Men at Malls: Trapped, Tired and Holding Purses

They sit on the coveted few chairs in the women's department, sometimes holding a purse, always with the same glassy-eyed look. They're men who accompany their wives or girlfriends shopping. This time of year they're out in force. And stores are finding ways to make them more comfortable while their women shop.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

And finally this today, the business of shopping, the personal business. It's not just what you get, it's how you get it, that experience with others.

MADELEINE BRAND, host:

With others?

CHADWICK: Well, do you go shopping with your husband?

BRAND: Well, let's just say he's dragged along.

CHADWICK: Right. Well, that's the story that DAY TO DAY producer Steve Proffitt went out to get.

STEVE PROFFITT: I started out at the Century City Mall in Los Angeles. It's one of those open-air malls we have here in Southern California.

Do you ever have to wait on your wife while she's…

JAMES: Like today?

(Soundbite of laughter)

PROFFITT: Yeah, like today.

JAMES: Yes.

PROFFITT: This non-shopping companion told me his name was James.

Do the stores do anything to make it less onerous?

JAMES: Some of them have coffee or, you know, it would be nice to have a beer and hang out.

(Soundbite of laughter)

PROFFITT: James is probably a typical non-shopping companion, a man who views a trip to the mall as about as attractive as being invited to an IRS audit. While James prefers to hang around outside, others are more accommodating to their partners and actually venture inside the stores.

Those would include our resident humorist, Brian Unger, who's often subjected to a humiliating ritual, being forced to hold his companion's purse while she tries on a few new frocks.

BRIAN UNGER: I say don't do this. She hands me her leather bag, and I stand there holding this really delicate purse. That's the part that's so emasculating.

(Soundbite of laughter)

PROFFITT: Hold that image in your head for a moment: Brian sitting uncomfortably outside the dressing room holding a handbag. Keep it there. We'll get back to it in a moment.

Now, it turns out that retailers are acutely aware of the non-shopping companion, even though insiders say there isn't any specific terminology associated with the Jameses and Brians.

But smart retailers understand that the presumably non-shopping half of a couple in a store is actually an important part of the shopper's buying and spending decisions.

Howard Davidowitz is a retailing consultant based in New York.

Mr. HOWARD DAVIDOWITZ (Retail Consultant): Men tend to spend more than women to start with. So if they're along on the trip, as a store you're going to do much better. Retailers are quite aware of this.

PROFFITT: Even the least progressive of retailers knows enough to put a few comfortable chairs in the area outside the women's dressing rooms.

Mr. DAVIDOWITZ: I think if those chairs weren't there, that would be a problem.

PROFFITT: Davidowitz says some stores do a good deal more. He points to Mitchell's, a specialty retailer in Connecticut. Among the creature comforts it offers the non-shopping companion: TV monitors tuned to sports broadcasts or financial channels.

Mr. DAVIDOWITZ: They serve you warm cookies, and good ones; cappuccino. You sit in a beautiful chair. They take care of you. Mitchell's does everything.

PROFFITT: Jack Mitchell, whose parents founded the stores, says they also provide places for kids to play while parents shop and encourage companions to join their partners in the fitting rooms.

Mr. JACK MITCHELL (Mitchell's Specialty Store): We want them to leave with them both saying wow, this is a store that really, you know, that cares about me as real people.

PROFFITT: Real people like Brian Unger. Okay now, remember Brian holding the purse, mortified. Jack Mitchell, who's also the author of a popular business book called “Hug Your Customer,” knows just how to ease Brian's pain. First, he'll earn his trust. Then…

Mr. MITCHELL: I would certainly say, would you like me to take that for you? I'd be happy to put it in our safe or put it in a very safe spot while you can feel comfortable here. Here's the New York Times for you to read.

PROFFITT: And, notes Jack Mitchell, that little service could very well turn Brian Unger into a loyal customer.

UNGER: Goodness. Yes.

PROFFITT: Or, at the very least, someone who might be a little less reluctant the next time he hears:

Unidentified Woman: Honey, do you want to go to the mall today?

PROFFITT: Steve Proffitt, NPR News.

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