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Starting a Business as a Personal Shopper Shopping isn't just their passion; it's their business. And it's no job for an amateur. Learn how these fashion-forward pros make their living at the checkout counter--and how you can, too.

By Mark Henricks

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When life feels overwhelming, many women grab their purse and head for the mall. But while Maggie McQuown also views shopping as entertainment, she gets paid for it.

"It's just something I've always been good at--color, shopping, putting things together and knowing what someone else will like, what they can wear and what will make them look good and feel good," she says. She applies her shopping skills as part of her image-consultant business, VisibleEDGE Resources in Addison, Texas. Her services range from assessing clients' psychological profiles to giving lessons in etiquette. "But the shopping part is the fun part," she says.

A typical personal-shopper gig begins with an interview to determine a client's needs, sometimes amplified by a written personality test, as well as his or her personal preferences when it comes to style and color. Next, the image consultant may simply advise the client about brands, colors and other wardrobe issues. The consultant also may take the client on a shopping expedition, or do the shopping sans client, delivering suggested garments to the client's home or office for a private fitting.

Mark McClanahan, a financial planner in Arlington, Texas, consulted with McQuown about how to improve his dress after being frustrated with his own wardrobe selections and deciding he lacked time to do better on his own. "I needed someone to pull it all together in a time-saving manner," McClanahan says. "That's what she did." Her most useful suggestions, he says, were for casual attire in work-related situations, such as going to dinner or a sporting event with a client.

Armed with McQuown's suggestions, McClanahan selected slacks and short-sleeved, collared shirts to replace his usual jeans and golf shirts for such outings. "It's one of those things that's hard to measure," he says, "but I think I look more polished and professional."

A lot of people seem to agree with McQuown about the work's appeal. "This is a glamorous, fun and exciting career [with] actual opportunity," says Tag Goulet, who runs a Calgary, Alberta, career-information service,; she is co-author of the self-published "FabJob Guide to Become a Personal Shopper" (2003). "It's quite different from some of the other careers we sell guides to, becoming an interior decorator, for example, [where] far more people want to do it than there are jobs. With personal shopper, there's tons of room for growth."

A Small Field

Relatively few people want to enter the personal-shopping field compared to other careers. The Association of Image Consultants International, a Westmont, Ill., trade group that includes personal-shopping services, has more than 500 members, mostly in the U.S. The 1997 Economic Census by the U.S. Census Bureau listed 2,670 firms in the miscellaneous personal-services category, which includes shopping services. The firms, which also included buyers' clubs, generated $1.2 billion in sales and employed 25,526.

Many large retailers offer patrons personal shopping services provided by employees. Goulet says getting a job as a personal shopper is one way to learn the business. Another approach is to train with an established shopper. Some shoppers offer seminars and consultations for a fee to people who want to get into the field.

Some shopping services have evolved out of personal experience. Laurie Ely began a grocery-shopping service for elderly residents of Chicago nine years ago while seeking ways to earn a living while caring for her three young children. The divorcee often helped her mother shop for food and found herself frequently approached by other seniors in the supermarket asking for help reading labels or reaching high shelves.

She printed a flyer identifying herself as "Laurie the Shopping Lady," offering to do similar chores for pay, and posted it in her neighborhood store. "Esther told Ethel, Ethel told George, George told Myrtle, and tomorrow I'm shopping for 18 elderly people," Ely says. She fills phone orders three days a week, towing as many as five carts as she shops. She spends more than $100,000 annually at her favorite chain, which qualifies her for discounts.

She charges a 15% commission on purchases and an $8 fee for each order, which works out to under $20,000 a year. But her services extend beyond shopping--she often finds herself bringing elderly customers cash as well as changing light bulbs and engaging in conversation--an equally in-demand service for lonely seniors.

"I'm the most-appreciated person in the whole wide world," Ely says. "They always say they don't know what they'd do without me. And I don't know what I'd do without them. If I didn't have this work, I wouldn't be able to live in the home I live in. And I'm done by 3 o'clock so I can go pick up my kids."

Intimate Relationships

Shoppers who style themselves as image consultants aren't just clothes buyers. New York City image consultant Anderson Toney calls her organization The Anderson Research Center of Image and Etiquette and charges $150 per hour and up for individuals and $300 to $750 per hour for corporations, which hire her to advise salespeople and others on how to dress and comport themselves. Toney has eight employees and a national and international clientele, including clients who pay her travel expenses to visit them at their faraway homes.

Toney, like McQuown, had a long corporate career before setting up to shop for money. Her background, like that of many in the field, is in fashion retailing, where her contacts are useful in work that may call for a shopper to borrow thousands of dollars of clothing to take to a client's office or home for fitting. She also enjoys feedback about her choices.

"I had constant confirmation of my personal style and how that inspired others I worked with," Toney says. "I wanted to share qualities that are my second nature with others who could use this knowledge of image management and impression management as a tool."

In addition to buying clothes, shoppers make money advising businesses on appropriate holiday gifts for customers, suppliers and employees, Goulet says. Many also teach appearance-and-style workshops. Difficult parts of the job include dealing with fussy clients, and justifying their fees, shoppers say. But mostly, it's a pretty good time.

"It's a feel-good job," Goulet says. "There are careers out there that people don't feel good about. But if you're a personal shopper, you get to create something wonderful for other people and make them happy while using your talents and doing something that makes you feel happy."

Copyright � 2004 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved

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