Help for the Hapless

Nordstrom's Personal Touch service is a lifesaver for procrastinators and other shopping-impaired individuals.

I hate gift shopping. If I had my way, the exchange of presents would be illegal so people could enjoy their holidays in peace and quiet. Adding to my agony is the fact that my wife of 18 years loves gift giving and has naturally instilled the ethic in our two young children. My wife is Jewish, but finds any holiday to be a good excuse for buying presents. Thus I face not only Hanukkah but also Christmas. I am not fortunate enough to be free from guilt about the whole thing; instead, I trudge around malls, trying desperately to come up with something, anything my wife will like that I haven't given her before.

So when a colleague mentioned the existence of personal shoppers at large department stores, I felt there was a possibility of an anodyne for my chronic holiday dyspepsia. Unfortunately, there are not a lot of personal shoppers left. Bon-Macy's has eliminated theirs. Nordstrom is the sole source that I could find in the Seattle area.

Nordstrom's "Personal Touch" service has been around for nearly 20 years, says Susan Barber, the downtown Seattle Personal Touch manager. "It's the city's best-kept secret," says Barber. "We are here to make you stars."

Five "wardrobe consultants" work at the downtown Nordstrom and are available by appointment during the store's regular hours. The service is free—there is no added charge to the merchandise that you buy.

The experience truly transformed my experience of Nordstrom. When I wander the women's departments looking for gifts, I really can't find anything. There are just masses of merchandise in a huge jumble of colors, shapes, and styles— I don't know where to begin, much less where to find a good present. "It's overwhelming for a lot of people," says Barber. "Our task is to think of simple ways to do the gift shopping."

Shoni Ford, one of Personal Touch's wardrobe consultants, showed me what I couldn't see before. Ford, whom I went to see as a customer, not a reporter, spent some time collecting basic information from me about my wife and her lifestyle and my gift budget. Then she set about showing me clothes in various departments on different floors. It was easy, once Ford showed me something, to tell her whether it looked like something my wife would like or not. I don't ever remember enjoying gift shopping so much.

I had been somewhat intimidated by the Personal Touch service, thinking it was just for high rollers spending lots of dough. Nordstrom's Barber assures me otherwise: "We stick within the price point." Barber says they even have young children who come with money they have earned doing chores, looking for help on purchases for their parents or grandparents.

Ford showed me many very reasonable items: Calvin Klein corduroy jeans ($59) and several things from Nord-strom's own Caslon line of clothing: a ribbed turtleneck ($24), a button-up sweater ($39), and a quilted sweater coat ($59). Ford encouraged me to wait to buy since the following week was Nordstrom's Twice Yearly Sale. I went home and checked my wife's drawers and discovered she did indeed wear Caslon clothing (I already knew Calvin Klein would be acceptable).

I had trouble with the follow-up appointment. I called once, and Ford was all booked up—a common occurrence during the Twice Yearly Sale. I ended up dropping in and purchasing my gifts with the help of one of the regular salespeople. It was much easier to do, however, because of the list I had assembled with Ford.

I later learned it's not even necessary to go into the store at all. Explains Barber, "We have a lot of older [Personal Touch customers] who are shut-ins." On the basis of a phone conversation, the shoppers will pick out the gifts, wrap them, and ship them from the store.

Barber says they do get some frantic last-minute procrastinators. "We do get some of that the day before Christmas," she says. "When it gets stressful at that last-minute stage, we are able to come up with some last-minute ideas. We do it all."

Personal Touch is available at Nordstrom in downtown Seattle, 206-628-1450; at Bellevue Square, 425-455-5800, ext. 1450; and in Tacoma, 253-475-3630, ext. 1450. Personal Touch is offered whenever the stores are open, which varies by store and season. Call ahead to schedule an appointment.

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