Ringing Up A Career In Retail

Avid consumerism has made this industry a new option for aggressive job seekers. Here's how you can register a good career move.

His uniform: a $2,000 four-button european pinstripe suit, custom- tailored. His calendar: filling up quickly as the busy fourth quarter approaches. His client list: People who spend more money in half an hour than others make a year.

His business is not stocks or high-yield bonds. It’s high fashion. And as one of the leading sales associates at Saks Fifth Avenue, Andrew Grier trades in major stakes deals. His department–women’s couture collections, on the third floor of the flagship store in Manhattan– epitomizes Saks’ international image. It is here that designs by Valentino, Prada, Versace and Gucci are displayed with museum-style reverence, and prices for a single outfit can range from $1,500-$20,000.

In this rarefied world, Grier, who lives with his wife and son in a middle-class Brooklyn enclave, must look and speak as though to the manner born. Grier, 36, is one of only a handful of African American faces in a sales field where fashion sense, attention to detail and good people skills can translate into annual salaries of $60,000-$100,000.

Although there is plenty of money to be made in the multibillion dollar retail industry, for many African Americans the “service” concept is shadowed by unwelcome connotations of an era gone by when subservient roles were the only employment options available to people of color. “Suggesting retailing to a black person is almost an insult,” says Hyman D. Albritton, manager of human resources at Sears Roebuck & Co. in Hoffman States, Illinois. “Students look at you with indignation as if to say, `I didn’t go through four years of college to work in a store.’” Such negative impressions belie the fact that retail is one of the fastest growing job sectors today.

The industry has rebounded from the hiring bust of the 1980s, a time when it was wracked by a troubled economy, downsizing and bankruptcy. Today, retailers are scouting out professionals who can cater to the diverse and growing consumer market. While many companies scour colleges and business schools for individuals to bring into the managerial fold, candidates with strong people skills, a knack for business and loads of enthusiasm can also fare well. Some gain entree into the management ranks of the trade via coveted, yet competitive, training programs, while most parlay hard work on the selling floor into strides up the corporate ladder. Opportunities abound in all industries, from automobiles to hardware to food.

Grier found his rewards in the glamorous field of high-end apparel sales. Regularly cloaked in gratis designer suits, he courts the gilded set and meets their exacting service standards while maintaining a computerized log of his sales. Sizes, style and color preferences, home and business phone numbers, credit card account numbers and other details are meticulously noted.

Choice customers get star treatment in this commission-driven arena. In addition to high-powered executives, many of Grier’s clients are celebrities. He has serviced such notables as Mary J. Blige, Aretha Franklin and Sharon Stone. His best clients buy several outfits a season. For them, Grier–who was recruited in 1995

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