Personal Shopper The Buzz


Personal shoppers can profit by helping people make their retail purchases. With relatively low overhead, entrepreneurs can start a personal shopping business from home, even on a part-time basis.

"The main motivation [for the use of personal shoppers] seems to be increasing time pressure for a segment of busy professionals who don't really get much enjoyment from shopping," says Adam Finn of a retail service institute.

Linda Marafito, founder of Your Personal Shopper, points out that "personal shopper" is a catch-all phrase -- a personal shopping business can encompass a variety of services and areas of specialization.

For example, she focuses on health-care products and long-distance telephone services, and limits the clothing-buying portion of her business.

Dawn Correa's Buying Time provides a variety of office services, with 70 percent of her business coming from professionals.

For example, for an attorney client, her services range from performing basic secretarial duties to jury watching. She spends the other 30 percent of her time gift buying, picking up dry cleaning and grocery shopping.

Carol Conner, who started C and C Ventures a year ago, says her primary goal is to "supply gift shops with valuable merchandise. We are searching the web for the unusual and the valuable." She also sells to individuals through the Internet, providing a form for online orders.

Natasha Novotny is employed as a personal shopper by the Holt Renfrew department store. Her shopping focuses primarily on building wardrobes -- 90 percent of her clients are women. But she also helps customers with gift buying, particularly during the Christmas season.

Holt Renfrew sponsors the free personal shopping service, and Novotny even goes to people's homes on occasion to help them review their existing wardrobe and plan its expansion.

Attention Shoppers

For those who love to shop, a personal shopping business allows entrepreneurs to make their own hours while working from home.

After Correa's son was born, these advantages led her to start her personal shopping business, while Conner works on C and C Ventures after her regular workday as a software specialist.

Marafito began shopping full time after several years of part-time work in the field, and after many years as an accountant and the manager of her family's business.

A personal shopper might begin the relationship with a new client by interviewing them about their lifestyle and personality -- they want to buy things appropriate for them.

There is no specific education required to start a personal shopping business, but "it is essential to work in the retail industry first," according to Novotny. Since her clients include "housewives, movie stars and executives," the ability to work with a variety of people is also an important trait.

A good personal shopper will be flexible and patient, says Novotny. She also notes that time management skills are key, since you need to estimate time for client appointments and schedule them accordingly.

Feeling comfortable with people is important as well, since you can spend three to four hours with someone in a somewhat intimate situation.

The overhead to start a personal shopping business is relatively low. A basic office setup is certainly helpful. Depending on the type of services provided, a car may be a requirement. Advertising expenses should also be anticipated when estimating overhead costs.

Marafito recommends starting a shopping business part time before depending on it as a sole source of income. She advises that entrepreneurs in the start-up phase set up a business plan.

"A plan is important in a business like this -- know where you would like to be by such and such a date. It's easy to be scattered." She recommends picking one area of interest to start and promoting sales in that area before expanding.

Conner suggests studying other businesses and trends, and reading small business advice on the web.

She advises against "putting all or most of your capital into something you think will sell. Try a few items at a time, and see what reaction you get from the public or the stores you would like to provide products to."

Correa points out that a lot of work is required to build an initial client base. In the beginning, "you have to really sell yourself." On a similar note, Marafito feels that advertising must often be learned by trial and error, and that expensive mistakes can eat into early profits.

Shopping Opportunities

Correa charges each client $20 to $25 an hour and can sometimes run errands for many clients at the same time, increasing her hourly revenue. Marafito charges 10 percent of what the item or service is worth.

While Novotny can't disclose her payment arrangement, she feels that most department store shoppers work on a balance of commission and salary. While Conner's business has not shown a profit yet, she feels the potential is there.

"Part time, I'd say we could expect up to $20,000," she says of their annual earnings. "Full time, the potential is probably well over $40,000."

The use of personal shoppers is expected to increase, according to Finn, "in the same way other consumer services such as house cleaning [and] pet care...are increasing."

Bruce Van Kleeck of the National Retail Institute notes that since some personal shoppers work in upscale department stores, career opportunities grow with the expansion of new retailers.

For traditional retail sales workers, compensation systems vary -- hourly wages, commissions, or a combination of wages and commissions are all possible.

So if you have an eye for style, a head for prices and a smile for people, you may have what it takes to make it as a personal shopper.

Links

National Retail Federation
Includes information about retail-related events and conferences, statistics and hot issues