Oprah, Phil, I've got a show for you. It would take a talk-show tag team to handle this one. I can promise you Real People offering True Confessions of mass appeal -- none of your specialty populations, no Single Parent Vampires for Porpoise Rights. This show will tackle wide-angle problems, afflicting millions.
The hot topic? Shopping Disorders. SDs. Eighties dementia and neuroses suffered in the pursuit of style. Just as there are eating disorders, there is a host of alarming consumer afflictions in this land of plenty. And it's prime season for SDs to strike.
Fall, the biggest fashion season, is nearly upon us. The lure of a crisp new look will pack malls that had emptied for summer. Soon, MasterCard meltdown will become the substance abuse of choice.
These vulnerable shoppers need support. Sure, we've heard of some of the more celebrated SD victims -- Tammy Faye and her K mart sprees, Imelda ("You can reach me at Fayva") Marcos. But we're all potential victims as the marketplace gets more bewildering. Chain boutiques -- Gaps, Benettons, Esprits, the Bananas Republic -- and shopping networks have expanded our choices exponentially. Retail seasons such as spring and fall have come to have no discernible relationship to actual weather.
In short, it can be hell in those climate-controlled retail atriums. And there are legions of silent sufferers. They've been malled, videoed and catalogued into their current conditions. They're everyday folks who shop too much, too little or too late.
Hear them, Oprah. Understand them, Phil. Help stem the spread of SDs. And as a public service, air this show at the top of your fall lineup -- a timely bit of therapy and support as shoppers brace for the tweed and gabardine jungle, the minis with maxi price tags, the accessory counters bristling with faux leopard must-haves.
Your guests? Victims of various shopping disorders, real people with names changed to protect their credit ratings. We've got them right here in the studio for you. And, by special live phone hook-up, we'll also hear from sympathetic retail experts in our nation's capital -- personal shoppers and store owners who have decades of experience diagnosing and treating SDs.
Phil: First, meet Marge K. Marge insists on being filmed in shadow because she's sure that she's dressed wrong for the season, isn't that right, Marge?
Marge: Don't ask. Is it hot in here or what? I'm in layers -- I thought this was a fall show. If so, maybe we should be talking January cruise wear . . . My disorder, Phil? Seasonal Disorientation.
Phil: Take your time, Marge, and tell us what it's been like for you.
Marge: It's like this. (Her head droops; she's unable to face the camera.) I try to buy bathing suits in July. I look for fall clothes when the kids are back on the school bus and "Murder, She Wrote" is at least two episodes into the new season.
I'm told this is sick behavior, that fall previews start in April and winter coats hit the stores in July. I never get there on time. I am hopelessly out of synch with the retail rhythms of Style.
Phil: Marge, you're sighing. You sound resigned. Have you come to terms with your condition?
Marge: I can live with it, I guess, buying fall clothes in September when they're already picked over and tossed onto clearance tables. But Phil, I'm really worried for my kids. I think they've inherited the problem. It's murder to coax them out of the pool to try on a down jacket in high August. I usually can't get them into a store until September -- when the Christmas toys come out.
Phil (looking at Marge, then Oprah): Suffer the little children, right, Marge? Just how far ahead of actual seasons are our retail cycles? Can Marge's disorder be cured? (Here Phil wags his mike toward Oprah, who has been seated by a switchboard.)
Oprah: We're going to begin calling on our panel of experts. Right now we've got Val Cook, director of public relations for Saks Jandel. Ms. Cook, is this SD a peculiarly American condition?
Cook: It's not like this in Europe -- or anywhere else in the world. In Europe, you can buy a bathing suit in summer, a wool coat in fall. We've just speeded up here, due to the tremendous press for fabric production, labor problems, I'm not sure. But it's not going to change. So just face facts and buy early. Understand that summer's already in clearance or entirely off the floor when it gets hot. You can't buy your bathing suit in July. So start looking for it in April. And whenever you see something -- regardless of the season -- pounce!
Oprah: Thanks, Ms. Cook. Sound advice. Now let's meet our next victim, Laurie H. (Camera pans to Laurie, who is dressed like a nightmare version of Diane Keaton in Ralph Lauren gingham skirt, Esprit sweatshirt, black high-top Reeboks, tube sox by K mart; her purse is a battered green Benetton bag.)
Laurie: Why do I look as if somebody Cuisinarted my closet, Oprah? I just don't care anymore. No designer can claim me. I have no brand loyalty. No store loyalty. I'll pore over the transatlantic ship crossings before I'll read sale ads.
The sad fact is, I've totally lost the will to shop. This year I didn't even have the strength to lift the Fall Fash bible off the newsstand. Oprah, honey (she grabs Oprah's wrist), did you know that last year's September issue of Vogue weighed 3 1/2 pounds? We're talking Mega Trends. Mondo Choices. My reaction? I've developed an SD I call Shopper's Anomie.
Oprah: Ouch, that sounds serious. Spell it out, Laurie, if it's not too painful.
Laurie: As you know, anomie is a condition characterized by a lack of moral values, isolation, disorientation, anxiety. That's me in a store. I wander so aimlessly that salespeople ask if I know who the president is, what year it is. Cruising the eight zillion departments, I can't even calculate my price point anymore -- don't know if I'm the really expensive Designer Sportswear, Better Sportswear or just Contemporary. And in the media, I get no help -- there are no standards anymore. That fashion tramp Madonna caused some of the trouble by wearing underwear outside. And now those oh-so-social stately Ladies Who Lunch are showing more leg than Manute Bol . . . (Laurie breaks off here, overcome.)
Oprah: I hear you, Laurie. We do need solid values back on the sales floor. What is the best therapy for having too much choice?
Phil: We're going to a lovely lady named Harriet Kassman on this one, Oprah. I've got her on the line now. Mrs. Kassman, your specialty stores were founded on personal service. How do you guide shoppers through this bewildering maze?
Kassman: Look, I've been in the business since 1941, and I know this much: It's hard to shop. Don't let anyone tell you it's easy. But you don't have to make yourself crazy. I always tell people this: I don't have to look at 4,000 boxes of Tide before I pick up one. So don't try to look at the 3,000 blouses in the big department store.
Phil: (Takes off his glasses, knits brows) But how to cope, Mrs. Kassman. What's a woman to do?
Kassman: Save your strength. Look through a reasonable amount in a big store. Or find a specialty store like ours -- I'm bragging here -- where professionals have done all that winnowing out for you. Take the time to stop and think about what you need. I don't think you can take a fast-food approach to your wardrobe. It'll make you sick.
Oprah: Amen, Mrs. K. Now let's welcome Anna W. Can we get a tight shot of the photographs surrounding Anna? They were taken by a hidden camera over the past week. You'll notice that they all show Anna in slight variations of the outfit she's wearing now: dark skirt, pumps, light blouse with slightly padded shoulders. Anna, what's your trouble?
Anna: I'm a serial shopper, Oprah. I commit mass purchases of the same, or similar, items. I think I got it from my husband, who has been buying the same J. Press blue suit and L.L. Bean khakis for the last 20 years. At least I try and stay fashionable.
Like last fall. Everybody was talking about "the new gray dress." I bought four. And by November I felt like the old gray flannel/tweed/herringbone mare. Caught in the traces again.
This fall I'm terrified of the mini. If I find one that looks good, I know I'll end up with half a dozen in different colors. And what will they be good for next fall? Toaster-oven cozies?
Oprah: Anna, we think there's reason to hope. Listen to the voice of Claire Dratch, founder and owner of fashion stores that bear her name. Mrs. Dratch, can Anna be helped?
Dratch: When a woman comes in and declares herself in a rut, we tell our sales consultant to find out why she's wearing the same things. Because it makes her feel marvelous? Or because it's simply safe? Before you can help her, you've got to get inside her head a bit. Once you understand the motivation -- if, say, it's to be safe -- you can take action. Maybe spark up all those awful boring gray suits with bright blouses, even break the suit habit with different jackets and skirts that go well. After all, the smart shopper, the most intelligent, is the one who knows herself.
Oprah: How true, how true. Thank you. Now, Carol Delaney, who's the personal shopper at Woodward & Lothrop's Montgomery Mall store, is on another line, and she has her own way to handle a customer like this. Ms. Delaney?
Delaney: If my customer is in a rut, I go right out on the floor and pull some different things. Sometimes I take her over to the cosmetics counter for some blush or a bit of color. Then she realizes she can wear peach after all -- she doesn't have to stick to the old gray suit. And I have a rule of thumb for all the women asking me about minis now. I simply tell them if you can remember wearing it before, don't try to wear it again.
Phil: Harriet Kassman has a comment on the other line, Oprah. Mrs. Kassman, we're listening.
Kassman: If a woman has worn the same type of clothes year in, year out, you can't do a complete flip-flop on her, but you can make small inroads. You can update a familiar piece with a different shoulder, a bit flashier cut for the skirt. Understand that it's unnatural for someone to completely shed a look that has been comfortable. But she can wear what I call a reasonable facsimile of it and feel and look a whole lot better.
Oprah: Here's our final victim, Lynn H., looking terrific in Perry Ellis pumps, a tailored silk shirt, a knife-pleated Agne`s B. skirt. Forgive me, Lynn, but you don't look like an SD victim.
Lynn: (talking fast, confidently) I want you to know, Oprah, that none of the things I'm wearing were bought at full price. I am a fabulous shopper; I carry a list of my current wardrobe in my Filofax, for handy reference at a sale table.
I've always been this way. I'm the daughter of a killer shopper. My playpen was the dressing room at Loehmann's. My mother trained me like a lioness. We'd hunt together. Then I was trained to hunt for my mother, who worked to support us and couldn't cruise the stores during the week.
Even today, when I visit her in L.A., I bring her trophies -- the perfect knit top in four colors; a Joseph Tricot dress marked down six times and still fabulous. I shop for my sister, my friends.
So what's my problem? (She lowers her voice and stares down at her Perry Ellis pumps.) It's one of those hidden disorders. One you'd never guess to look at me. I have Shopper's Bulimia. Binge-purge consumerism. I shop when my closet's already full and my credit overextended. I buy things I don't need for the thrill of it, keep them overnight -- and then I return them.
Phil: Gad, you're having one-night stands with Calvin Klein? Quickies with Karan? How did this start?
Lynn: With one gray cardigan I didn't need. I felt the sleeve, I tried it on. And it was a Good Buy. The compulsion was there -- so I bought it. And the next day, I realized I could take it back. Now, whenever the shopping compulsion is overpowering, I buy things, keep them for 24 hours, then return them. It's a great way to control my appetite and keep my credit-card interest down.
Phil: They must know your face at the return desk, Lynn. Do you change stores?
Lynn: I have some discipline, Phil. I shop only in places where I can get my money back. I don't take store credits, since that just compounds the problem. I've got the logistics figured, all right. It's the emotional side I can't cope with. (Lynn takes a moment to compose herself and to still her trembling chin.)
The hard part is inventing an excuse to return things. Maybe I'm getting paranoid, but I feel the clerks are on to my disorder. So my stories are getting more elaborate and kind of tragic. Like, "I bought this for my honeymoon, but my fiance' was kidnapped by Poconos mountain men -- ."
Phil: This may be our most baffling SD. What's a retailer's responsibility in dealing with consumer indecision? Let's hear from Gerry Kendall, fashion counselor for Garfinckel's.
Kendall: Well, this shopper should have counseling. This is an extreme case. When I help a customer shop, I do tell her, "If you get it home and it's not what you want, I WANT IT BACK. I don't want you saying, 'Ach, look what Gerry Kendall did to me.' " If I have a customer who has a psychological problem -- if she's easily tempted -- I try to have her practice restraint. But I'm not a counselor, after all. Still, I understand them. I love my job, but I absolutely hate shopping for myself.
Phil: Thank you. It takes courage to admit that. Is there anything you'd like to leave us with?
Kendall: All these negatives we're discussing! To any troubled shopper, I say: Walk slowly through the store. Keep open eyes and an open mind. You've got to have some fun with it. Otherwise, who needs fashion? It should enhance life, not torture you.
Phil: Well said. And thank you. Hope you can join us for Part Two: Mall Disease: Is It Stunting Our Young? ::