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working girls, show us a picture: you gotta look the part

I’m stumbling through a chain store in the thick of late night shopping. Katy Perry’s voice pours through unseen speakers, stands of accessories jump out at me from thin air. Mirrors are fixed to the walls in a way that makes you slightly nauseous, with multiple copies of yourself staring back at you from behind walls of maxi dresses. A young girl, dressed perfectly in pieces from the store, scares the life from me.

“OH MY GOD, HI! HOW ARE YOU TONIGHT? CAN I HELP YOU WITH A SALE ITEM?!” her question is a very high-school-drama-scream, and comes with an unwanted clutching of my arm. What I would like to reply is something along the lines of “Honey, you’re yelling at me. Indoor voice, please,” but as things usually go in these situations, all I really reply is a mumbled ‘No thanks,’ before hiding at the back of the store. Throughout the next 15 minutes, she approaches three more times with a fake grin. Each time she loses a little more respect for my personal space.

We’ve all been here. A shop assistant who looks the part perfectly, but is of no assistance to customers. This young girl was dressed so precisely in the brand in question that camouflage would be an easy task. That didn’t save her customer service. I’m inclined to think that recruiters would have jumped at hiring this young lady due to her precisely on-brand look. The problem is that just because you’re attractive and blend in, doesn’t mean you can respond to customers without frightening them.

How far would you go to prove that you look ‘right’ for a job? If you’ve ever been to a group interview for a youth centric brand, you may have seen the importance placed on how you’re styled, how much you have to spend on the store’s clothing, and how you carry yourself. This is something that High End fashion chains struggle with, as they put aesthetic before skill in their hiring practices.

Department stores may bemoan the end of bricks and mortar trading, but this doesn’t account for our fascination with stores that promise to not only supply products but also entertain us. Zara and Topshop have popped up in Australian capital cities with storefronts that boast more than just a space for scarves and short shorts. Chains seem to instead be interested in creating “experiences” for their shoppers – which is why massive store openings, door prizes and members-only sale nights have been super-sized within flagship stores. With this comes a new issue – how far can stores ethically go when judging the looks of potential employee candidates?

Last year American Apparel had to deal with yet another question mark over their work place practices when Gawker media revealed they were requesting ‘Head to Toe Body Shots‘ of prospective staff. These were to be emailed to a recruitment address, and were supposedly used to determine which candidates would be interviewed, in conjunction with resumes, key skills indicators and all that prosaic, logical stuff. The brand is known for attractive sales staff and strict rules on what can and cannot be worn to work in their stores.

Some may said that Apparel’s hiring practices were  predictable. Even so, they are not the only brand that asks for information on personal looks and style when canvassing for employees. Whether you’re being asked to ‘show your style’ on an online application, or describe your fashion tastes in five words, the retail sector can turn on some pretty dodgy methods of separating those who have job potential from those who do not. Chain stores across the country, from Cotton On to Topshop, request that their staff wear pieces from the newest (most expensive) sections of their lines, and look for young assistants who fit in with the aesthetic of the brand. Whether or not this cuts out opportunities for good workers who aren’t as well styled as the rest remains to be seen.

There seemed to be a general consensus last year that hiring practices as extreme as that at American Apparel were kind of lacking in taste. When the working demographic of chain stores is largely made up of women in their teens and twenties, the idea that companies would put dress sense above customer service makes the premise even more tawdry. Yet companies claim to be within their rights to hire according to ‘aesthetic’. It’s presumably harder to meet sales targets when those working within a shop look unpolished or at odds with the rest of the store. American Apparel would advance the argument that they are at least upfront about wanting staff that fit neatly within their concept of ‘cool’, instead of sneakily eliminating candidates who don’t fit the visual mold. Everyone puts a massive emphasis on how you look in this sort of retail – many just deny that it plays into job decision making.

This defence may not be comforting at all, but it’s a reminder that in many instances it’s quicker and easier to use image as a key indicator of performance when hiring. If you show up to an interview cloaked in the brand that wants to hire you, this no doubt makes a massive impression regarding your ability to fit seamlessly into that store. Recruiting for casual staff especially is so fast paced that you can perhaps understand the temptation to quiz young people on their fashion icons, rather than their experiences in retail.

That being said, blending in nicely with visual merchandising is no guarantee that you’ll be an efficient member of staff. Just because you look the part doesn’t mean you’ll be able to play it beautifully. While large chains may claim that the look of their staff is imperative, perhaps this is prioritised above ability or personality. Either way, it’s the festive season – so as you enter the shopping center jungle this week, think about how seriously the store has taken looks vs. efficiency.

(Image credit: 1.)

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