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The Stress-Free Guide To High Street Shopping, By A Zara Sales Assistant

Photo: via @lissyroddyy.
From heading straight to the men’s section to memorising the company’s delivery schedule, everyone seems to have their own tips when it comes to high street shopping.

The sheer popularity of fast fashion can put a damper on the shopping experience when shops are rammed with people, tables are lost beneath piles of clothes, and sizes mysteriously disappear from the shop floor. Suddenly, the joys of scooping up something special turn into hopelessness as you push your way through the weekend crowds, while sales season makes you feel like you’re in an Alexander Wang free-for-all.

I know it can be a nightmare — I’ve experienced it all as a Zara sales assistant in one of London’s busiest locations.

Navigating the lower ground floor, arms overflowing with clothes, while simultaneously fielding questions from customers —“Do you know where I can find another shirt like this? There’s make-up all over this one”— has taught me how to buy my heart’s desire without panic, worry or fuss.

With input from former colleagues and friends, here are some tips from an ex-Zara employee to you. May I never work retail on Boxing Day again.

Know what information to look up online

Before heading out to pick up that *insert hot trend here* you saw online, don’t forget to do two crucial things:

1. Check the in-store availability

Some items may only be available online or in one location, or sell out completely. So always do a quick check before breaking out your Oyster card.

2. Take down the reference number

The reference number is the model number that will unlock a lot of useful information in-store (more on this later). It’s always located in the product details on the website. And if you decide ordering online is the way to go, save yourself some scrolling and pop the number into the search bar.
Photo: via @conniemalim.

A morning shopping trip is the way to go

As hard as we try to keep everything under control, it can only take a few minutes for a new wave of customers to destroy a pristine section. Hangers that were carefully spaced out are now on the floor, shoes that stood neatly in a line according to size have been knocked down, and the stack of perfectly folded shirts have been pushed aside to create an impromptu seating area for bored children, friends and partners.

A morning shopping trip is the best way to see the clothes, and avoid the maddening crowds and mess. But if you’re not a morning person, a trip to a less busy area is also a good option.

Londoners can find a little more peace on high streets like the King’s Road and High Street Kensington where nearby luxury brands lure customers away. Meanwhile, Westfield White City makes for a better mall alternative than its East London sister, Westfield Stratford, where it’s always busy.

Know the collections and the shop floor

Shop floors can be divided by kind (dresses, shoes, lingerie, etc.), popular styles, section (petite and tall) and brand. Once you know how your favourite high street brand organises its floors, you can breeze by everything you don’t need or want.

Hardcore Zara fans will know that the fast fashion’s offerings are broken up into three collections: Woman (trendy but classic, more expensive and better quality), Basic (your basic wardrobe items with a twist; also where a lot of office-appropriate clothing can be found), and Trafaluc (cheaper, skews younger, much quirkier in style; also known as “TRF”).

The shop floor is also divided in a similar fashion. The Woman collection is closer to the entrance, Basic is in the middle and Trafaluc in the back. Zara knitwear is spread out all over the shop floor, and Zara collection products are usually in Basic and Woman. There’s no dedicated section for shoes and bags and these are usually located in their corresponding section. Look down for shoes, and check the tables and the shelves above the displays for bags.

During sales season, items are typically grouped together by section, kind and then price (i.e. £29.99 dresses from Woman will be together.)

But don’t panic just yet if the jumper you saw two days ago isn’t in the same place. When moving things around, the merchandising team places items together by trend and/or colour.

And if all else fails, ask a sales assistant.

Always have the reference number

I once had a customer ask where she could find the shirt with patches. I asked her if she could describe the item a little more as I knew there were four similar models on the shop floor, but she insisted that Zara only carried the one shirt of its kind. This is just one of the many times I screamed internally and wished I had a reference number.

A reference number (or product number) can tell a sales assistant just about everything: if an item is in store, if it’s on the shop floor or stock room, how many of a certain size we have, if it’s available online or in another shop, and much more. Having a reference number can save us a trip to the stock room, you a fruitless wander around the shop and everyone a lot of time.

So the next time you see an item that you’re unsure of, take of a photo of the price tag, not just the item itself. The reference number is usually located above the barcode and on the white care instruction tags sewn into the clothes. You can ask a sales assistant to look up an item during your next visit or you can do it yourself online.

Just be aware that the system we use may not always be right. It doesn’t account for unreported stolen items, missing left shoes, or white shirts that other customers have wiped their faces all over while trying it on.

Know when to opt for Click and Collect or Home Delivery

“How am I going to carry all of this home?”

For many customers, the reality of their sporadic online shopping doesn’t dawn on them until a stack of boxes with legs (mine) heads their way.

Click and collect is a marvellous thing —no missed deliveries and it’s often free. Standard home delivery is also free when you spend a certain amount of money online: £30 or more at Mango, £50 or more at Zara and Topshop, £60 or more at Urban Outfitters, £65 or more at River Island, etc.

So if you plan to buy everything online during sales season, put it all in your basket and hit that home delivery option. If you don’t, prepare to offer friends or loved ones a free drink/meal/favour in exchange for the extra muscle you’ll need to bring it all home.

Have patience

Fast fashion is just that: fast. But sometimes, not everything happens so quickly.

Click and collect orders don’t always come in right away. It takes about two to three working days for an order to arrive to the shop, and even longer during sales season ( technically has 30 days to deliver a parcel to you.)

And please, have a little patience when we head to the stock room. We’re often looking for more than one item: the item you so desperately want and need, and requests from a colleague for items other customers so desperately want and need. It’s all about that #teamwork.

Keep your receipts

Here’s how to get an exchange or refund done without any problems:

1. Come within 30 days of your original purchase, and

2. Have the receipt

That piece of paper will save you, the cashiers and the rest of the shop floor a lot of grief when managers stay firm on the policy (no refund or exchange without the receipt.) I’ve seen customers lose their cool so badly that security has had to escort them out the door.

So keep a level head, plan ahead and remember: “clear eyes, full hearts, can’t lose."