The Boston Globe

On-site shopping gains as popular employee benefit

On-site shopping aims to help workers balance jobs, life

By Diane E. Lewis, Globe Staff, 11/28/04

Cathy Chizauskas, vice president of civic affairs at The Gillette Co., knows how to avoid long lines and short tempers at the mall: She shops at craft and book sales held at her company's South Boston headquarters.

''I have bought bestsellers, self-help books, and toys for a great niece and nephew of mine,'' said Chizauskas, whose employer also offers a store with a full range of company products such as razors, batteries, shavers, and electric toothbrushes.

''I think it's extremely convenient. When you just don't have enough time, you can come to work and shop. ... Who wants to face the crowds?''

Worksite shopping is the latest in a long list of benefits designed to help US employees balance the demands of their personal lives with responsibilities at work. The concept began with concierge services like Boston's Circles Inc. The company links busy workers to personal shoppers, maid services, take-out dinners, dry cleaners -- even individuals who will go to an employee's home and wait for the electrician or plumber to arrive.

Now, included among these benefits is the business-within-a-business, vendors who sell their wares at the worksite, and company-run stores that make it easier for employees to make purchases without leaving the office. Employers like the concept because it reduces costs associated with giving workers personal days off to shop.

Lesley Kesselman, of Sharon, founder of Illusions Jewelry, has been selling her wares at various companies for the last five years. She has sold jewelry at hospitals and companies and she sells wholesale to boutiques. She also sells at small businesses like Milano, a skin care and nail salon in Stoughton, where last week Kesselman displayed her sterling silver earrings, necklaces, bracelets, watches, and other fashion jewelry to workers and patrons.

Milano owner Annmarie Bonanno said having a vendor come to the salon provides an upbeat atmosphere for customers and workers. ''The workers love it,'' she said. ''We have Lesley Kesselman come in with jewelry and we have a lady who sells plates, bowls, cheese spreaders, and other kitchen accessories.'' She said other vendors sell premade soups and dips, and designer fragrances.

Globe Staff Photo/Pat Greenhouse
Circles Inc. concierge Daniel Carrillo checks out shawls while shopping for a client at Saks Fifth Avenue recently.

Globe Staff Photo/Pat Greenhouse
Illusions Jewlery founder Lesley Kesselman (right) points out some items to Milano employee Brenda Joyce in Stoughton recently.

''There is always something coming up during the year where people are needing to pick up a gift,'' said Kesselman. ''Employers see it as something they can offer that allows the worker to accomplish their shopping. It makes people happy. They get a small break, they go back to work, and they are more productive employees.''

Some specialists say this ever-widening selection of benefits is causing workers to structure more aspects of their lives around the job.

With work taking up so much time, they say, fewer employees are involved with the social structures, gatherings, and activities that, over time, shape families and communities.

Rosalind Barnett, a senior scientist and director of the Community, Families and Work program at Brandeis University, said shopping at work might be fine once in a while, but she worries that employees who do it all the time are reducing the social interactions of families and friends engaged in mundane activities like shopping.

''These types of services can cut into things that families do together,'' said Barnett. ''They save time, but at what cost? Shopping is something you can make an outing of. It might be fun for the kids to go with you to pick out a gift for Daddy. It's a shared experience. What will be left for families to do if all of it is being done at the workplace?''

Ellen Galinsky, cofounder and president of the Families and Work Institute in New York, says on-site shopping provides two types of supportive benefits.

The first allows employees to remain on the job without interruptions or distractions. The second offers services that support the workers' need for flexibility. These include flexible scheduling, part-time work, job sharing, or personal leaves.

''In one sense, the first type of benefits are quite wonderful,'' Galinsky said. ''It is nice for the local jewelry maker and the employee who might not want to have to run here, there, and everywhere. On the other hand, there is the expectation that we can work longer. So, it is a complicated situation.''

Galinsky says companies should offer both types of benefits. ''They need to help you to be at work and not have your life so harried, but workers also need flexibility,'' she said. ''If we just help them be at work and not support them in their true desire for other things that are important, then we are not helping them or the company because work-centric people tend to be more stressed.''

Workers seem to like having the option of gift shopping at work or having a concierge do it for them. Take Mary Riffe, 44, a human resource staff consultant at Massachusetts General Hospital. Her employer offers time-saving services through Circles, a concierge and marketing service.

Last week, Riffe talked to a Circles concierge named Daniel Carillo about a Christmas purchase she wanted to make at Saks Fifth Avenue for an aunt, but did not have time to select herself.

Carillo e-mailed photographs of some of the shawls on sale at the department store, and Riffe picked out one she felt would suit her aunt.

Riffe used the benefit in the past when she needed to have a chair delivered to her house, but could not be there because the delivery hours conflicted with her work schedule.

Riffe said a Circles employee went to her home and waited in her garage for the chair to be delivered. Riffe paid $10 per hour for that service.

Riffe said Circles' services are offered to physicians, nurses, researchers and administrators and are regarded as a retention tool. The hospital began offering the benefit in 2002.

The hospital pays quarterly for the referrals, and hospital employees pay when a Circles' employee runs an errand. However, there is no charge for the personal shopper, but the employee pays for the item purchased.

''In this very competitive climate for employees, this benefit is something we hope will help our employees save time,'' Riffe said.

Amy Crawford, senior manager of business and client development at Circles, said the concierge service saves workers about three hours, on average, per errand or request.

''We have a wide range of errand partners who will go out and do errands so the employee does not have to take off,'' said Crawford. ''The things you cannot do, you can delegate to us.''

Companies purchase a Circles contract for a fixed period such as one to three years, giving employees the option of contacting the firm's concierges or service providers by e-mail or telephone, said Rob Murphy, vice president of marketing. Some employers offer the benefit on their intranets.

Under the contractual agreement with Circles, the firm locates a particular service for workers, and employees pay for the item they want picked up or the plumber that Circles found to fix that stopped-up sink.

Diane E. Lewis can be reached at .

E-Mail This Article