The Pull of Personal Stylists in the Online-Shopping Era

Rachel Venrick, who works at the Nordstrom at the Mall of America, talks about how retailers are using old-school amenities to get people in the door.

Rachel Venrick  (Rebecca Clarke )

In an attempt to woo customers away from online shopping, brick-and-mortar retailers are providing an important experience that the internet can’t: hearing someone say “you actually look good in that.” Some stores, such as TopShop, Anthropologie, and Club Monaco, are making styling services more accessible, and hoping that the personal touch that stylists provide may give them an edge. The internet, for all its convenience, can make it hard for companies to have their customers feel like they’re getting any personal attention.

When it comes to stylists, the conversation is often focused on the stars they dress: Why did Olivia Pope wear more bright colors on this past season of Scandal? But stylists have interesting experiences all their own. For The Atlantic’s series of interviews with American workers, I spoke with Rachel Venrick, a personal stylist at the Nordstrom in the Mall of America, about what it’s like to dress the average American and how technology has made it easier for her clients to get the looks they want. The following interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.

Adrienne Green: How did you get your job and how long you have been doing it?

Rachel Venrick: I call it my quarter-life crisis. I had been working in professional sports for the Oakland Raiders. I am originally from Sioux Falls, and I wanted to get closer to home, but I wasn't ready to necessarily go back yet. So I chose Minneapolis. I started working at Nordstrom as a sales person and I just fell in love with the company. I had thought about opening up my own clothing boutique, so I thought it would be a great starting point, and I was hired then as a personal stylist. I've been doing that for about six and a half years.

Green: It sounds like the personal-styling program is slightly different than maybe what a normal retail job would be. Can you walk me through your day when you show up to work?

Venrick: Every day is different, which I love. There are days where I'm back-to-back in appointments, and others where I may have a few appointments sprinkled in. Some days I may not have anyone coming in; however, I'll be walking the floor or looking for pieces or outfits or things to add to other clients' wardrobes.

Green: Before working in the sports industry, had you ever worked in retail?

Venrick: I had worked at Gap in high school, but I think this profession just is a whole different ball game than it was then.

Green: How is it different being a stylist?

Venrick: I treat it as a true career rather than a job. I think the way people shop is very different too. The use of technology, the internet, our cell phones, and the app has completely changed from the days back then.

Green: In terms of technology, how is your job changing?

Venrick: For example, one of my best clients leads a busy lifestyle and is not able to come in often. With our app, I'm able to scan the barcode on some things, text it to her, and send her the look. She's able to see how it fits, different colors that it may come in, and I can say, “Hey, this leather jacket is perfect for you to go with the pants that we just got to complete the look,” or “This handbag will complement the outfit that we just put together last week.” Technology is huge. A lot of times I communicate with my clients via text or email. I think that capability and being able to have that technology right at someone’s fingertips to be able to shop is huge.

Green: A lot of stores report that the ability to shop online is eroding their in-store business. It sounds as though that has been more of an assistance to you than a hindrance, right?

Venrick: It's a huge assistance. If you're shopping online and you see the item and you like the color but you don't really know the fit, being able to have that one-on-one relationship with a stylist, or an employee, being able to tell you this actually fits a little big or it's running small or the color doesn't really do justice online, it's huge. That's how I've grown my business: through the technologies, our app, our website, and with text messaging. It's amazing.

Green: Tell me one surprising thing about your job.

Venrick: Everyday there's something unexpected in the most positive way. There are times where you literally can change someone's life. They can walk in feeling down about themselves, or disappointed in the way they're looking, and they walk out feeling like a million bucks. They look like a million bucks, and it's their own therapy sessions.

Green: That obviously sounds like what you would consider the best part of your job. What do you think is the most difficult part?

Venrick: When somebody leaves, say if the client is moving or they've changed careers. I feel like a lot of people are going to business casual, so they're so frustrated because we've found all these awesome suits and these great new pieces. You’ve built these relationships with these individuals on such a personal level. There are things that you learn throughout your appointment that are just fascinating. You become friends with them.

Green: You mentioned the shift of people moving more towards business casual and having to change their wardrobe. Do you notice any other trends about how people shop that signify changes in their industries?

Venrick: I think that in the work environment, people are able to show their personality a little more—which is so much fun. That's where we are so fortunate, that we're able to throw in a new belt, that handbag, new bronzer or blush or lipstick or whatnot, and really complete the outfit.

Green: What has your career change taught you about the idea of work?

Venrick: It's really funny—I thought about how could I have gone from the NFL, which is this male-dominated field, to retail, which is so fun with clothes and shopping and that aspect. There's a lot of similarities. What I had done for the Raiders was sales and marketing and events, and it was being able to sell many different things to one client, whether it be tickets or a luxury suite or multiple entities within the company. That's how I treat my job here, being able to not only sell a customer a new dress, but also put it together with the shoes and the earrings and the clutch, or a suit and the tie and the belt for male customers.

Green: Moving from the male-dominated sports industry to the female-dominated retail and fashion worlds, have you noticed any way that you go about doing your work differently, being surrounded by predominantly women rather than men?

Venrick: I think it doesn't matter. It's more just being genuine and really listening to what your customer needs. That customer is your walking advertisement of what you're doing, and if you don't feel confident in how they left then they may not either. Male or female, it doesn't matter. It's more just being yourself and being kind and genuine.

This interview is a part of a series about the lives and experiences of members of the American workforce, which includes conversations with a sales associate, a fashion designer, and a store manager.