NEW YORK -- Ah, to live the life of the wealthy, and to be able to afford your own personal shopper.
Well, you don't need to be rich to get a taste of that kind of service.
A new breed of online sites is tailoring boxes of items to shoppers' tastes. And at traditional retailers including J. Crew and Macy's, the services of personal stylists don't cost any extra.
The online sites include Trunk Club, which caters to men, and Stitch Fix, which targets women.
They offer personal stylists who ship you a box of items selected for your tastes. You keep and pay for what you want, and return the rest, sometimes with a minimum charge that is applied to your eventual order. You pay that charge regardless of whether you like the clothes or not.
The items aren't cheap but are relatively affordable -- for Stitch Fix, which sends you five items in each box, the average price for an item is $55.
For a bigger splurge, online retailer J. Hilburn offers men's custom shirts, cashmere sweaters, jackets and pants and provides free access to your own personal stylist who can visit your home or office. Custom shirt are priced at $89, while made-to-measure trousers start at $195. But the price is one-third what similar items can cost elsehwere.
At traditional retailers like J. Crew, Macy's and Bloomingdale's, personal shopping services have long been free.
The typical visit at Bloomingdale's is two hours, according to Marian Goodman, vice president of personal shopping, and most stores have dedicated areas for the service. Bloomingdale's, whose dresses start at $70 and average between $300 and $600, says it's mindful of shoppers' budgets.
Still, some traditional stores are trying to take the bite out of asking for help. Two years ago, J. Crew relaunched its personal shopping program, renaming it the Very Personal Stylist.
The service is available at all stores, with the emphasis on accommodation, whether it's body type, budget or time. J.Crew also can open the store early or stay late to work around your schedule. You can also call 800-261-7422, if you just want talk on the phone.
The new approach is helping to democratize such service, said Michael Londrigan, dean of academic affairs at LIM College, a fashion college in New York City.
The latest technology used by some of the online sites makes recommendations based on information you provide, and your shopping history. But the personal shopper ultimately makes the final cut and personally selects the items in the box. That's helping online sellers compete with the face-to-face interaction offered by stores.
"It's giving consumers a lot more opportunities to use personal stylists that they didn't have in the past -- in a more comfortable atmosphere," Londrigan said. Here are some tips:
DO YOUR HOMEWORK: Look at your closet and come up with the five favorite pieces in your wardrobe. Which pieces don't you use? What's missing? Macy's Senior Vice President Kathy Hilt says one question you should ask is whether there was something you always wanted but didn't have the courage to buy.
BE HONEST: Both online retailers Trunk Club and Stitch Fix ask you to fill out extensive online surveys before getting started. That not only includes height, weight and pant size but also questions about personal style and body type. Stitch Fix, for example, asks you to rate certain styles of clothing to figure out your tastes.
INTERVIEW THE STYLIST: For many of the services, you keep the same stylist. But to get the best help, you need to ask the right questions to make sure you're matched with the right person. Who is the stylist's typical customer? You also have to provide constant feedback on your likes and dislikes.
WATCH THE FEES: For both Trunk Club and Stitch Fix, shoppers pay to keep the items they want and return the rest at no charge. There's no fee to sign up to be a Trunk Club member. For Stitch Fix, you pay a styling fee of $20 per box, which you can use toward your final order. If you buy all five items in the box, you get a 25 percent discount off the total.
But make sure to return the duds you don't want by the deadline. For Stitch Fix, clients have three days to send back items. If not, all five items are charged to your card on file. For Trunk Club, whose shirts range from $70 to $250, the deadline is 10 days.
"PERSONAL" DOESN'T EQUAL 'NO PRESSURE": The stores say there's no commitment to buy. But as retail consultant Paco Underhill says, most personal shoppers work on commission so there's inherent pressure to open your wallet.
"The personal shopper is there to sell you stuff," he said. "They're not there to run a private show."