and to get uncertain shoppers to open their pocketbooks, IBIS says. At the same time, fashion stylists are working for retailers to ensure a steady stream of clients and income.
Aplanalp is one of two full-time personal shoppers at Fashion Island. She works with customers in person, by phone, text message and through email. Her job is to narrow down the perfect gift or outfit by your deadline, whether it's that day or weeks ahead.
The Irvine Company debuted the personal shopper service in July 2013. Aplanalp can't take tips and there's no commission. She's paid by the Irvine Company to essentially build brand loyalty. The service is free for shoppers, even the gift wrapping.
"Personal shopping had this stigma that it was reserved for the elites, the VIPs, and that's not the case anymore," Aplanalp says.
Leslie Christen, a self-employed stylist, has seen her business grow roughly 60 percent since she moved from Los Angeles to Orange County eight years ago.
Years ago, her Orange County clients weren't convinced styling was a service they needed. Now she says her clients realize the service, at a rate of $150 an hour with a four-hour minimum, can save them time and money in the long run.
"I think styling and personal shopping became something that not just celebrities had. It became more mainstream," she says. South Coast Plaza mall has more than 30 personal shoppers, many multilingual, with varying rates, according to Debra Gunn Downing, the mall's executive director of marketing.
Jeff, who had never used a personal shopper before, has handed over the fate of his holiday gifts for his wife, parents, business partner, office assistant, even the family dog, to Aplanalp's expertise.
"Last Christmas was a nightmare, which is why I was so interested in this," he says. "I am the Dec. 24 panic-stricken shopper. After so many years of doing it that way, I decided to do something different."
At Neiman Marcus, Aplanalp texts him a picture of shoes his wife might like. Then she's off to other stores including Rebecca Taylor, Traditional Jewelers and Bose, plowing through Jeff's gift list.
Next she texts him a picture of a leather wine carrier at Gary's, a men's retail store.
"Very cool design. Let's do that one," Jeff responds via text.
She drops by Nespresso for his parents, conservative folks in their 70s, where she finds a deal for a dual coffee and espresso maker.
"Wow, that's perfect. I'll take it," he texts. She places the item on hold. After she finalizes his color preference and the store's return policy (at his request), she'll go back with his credit card and buy the gift.
Jeff is the personal shopper's ideal client. He's busy, he's career-driven and he doesn't have the best gift-giving skills. "Most people don't have time," Aplanalp says. "They're working their butts off. Or they don't know how to shop and don't want to."
One in three American employees complains of being overworked. Overwhelmed with a lack of leisure time, they are more likely to turn to personal shoppers, IBIS reports.
Aplanalp plans to be very busy this holiday, anticipating more shoppers taking up the free service. Fashion Island is promoting it on displays throughout the center and has hired extra assistants in anticipation of the shopping rush, she says.
Jeff might have had a generous budget of $9,000, but Aplanalp works with just about any budget. She recently helped a woman find a $150 dress for a backyard wedding and helped a 20-something career women get a gift for a friend at Lululemon.
By the end of the day, she had the majority of Jeff's items crossed off, well before his Dec. 15 deadline, and planned to gather more ideas for his wife in the coming days.
To most, running the 75-acre shopping center, albeit in heels, for hours would be exhausting. But to Aplanalp, it's all in a day's work.
"I told her, it's probably saved me three days' time and a lot of frustration," Jeff says.