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Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Lessons from Florida

We just returned from a short trip to Florida. It was all business for my poor husband, but I found myself enjoying the beach and wandering about in the resort town of Captiva for the weekend. This posh town is home to many upscale second homes and is a destination for many of the wealthy who want to get away from the winter up north.
I don't often find myself agog anymore at grandiose homes, but some of Captiva was rather spectacular. I stopped in at one of the local real estate offices and found myself a bit jarred by the price tags both for week-long rentals and for purchasing these homes. A walk through the town was also rather impressive. The homes were very large, mostly ocean facing (all right, it is the Gulf of Mexico, its still ocean facing) and had lush landscaping. Many of them also had screened in tennis courts, pools or garden areas. I was a bit mystified by all the screening -- even the third floor porches at our resort/hotel were screened. Then one of the kind ladies clued me in: there are a large number of unwanted intruders -- the animal kind!! The screens keep out snakes, birds, and the occasional alligator --- I didn't even ask if that included the third floor screening.
This is the slow time of year for this little resort town. Things will really pick up again in mid-February when school vacations begin. That allowed me to wander through the town and chat with storekeepers without the pressure of the crowds. This is when I found myself in a small upscale gift shop learning how these ladies identify potential customers.
I was standing in the corner enjoying the display of Christmas tree ornaments, when I realized that the two ladies working in this little shop were signalling each other with little nods toward customers. After a few customers, it became observable that the signal had to do with who was "just looking" and who might be buying. I wondered how they were making this determination -- and with my usual quest for education, I asked.
The ladies were a bit sheepish at first, but acknowledged that, indeed, they 'screened' visitors to the shop for potential for purchase. The shopkeepers had observed that the truly upper-class women rarely purchased from this shop -- it was too touristy for them. Strictly working class women would visit the shop and ooh and ahh, but could rarely afford to purchase anything of real consequence (the shop was rather expensive). They were looking for the women with enough money to afford the store and little enough class and taste to want the items they had for sale (my editorializing, not theirs) Once all of the other customers had left the shop, they were happy to share their insider tricks with me.
First, they looked for size. This one surprised me. But according to the shopladies, this is the first and best indicator. Wealthy, upper-class women are rarely overweight. They are certainly not obese. The upper-middle class women, who were most often still trim but might be a bit larger were their best customers. Truly large women were very unlikely candidates in their minds.
Their second point of notice was the shirt or top a woman was wearing. Tourist t-shirts with beach names emblazoned on them had potential. T-shirts with animals, smarmy sayings or Maxine cartoons were definitely out. The best candidates were wearing polo or golf shirts with coordinating pants. Women in what I would call basics were out. The simple white cotton blouse and navy skirt I was wearing had eliminated me almost immediately. The shopkeepers were looking for the plaids, the patterns and the little matching trim that marks something sold as an "outfit".
Their final criterion for spotting potential buyers was a quick check of accessories. Lots of gold and lots of designer labels spelled buyer, buyer, buyer. Again, plain, basic and simple did not mark a customer for these women. In their experience, simple and plain meant wealthy and tasteful -- not likely to buy.
I spent my walk home thinking hard about these earmarks. I often forget that each of us broadcasts so loudly all of this intensely personal information about ourselves every time we walk outside our doors. It doesn't mean that everyone around us notices or is able to read our information -- but the information is there for the having. Since, for me, riding on the coattails is at least partly about creating the image of wealth and luxury -- I want and need to be vigilant about the information that I'm putting out there via my clothing and self.