Quentin Fottrell/MarketWatch—When trying to land a job, most experts say one should look their best. When trying to land a deal, however, experts say it sometimes pays to look like a schlub.
Just ask Oprah Winfrey. Asked why a sales clerk at the Trois Pommes boutique in Zurich declined to show her a $38,000 Tom Ford crocodile handbag, she conceded she didn’t look like her usual billion bucks. “I know those people in stores can be very snooty pooty,” she said this week. “I guess I didn’t dress up enough. I didn’t have anything that said I had money. I wasn’t wearing a diamond stud. I didn’t have a pocketbook. I didn’t have a Louboutin shoe.”
Regardless of whether racism was at play — something the sales clerk adamantly denies — the episode highlights the impact a shopper’s attire can have on customer service. It may not guarantee a better deal, but it could help you get better service.
Here’s a guide to dressing appropriately on the ground to get the best treatment and the lowest price:
Car dealership: sweats and trucker cap
Bill Cosby wore sweats to a car dealership in an episode of “The Cosby Show” in to hide the fact that he was a successful physician, but was foiled when a patient spotted him and yelled, “Dr. Huxtable!” It was funny because it’s true. Leave the Bentley and chinchilla coat at home, experts say. “If your goal is to negotiate the price point, it’s safer to dress down than dress up,” says Greg McBride, senior financial analyst for financial website Bankrate.com. “Wealthy people don’t care how they look. I’ve seen Jay Leno at auto shows. He’s usually wearing faded jeans and a denim shirt. If I didn’t know him, I’d think he was any old guy who just walked off a construction site,” says Ronald Montoya, consumer advice editor at Edmunds.com. Karl Brauer, senior director of insights at Kelley Blue Book, says he’s seen people drive up in their employer’s Porsche when they’re in the market for a Nissan. “Be careful about the expectation you set,” he says.
Real estate: T-shirt and flip-flops
The good news: realtors say there’s no time for snooty behavior; a millionaire may be more likely to show up to a Miami open house in beachwear than a suit. “With people wearing cutoffs and halter tops to church, and pajamas in public, it begs the question of what is appropriate dress, but common sense in attire doesn’t seem to be a high-priority issue these days,” says Walter Molony, spokesman for the National Association of Realtors. There are federal laws against discrimination against protected classes, but it also doesn’t hurt to make an effort — especially if the home seller has spent time and money fluffing the house, says Brian Gleason, associate broker at Corcoran Group in Palm Beach, Fla. “It’s good manners,” he says. “I’ve had people on the lower end of the economic scale who really do themselves up.” But, he says, the real test comes when the financing is approved.
Jewelry store: cheap accessories
There is a difference between walking into a boutique on Rodeo Drive in Hollywood and a jewelry store in New York’s Diamond District, retail experts say. “When going shopping in the Diamond District you want to be underdressed,” says independent retail consultant Jeff Green. A humble appearance and a wealth of online research will serve couples well when hunting for an engagement ring and could, in fact, help them save hundreds of dollars. When browsing the silver wear in Tiffany & Co. TIF +0.33% , a store that does not practice the ancient art of bargaining, Green says it’s time to dress up to the nines. “Dress similar to what you’re going to be buying,” he says. Dressing well won’t mean a better or worse price, in these instances, but the salesperson is more likely to take the time to answer your questions, Green says.
Flea market: threadbare sweater
While hunting for a bargain at flea markets, it’s best to blend in and not draw attention to yourself, experts say. That makes it easier to casually buy a priceless gem while making a fuss over a worthless piece of junk. “Make sure you are not wearing Van Cleef and Arpels when you are at a flea market,” says interior designer Bob Richter. “It automatically calls you out as on outsider.” Richter — an alumnus of the PBS television show “Market Warriors” — says flea market vendors can see a pair of Christian Louboutins a mile away. “They will think you are a walking bank and charge you double.” For those who do like to spend a Sunday afternoon there, it also makes practical sense to wear comfortable shoes — that are broken in before the expedition begins — plus a floppy hat and sunscreen during the summer as many of them are outdoors.
Department store: polished shoes
After the story of Oprah’s shopping excursion in Zurich — before attending Tina Turner’s wedding — went viral, she said her clothing and accessories gave no hint that she was a woman of means — she was wearing sandals and a Donna Karan skirt without any obvious branding. Leaving aside the language barrier and cultural differences, that also leaves open the possibility that a woman of any color could have had the same experience. “You should be able to go into a store looking like you look like,” Oprah explained. Never wear sneakers in such situations, regardless of the quality of the pedicure. “Put your dollars on your feet for high end luxury shopping,” Richter says. “Not just nice, but polished — no sneakers or sandals.” Sales clerks take notice of expensive details that give a hint to a shopper’s ability to buy luxury goods. “Trust me,” he says, “they look.”