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NEW YORK, N.Y.-The Secret Shopper recently faced a daunting task -- buying a gift for her spouse's godparent, a man in his 60s who was getting remarried. With about three weeks to go before the wedding, the Secret Shopper left the office to visit some of Manhattan's premier tabletop purveyors in search of the perfect gift.

The first stop was Fortunoff, where an older gentleman, perhaps the same age as the groom, approached the Secret Shopper almost immediately and offered his sales assistance. The Shopper explained the circumstances of the wedding -- an older couple, both married before, both with established households -- and asked to see something in the range of $100 to $150. The sales clerk suggested three possibilities on the spot: a vase, a frame and a clock.

Vases and frames are "functional and flexible," he said. A crystal vase can complement almost any decor, and a frame comes in handy for couples with plenty of wedding photos to show off. He led the Secret Shopper first to a display of what he called more-expensive frames, sterling silver ones with wooden backs, and then to a display of less-expensive frames with velvet backs (if you consider an $85 sterling silver frame less expensive). He stood at a discreet distance while the Secret Shopper examined the less-expensive frames, but readily led the Shopper, at her request a few minutes later, to the vases.

Fortunoff offers contemporary "Swedish" vases (Orrefors) and the more traditional Waterford, the clerk told the Secret Shopper, passing by a small display of handpainted glass vases. When asked if the Waterford vases were in stock, he assured the Shopper that "90 percent of them are."

A few blocks north, Crate & Barrel was buzzing at 5:30 on a Friday night. There were several clerks on the sales floor, but most were helping customers or striding around with clipboards or important-looking papers in their hands, so the Secret Shopper approached a sales clerk who was stacking baskets to ask for help. The twenty-something clerk was sympathetic to the Secret Shopper's plight. "That's hard. Oh Lord, that's hard," she said.

She thought for a few minutes, then asked the Shopper what she knew about the couple, such as what they like to do. (The Shopper does not know much about how her husband's godfather and his fiancee spend their free time).

"Are they starting over?" the clerk asked. "No."

"Do they drink?"

"I think they do."

With this bit of information, the clerk suggested a martini set, including a martini shaker, for $18.95, a pair of martini glasses for $8.95 apiece and a martini cocktail book. She also suggested a glass decanter, and, after strolling around the tabletop area with the Secret Shopper, pointed out a different style of martini glass. She waved a hand in the direction of margarita glasses, but suggested they might be more appropriate for younger people. The Secret Shopper agreed, and decided to walk around the store in search of other possibilities.

The following morning, the Secret Shopper braced herself for the hustle and bustle of Macy's flagship store in Herald Square. At 10:30 however, the store was pleasantly quiet and navigable, and the crystal department on the ninth floor was virtually empty. The one visible clerk was helping another customer, so the Secret Shopper meandered around the Lalique display until a second salesclerk, possibly in her 30s, came over to offer her assistance.

"Are they traditional or contemporary in their tastes?" she asked after listening to the Shopper's spiel. On learning they were a more traditional than contemporary couple, the clerk headed to a glass cabinet filled with Waterford and pointed out several vases and serving pieces, being careful to stay within the Shopper's $100 to $150 price range. She briefly suggested a small Waterford clock, but didn't spend much time on the clocks, focusing instead on a cake plate, sandwich tray, celery dish and assorted vases. When asked, she said most everything was in stock.

Williams-Sonoma's Chelsea store was the Secret Shopper's final destination. On a Monday evening just after work, there were a handful of people in the store, one of them an engaged couple filling out their registry. The Secret Shopper wandered for a while, and after making eye contact with a young salesclerk in her 20s who was unpacking boxes of merchandise, asked for advice on the perfect wedding gift.

Like the woman in Crate & Barrel, she asked what the couple likes to do. When the Shopper replied she wasn't sure, the clerk thought for a few minutes and then asked if they drank wine. When the Shopper said the couple probably did drink wine, the clerk suggested a basket of wine accessories, such as a wine guide on CD-ROM and an inexpensive corkscrew, and said she could come up with a few more items to bring the basket to $100. (And when the Shopper suggested she could buy a few bottles of wine to fill out the gift, the clerk readily agreed that was a good idea).

The salesclerk briefly showed the Shopper a "high-tech" corkscrew for around $135, but when the Shopper balked, she moved on to a brown wicker basket filled with picnic supplies. It was well over $200, so the Shopper and the clerk moved on to the back of the store, to the dinnerware. She suggested a set of dessert plates, "so you don't have to worry about them matching her dishes."

As the Shopper began to look around on her own, the clerk made one last suggestion. "Do they barbecue?" she asked. Again, the Shopper did not know (and made a mental note to learn more about her husband's godfather), but agreed barbecue accessories might be a good idea.

The Secret Shopper was encouraged by the gift possibilities, and impressed with the service she received at every place she visited. Apparently, younger sales clerks believe older couples must drink a lot, and baskets of goodies are the way to go, while the older sales assistants think Waterford makes a good gift. Despite all these choices, however, the Secret Shopper's husband is undecided, and it remains to be seen what will actually be purchased.
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Publication:HFN The Weekly Newspaper for the Home Furnishing Network
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jun 28, 1999

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