Shopping Questions You Should Never Be Afraid to Ask

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I prefer to shop alone. I am a very focused, directed shopper and don’t like to be distracted by idle chit-chat or unrelated browsing. So I generally go alone and keep to myself. The people I am most likely to speak with while shopping? Sales associates.

Now, sales associates sometimes get a bad rep. It’s frustrating to ask a question about merchandise or availability and be met with blank stares and disinterest. But sales associates cannot be expected to know everything about the merch. Boutique owners and managers at smaller shops, yes. Associates at large department stores, no. And even if you encounter a sales associate who can’t help you, hopefully she or he can point you toward other resources.

But sales associates often know more than you’d expect, and they’re often bored out of their skulls. They’re gatekeepers, both of products and of information. And if you’re kind and patient and know what to ask, sales associates can transform shopping into a rewarding experience.
Here are some questions that the average SA should be able to answer, and that you should never be afraid to ask:

Sizing and Stock

I can’t find my size. Is it in a stockroom somewhere? You just never know. Even small boutiques have back rooms, and if things get busy, the floor may get depleted. ALWAYS ask if your size is hiding in the back.

Will you be getting more? No luck in the stockroom? Find out if further shipments are on their way.

Can you check another store for me? Can it be sent to THIS store? STILL no luck? Any chain store should be able to call around or check their computer system to see if what you need is elsewhere in the chain. And many will have the item sent to the store that is most convenient for you.

Is it available on the store’s website? If so, can you waive shipping? OK, this is your last resort. If the dad-gum sweater is absolutely nowhere in the state, ask your friendly SA to check the company site. Not all shops are equipped, but many will look up the item, order it for you, and comp the shipping costs.

Does this come in petites or tall sizes? Plus sizes are generally separated and marked as such, since few lines stock full-figured versions of non-plus clothing. (Can I just mention how WEIRD I think that is?) But length-related sizing can sometimes be hidden. If you find a dress or pair of pants that would work if it were just a hair longer/shorter, grab a passing SA and make sure there aren’t petite or tall versions lurking elsewhere.

Application and Fit

How is this item meant to fit? We’ve all come across them: Items that look intriguing, but cannot be deciphered off-the-rack. Even if you nab an SA who has no idea how that sarong is supposed to wrap, working it out together will be easier than puzzling it out on your own.

How is this cosmetic applied? I’m sure you makeup lovers know all about this one. But just as a reminder: If you’re delving into liquid eyeliner for the first time, or trying a new cream blush, make the SA show you how to apply it. ON YOU.

Are samples available? If only this question worked for shoes … but sadly, this is cosmetics-specific, too. Sometimes places like The Body Shop and Bath & Body Works will hand out product samples, but it works best at department store cosmetics counters. Don’t feel guilty. Why should you commit cash to a product without making sure it still works after 8 hours of wear, doesn’t give you hives, etc.?

Pricing and Payment

This item has a visible flaw. Can I get an additional discount? I have never been denied additional money off for a flaw. Even at a thrift store on a $3 skirt. If it’s something you know you can fix yourself, ask for a better deal. You’re likely to get another 10% or 15% off, even on sale merch.

Is layaway available? More and more shops are doing this for big- and medium-ticket items, and it’s a great option if you want something badly, know it’s gonna sell out, and don’t have the cash in hand. Put it on your credit card and you’ll be paying interest. Put it on layaway, and all you have to do is wait and pay.

What do YOU ask of sales associates when out shopping? Anyone had luck asking when/if items will go on sale? (I’ve had hit-or-miss luck with that one, understandably.) Care to share places that you know do layaway, or will waive shipping from their site?

Image courtesy Jorge Franganillo

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  • Jessica

    I also prefer to shop alone. I usually know what I want before I head out. Just recently I had 'nice cargo shorts' in my brain to recreate an outfit I saw on the Budget Babe. I'm pretty focused and I rarely sidetrack.

    My luck with Sales Associates has been pretty slim, honestly. Alot of them can't seem to be bothered to even physically go to a computer to look up if they have something in stock in another store. I'd even happily drive out of my way to get what I want – the Cynthia Vincent for Target shoe hunt comes to mind. I will admit, you do get better service with higher end stores, Nordstroms, Anthropologie, Banana Republic, etc., than you do at Target, Old Navy, JC Penney. Lately I go in to some of these stores and don't even get a smile (let alone a 'Hello, can I help you?').

    However, I recently was in Gymboree, the children's clothing store, just browsing mainly (on the lookout for a sweater for my daughter), and the two girls working there were cheerful, friendly and incredibly helpful. If something wasn't on the rack in the size I was looking for, one of them happily offered to check in the back. If there was a particular style or maybe a different color than was on the floor, the other said she could easily order it and get it shipped to me – for free. I ended up buying a sweater and two pairs of shorts and two tank tops (proof that honey catches more flies than vinegar)!

    Saks will sometimes ship for free. Nordstroms is really good about shipping store-to-store for no cost.

  • orchidsinbuttonholes

    Fantastic, thorough list, Sal!

    I'd add that asking your sales associate about care (especially with shoes, but certainly also with materials you're not as familiar with) and alterations can be really helpful. If there isn't a tailor on site, they might have a recommendation for a fantastic local tailor they trust – always a great connection to have.

    I'd also add that Sephora will make up free samples of lotions and creams (not sure about the make-up end of things, but it never hurts to ask). I swear by asking for samples and they seem to swear by making them up.

    I've found that J. Crew has remarkable customer service. Not only can they call other stores, but they have the "red phone" – a customer service line that a sales associate will call for you if your J. Crew doesn't have a particular item and that will search for an item and send it to you without shipping fees.

    One last tidbit of advice that I've come to rely upon – when you work with a sales associate you particularly like, take his or her card. When you return to the store, look for that person, or call ahead to see if he or she will be there. Building a relationship with a particular associate is fantastic for them and ideal for you. You're more likely to be invited to private in-store events and find out in advance when the pre-sale starts and receive in the mail coupons and discount cards. Too, if that person knows you well enough, he or she is more likely to see that a certain new something that's so you and give you a call about it.

  • Starling

    I used to work at Payless, and I really liked helping people shop. It was the best part of working there (aside from when the store was empty and I'd karaoke to the muzak). You could also check to see when the next sale will hit – even if the associate doesn't know what will be on sale next, s/he will usually know the sale timing. You can also ask them how long an item has been in stock – that will usually tell you if it's about to be clearanced out.

  • Daisy Dukes

    These are all really great ideas. It has been so long since I shopped anywhere but online for clothing. I do know though that when I met with a good sales associate in the past it meant so much to me and I remembered it.

  • Angela Pea

    I'm totaly with Orchids…make friends with a favorite SA.

    When my Dear Husband and I were married a bazillion years ago, he was rail thin – 28 inch waist, size 14 dress shirt. It was nearly impossible to find grown up (uh, professional) men's clothing in that size, and I spent a lot of time tailoring his work clothes. We found a favorite men's store and made friends with an SA AND the on-site tailor. Whenever a random shipment of size 28 dress pants would come into the store, they would set them aside and give us a call. When we couldn't find what DH needed in his size, the tailor would help me mark the clothing in the store for sizing, then I would take them home and do the stitching myself.

    I've fed my husband well over the past quarter century, and he is now a normal adult sized 32 inch waist – MUCH easier to find dress pants!

  • Elle

    Jc Penney SAs are usually great and tell me the dates things are going on sale!! They also hold things for me longer than the typical 24 hour period which is their stores policy. I haven't had much luck getting less for damaged items, though.

  • Lisa Griffin

    These are great tips! I'm a little on the tall side and never thought to ask if lengths were available elsewhere!
    http://www.indramaticfashion.com

  • Elle

    Oh, and this is a fantastic post, Sal! Thanks!

  • MarieBayArea

    good stuff here. some i've employed and some i'm excited to try out. some of the other commenters have also made helpful suggestions as well. i love this little blog community you've created here. you're awesome!

  • Sheila

    I worked as a sales associate for 14-15 years when I was in my teens/20s/early 30s. It was always best when the customers would open up and actually communicate with us – many of them would avoid eye contact or look at me blankly when I said "hello." Of course, non-communication usually means that person is going to try to shop-lift half your store! Seriously!

    If you want good service, you have to be a good customer. Talk to the SA, tell him/her what's on your mind, what you're looking for. Many will actually refer you to other stores (yes!) if they don't have what you're looking for.

    And yes, a little manners and kindness goes a long, long way. Working in retail is one of the more thankless personal service jobs out there We don't get tips! We don't get thanked, and we often have to look after your kids while you shop (yes!).

    Find an SA in a store you frequent, find out when she usually works and start a shopping relationship. I have one store where I know all the staff by name (I maybe spend $200 a year there, so it's not like I'm dropping mega-bucks) – I get the best service, and I love it.

    Oh, and I shop alone too.

  • Future Lint

    I don't know why but I hate talking to the sales people… they ask if they can help with anything and I just say no thanks and turn purple… however I'm great around waitresses and bartenders, etc… maybe because I've worked in a lot of restaurants but never worked retail? I will try to work on not being so shy!

  • Anonymous

    I hate asking sales associates ?'s at like…Macys and such. BUT whenever I go into ATL they are just awesome. I mean, they go way out of their way to show me how to wear something as an outfit, and also they ALWAYS help me find the correct size and fit. Otherwise? I just don't ask at other stores. ever. haha!

  • katharhino

    I'd also add, don't make unreasonable requests of the SA. Don't pick an item from last year off the 85% discount rack and ask if they have it at another store. They don't. And even if they did, it is nearly impossible for the SA to track it down, especially if the store is busy. I used to work at a department store and I can't tell you how often this happened.

    However I DID love helping people choose outfits if they were friendly and chatty. If you're trying to pick an outfit, ask if they have seen something else that might go with this skirt, for instance. I hardly ever knew when sales were coming up, at a larger department store. But I might be able to tell you if an item had been on sale recently, or if it was brand new and thus less likely to be on sale soon.

    (And yes, I do know that lots of SAs are rude, grumpy, or lazy. That's something else altogether.)

  • E

    These are totally the questions I get anxiety about asking! Especially the samples. I HATE when clerks are skimping on the samples and I never want to ask! I'm going to try to be brave in the future ๐Ÿ™‚

  • FashionTheorist

    Another tip I can give, as a former sales associate myself, is to ask your SA if he or she can suggest items to fit and flatter you. He or she is in the store every day, working with the clothes in question, and has seen them on a wide range of body types and sizes. An item that looks unremarkable on the hanger could be the best thing ever, and a good sales associate will help you find it.

    And yes, yes, yes to building relationships with SAs and being friendly! I had regular clients who I'd go out of my way to put in clothes they loved. Rude, inconsiderate people who treated me like a servant or some lesser form of life because I was working sales – well, I never stinted on customer service, but I definitely wouldn't go out of my way for them.

  • Rachel

    Great tips! I never thought to ask about additional sizes in the back but will def. do that from now on.

    I don't shop there much, but Kohl's is really good about discounting damaged merch, even items already deeply discounted. And I agree with another comment that Penny's associates tend to be really helpful and will tell you when something is going on sale (since everything goes on sale within a few weeks of release at JCP it's probably not a big deal for them!)

    Developing relationships with SAs at Origins can reap some good benefits. The associate I deal with always notifies me of special store only deals and sends me a post card when they gauge that I'm probably low on something.

    I'll also add about Sephora–they have a fantastic return policy. So even if you can't get a sample, if something doesn't work for you or is the wrong color, etc., they'll take it back! They're also really helpful with finding out of stock merch at another location or online.

    I'm the total opposite of you in shopping style. I prefer to go with my mom because she has great taste and loves an 8 hr spree as much as I do. I usually go out focused on certain things and get totally sidetracked by sales racks. I try to plan to stores I want to visit rather than the items I want to buy. If I get one thing on my list I'm usually happy!

  • Charlotte

    My mom worked as a sales associate at a small specialty women's store for 20 years. The great joy of her day was helping someone put together an outfit–bringing them just the thing that would bring the item they were trying on to life. As a result, she had a raft of customers who would only allow her to wait on them. This is probably an experience from another time for most of us, unless we've found a great small store (my friend Cheryl gets phone calls from "her" SA at one store, when "something just perfect" for her comes in.)
    At the larger stores, it's hard to imagine that many SAs give a rat's patootie if that skirt would really look much better with THIS blouse than with the one you brought in to try on, but you'd be surprised. I think what you're suggesting, Sal, is opening up a dialogue, treating the person as someone with an expertise instead of just a warm body who puts clothes on racks & rings up purchases. The response might well be indifferent, but you never know until you make the effort.

  • wishful nals

    this is great! shopping alone is the way to go … unless you're not looking to buy anything. you can stay focused and get things that really work for you. oh, shopping. ๐Ÿ™‚

  • Louise

    Want another tip from a 5-year Gap girl? Be nice to your sales associate! GENUINELY nice, not fake. We will pull strings for you, we really will. I love making an extra effort for respectful, kind, customers. We're people too! ๐Ÿ™‚

  • rb

    I walked up to a salesperson at Nordstrom week before last and asked her if she knew of any long cardigans, summer weight, to wear with pants. She stuck me in a dressing room, found about 15 styles for me to try on, and I bought two. One was expensive. She told me to call back when the sale started last week and if either had gone on sale, she would give me an adjustment.

    As it happened, neither went on sale, which, in a weird way, made me feel better.

    My style of shopping is solitary, very efficient and directed, and I find knowledgeable sales staff extremely helpful in this regard.

    This, to me, is an example of the perfect sales person. She did not bring me things I did not ask for. She found many of the things I did ask for.

    I will seek her out again.

  • The Waves

    I am really glad you posted this!

    I used to hate sales associates, and would steer away from them, thinking that they were only interested in making me buy something I didn't want. Then I became a SA myself. Oh, how I loved the customers who asked questions about the clothes they were interested in, or the customers who talked to me in the first place! These days I know what SAs are supposed to know (your list of questions is very accurate), and I take full advantage of it, if for nothing else than to chat to the SA whose day is probably less boring with me in it.