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One Step at a Time

Mariaelena Comaroto
June 01, 2022

In August of 2014 I went back to work for the first time in eight years. Over the course of my tenure as a stay-at-home mother of two young girls, I had been wanting to go back to work, but struggled with taking the first step. Getting divorced and going off to live on my own for the first time in my life, and with two children part-time, I felt that I had no choice but to go and work —anywhere. So I got a job at Nordstrom in Palo Alto, close to home, working as a sales associate in the Men’s Furnishings department.

I was excited, scared, and embarrassed all at the same time. I was excited to start doing something new. I was excited to work. I was excited to get dressed up every day and meet new people and learn new things. I was scared because I had never worked in retail before. I knew nothing about men’s furnishings, and I had read some pretty scary reviews about the cut-throat, back-stabbing, competitive world of commission-based retail. I was embarrassed because at the age of 34, with a college degree from UC Berkeley, work experience at Stanford and a social circle of middle to upper class friends in the Bay Area, I was going to work at a job that most anyone could get without much in the way of qualifications. There was no prestige in a retail job at Nordstrom. In addition, I knew that the customers I would be interacting with would be that social circle that I came from. Now, instead of joining them at their homes for playdates, meeting for lunch or coffee, or taking a class together, I would be “waiting on them” the way I waited on customers when I was a waitress putting myself through school.

But it had to be done. Excitement, fear and embarrassment were no excuse to not take that step. I remember my first day on the floor very clearly. Before I was let loose, so to speak, to go and sell on my own, I had shadowed another employee and spent a few hours getting to know the products in our department. Let’s see, I was supposed to sell socks, underwear, pj’s, dress shirts, ties, sunglasses, cologne and more. While I felt $45 for a pair of socks was steep, when I realized how much commission I made from each purchase, and the average amount a customer spent on one transaction, I didn’t know how I was going to make any money.

The reason I remember my first day so clearly is that the fear and embarrassment took over as I was let loose to go sell. I was scared because I didn’t know what was going to happen. I was embarrassed because I didn’t know the products very well, let alone that register I was to use to ring up each sale. In training they taught us the basics, and sped through the order of operations at the register:

  • Count the items
  • Check them for sensors
  • Remove sensors
  • Put a UPC sticker on every price tag
  • Enter your seven-digit employee number in the POS
  • Select sale
  • Start to scan, every item twice, once for the price and once for the UPC
  • Once you have scanned all the items, select total
  • And on and on and on

But it was never that easy, ever. There were problems with the price not reflecting advertised prices, there were returns, price adjustments, employee discounts, split payment with cash and credit card, payment by check, etc. And then, when we didn’t have something in the size a customer needed we were to look in the system and check every store and online to get them what they wanted, and of course, the procedure for that was entirely different. I would say that at that time, learning how to use that register was one of my biggest challenges. Over the past 14 years I had shied away from any opportunity to learn how to use technology. And it showed.

So in addition to the fear and anxiety I had at the register, there was still the insecurity and embarrassment I felt interacting with customers. It didn’t take long, though, for me to realize small wins along the way, which would boost my confidence and propel me to do more. Although I don’t recall specifically, I know that with every new customer I knew more, I felt more comfortable, and relaxed. Soon I wasn’t just ringing up items that customers came in for, I was helping them make better choices, and offering more options. I learned where items were made, how they were made, and why they cost more. I also realized that interacting with customers came naturally to me. I loved helping. Soon I couldn’t wait for a new customer to come on to our floor so I could help them. I loved knowing all about the products on our floor. I loved listening to what the customer came in for, hearing the “problem” so to speak, as I began to conjure up a solution for them.

It wasn’t long before customers came back to shop with me. They asked for me. They looked for me. I felt on top of the world. I loved my job. I would go home after a full day’s shift running around on my feet and wishing I could go back and sell some more. And then they began to ask if I could help them with items in other departments. I noticed the happy melodies in my mind went away as I froze on the border of my department and looked to the other men’s departments that neighbored us — shoes, suits, sportswear and denim. OH DEAR. OH DEAR. How was I going to learn about ALL of that product and feel confident and comfortable helping my customers?

When we first separated and I moved out of our shared home, I bought my own car. It was a used Toyota Prius. I ordered a specialized license plate frame that read “One Step At A Time.” This was a very important message that I needed to understand and live. And in every area of my life, I wanted to be mindful of it.  I would whisper to myself when I was scared, “Take the first step. Just do it.”  I had to learn to be gentle with myself too. To acknowledge the small wins and to also embrace the challenges and defeats. I needed to be kinder to myself. To allow myself to fail or to struggle. And I needed to be there to learn from each of those opportunities, wins, losses, or ties.

And so I said YES to every opportunity to help someone outside of my department — outside of my comfort zone. And every time I took another step I was met with success of some sort. I knew more than I gave myself credit for. I was capable of more than I thought. I learned something new. I began to see and understand connections and associations between products. I was able to learn faster and to make good guesses on the spot. Soon, oh so soon I was flying around the entire men’s department at Nordstrom in Palo Alto. I didn’t walk, I glided at a fast pace. I knew what I wanted for each customer, I knew where it was or how to get it. For the first time in my life, and I mean this, I felt proud and truly satisfied with my job. It didn’t feel like work anymore. It felt like life.  It was happiness. It was fulfillment. It was natural.

After about three months of working at Nordstrom and getting my stride, I began to notice this woman watching me. I didn’t really know who she was, but I knew she worked at the store because I saw her at the Friday morning rallies. It felt like every time I looked up she was there watching me. At the time I didn’t understand why, but I knew it was me that she was watching.

Around that same period of time I made a new acquaintance at work.  She was a veteran salesperson with Nordstrom and offered me some great wisdom. What I carried away from that conversation was that there was a type of salesperson called a Personal Stylist, the role really intrigued me, and I was encouraged to go knock on the manager’s door. Ordinarily the thought of knocking on someone’s door would make me nervous and I would end up shying away from the opportunity, losing that moment.

Maybe it was that I was riding a wave of confidence from my accomplishments at work, or maybe it was that I had grown just enough to push myself out of my comfort zone, but whatever the motivation was, I marched myself straight to this woman’s office and knocked on her door. The door opened, and I was greeted by a friendly smile and familiar face. The woman who I had noticed watching me so many times before while I was working, smiled and said hello! 

I asked her politely if she had a moment to chat. Without hesitation Christina invited me to sit down and talk. She was beautiful. She too had a friendly smile. I asked her if she could tell me more about the personal styling program, and just like that she told me all about it. I listened intently, eyes wide, smiling. I was envisioning myself as a stylist as I heard her describing the role and responsibilities. When she was finished talking I inched myself to the edge of my chair and leaned in and asked her if I could be a stylist too.

I couldn’t even believe that those words had left my mouth. I had just put myself out there, made myself vulnerable. Told someone what I wanted. She said yes. She asked me to go back down to my department and told me she would contact me within 10 minutes because she needed to speak with the store manager. I did as I was told, but I couldn’t work. I was nervous and exhilarated. Then I heard my name on the intercom. I had a phone call. It was her. She asked me to come back up to her office.

Christina had a conversation with the store general manager and the outcome was in my favor. They had both approved my promotion to becoming a personal stylist at Nordstrom. But there was more. This wasn’t an every day promotion she wanted me to know. I had only been working at Nordstrom for just over three months and had never worked retail before. There was some kind of policy that employees were not eligible to move departments, let alone get promotions any sooner than six months. In addition, the fact that the promotion was approved in 10 minutes, Christina said, could very well have been “the fastest promotion at Nordstrom. Congratulations and welcome to the team!”

In the spirit of my One Step At A Time philosophy, I embraced the promotion and all that would come with it. There would be more to learn. Women’s, children’s, jewelry. There would be more to do. Phone calls, emails, follow-ups, room set up, clean up. Beginning in December of 2014 I was officially a personal stylist at Nordstrom in Palo Alto. I remained in Men’s Furnishings, selling, while managing appointments and taking the initiative to turn walk-ins into styling appointments.

Not slowly this time, but quickly, I was growing my book of customers, and I was getting appointment after appointment. My first women’s customer turned into my second, and from there I began to split my time on the men’s floor and women’s floor equally. I was the only stylist in the store at that time to be scheduled permanently in both men’s and women’s. Eventually, I left men’s to work exclusively on the women’s floor. I still booked many appointments with men, but I wanted to be upstairs in women’s.

The first few months of my time as a personal stylist flew by. My days were filled with appointments, walk-ins and fun sales experiences on the floor. My pace was fast. My heart was full. I was so completely satisfied and happy with the experiences I was having as a stylist that on my drives home, rivers of tears would flow from my eyes. There were times I couldn’t see the road because I was crying so hard. These were tears of joy; pure joy. I had never felt this before.

Eventually it came to my attention that my name was being called quite regularly at morning announcements. Usually names are mentioned for some kind of recognition or for being in the top 10 for sales the previous day. In my case it was often both. Customers were taking the time to either call in or write a personal letter to the store manager letting them know how much they valued their styling appointment with me and how highly they thought of me. I was also often in the top 10, and as time went by, in the top five of daily sales by employees storewide. Eventually I held a spot in the top 10 for overall sales in the entire store for the year to date. I was on track to being a million dollar seller; a status that’s rare and hard to come by.

But after a year and some months working at Nordstrom I left for another job. In those 15 months at Nordstrom, at that job with no prestige that anyone could get, I soared. I found happiness. I found myself. I faced my fears and I learned that I could fly on my own.


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