We put it to the test

[Editor’s Note: While we take it a easy this week between the holidays, we’ll be bringing you a mix of both new, year-end posts and some classics from our archive. This one’s a little social experiment we conducted back in 2011.]

One should never underestimate the power of accessories. Not only can the right bag change an outfit, but it can make you sit up a little straighter, smile a little brighter and have a better day. I’m good enough, I’m smart enough, and doggone it, people like me! Bags: They’re like self-esteem that you can buy.

Ok, sarcasm aside (and yes, that was absolutely sarcasm), this conversation is one that I’ve had with several friends recently: do sales associates in high-end stores treat us differently when we’re carrying our fanciest bags, as opposed to bags that are just regular-fancy, or is it all in our heads? In a feat of journalism that would likely impress absolutely none of my college professors, I put that question to the test. The results? Not all that surprising.

I tested my theories about “status bags” and shopping earlier this month at several of Manhattan’s Fifth Avenue flagship department stores. I won’t name names because I feel as though singling them out is unfair – the treatment gap happens at almost all luxury retailers based on anecdotal evidence, not just the ones that were conveniently located for my completely unscientific test. First, I went in carrying my normal day bag that I use for errands, which is a small crossbody from a popular contemporary brand that retails for around $400. By all measures, that’s quite a nice bag, particularly relative to the average accessories carried by American women.

But it’s not an It Bag, and it’s not a brand carried by these particular stores. I was also wearing an outfit that I would normally wear for errands. During my time in these stores on that particular day, I was spoken to by precisely no one who worked there, even though I saw several employees glance at me and then apparently decide that I wasn’t worth the effort to greet. Being silently watched by a bunch of unbusy salespeople while you’re in a store is not only awkward, but after a certain amount of time, it edges up on creepy.

And although they were right that I wouldn’t be buying anything that day, and in fact they did an excellent job of exhibiting the behavior that I was hoping to test, I became a little exasperated that no one could even spare a “Let me know if I can help you.” It’s not like had stumbled in off the street, smelling of garbage, reciting nursery rhymes to myself and carrying my belongings in a Duane Reade plastic bag. I was freshly showered, wearing nice casual clothes and carrying a $400 handbag. At least a “hello” seemed in order.

A “hello” never came, though, so I went back to my apartment and returned the next week wearing a similar outfit but carrying my Celine bag. There were about as many shoppers and employees in both stores as there had been during my previous visit, but suddenly, everyone fell all over themselves to ask how I was doing, if they could help me and above all else, where in the world did I find that bag? I was not dressed any more expensively—in fact, I was wearing a $45 dress from ASOS, if I remember correctly—but the bag was the only thing that anyone could see. If I had been naked and carrying Celine, I don’t think anyone would have asked me to leave.

Of course, this was a strictly informal and non-scientific test, and I’m sure that the sales associates at either store would have been happy (or at least compelled, if not enthusiastic) to help me when I was carrying my regular bag, had I approached them. Both stores also face the challenge of being in tourist-heavy areas, where they likely get a lot of foot traffic just because people want to visit them as New York landmarks instead of as shoppers; a tricky road to navigate for associates who make a living on commission and for whom wasted time might mean lost income. I’ve worked in high-end retail before (although it was electronics, not clothing), so I, too, have likely dismissed people when I shouldn’t have. Plus, an expensive bag sends one very obvious message: That I’m willing and able to buy the things that the store sells.

But the message the these SAs got from my bag was likely the one that a lot of us are hoping to send when we make choices about how to present ourselves: that we’re people worthy of positive attention and interest by others. To paraphrase Ron Burgundy, that we’re kind of a big deal. And understanding that how you dress has the ability to affect how others perceive and treat you isn’t silly or shallow, it’s smart. In a perfect world, we’d all be judged for our minds, but society isn’t without its flaws. For the time being, I’ll settle for the perfect handbag.

P.S. Please consider supporting our small, bag-loving team by clicking our links before shopping or checking out at your favorite online retailers like Amazon, Neiman Marcus, Nordstrom, or any of the listed partners on our shop page. We truly appreciate your support!

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