There was a time when I was proud of the British High Street, considering it the best in the world. And over the past few decades, my, how we British women have supported it.
We talk about it; we read about it, endlessly, in fashion magazines; we spend our hard-earned lunch breaks and weekends trawling the shops, wrestling with overstuffed rails of clothes. We have even got into enormous credit card debt, demonstrating just how loyal we are.
But I think the people who own these shops have become rather cocky. Even in a recession, I’ve been getting the feeling the customer is no longer king. In fact, we are an annoyance, because we unfold piles of sweaters, we ask for our money back, and sometimes we are not a standard size, or we are not young, or we don’t quite know what we want.
Wouldn’t you have thought that, during a recession, staff would be bending over backwards to help us, to fawn over us, to, ooh, I don’t know, smile occasionally?
But when I put our big High Street stores to the test of dealing with one very trying, indecisive customer (me), I found that shopping is no longer a pleasure: it is an endurance test.
During my week of shopping — in London, and close to my West Country home — I was quite often made to feel stupid, old and poor. And God only knows what a woman who is not a standard size feels like when she enters these overheated, noisy emporiums.
There are some exceptions — most notably the staff at John Lewis in Oxford street (it’s no coincidence John Lewis is training police officers to be more professional and considerate when dealing with victims of crime) — but the vast majority of young, bored, monosyllabic women who staff these stores couldn’t wait to return to having a nice chin wag with their mates.
So many times I was confronted with a young woman with no grasp of English. This isn’t a racist observation, merely that without fluent English they are not equipped to work in the service industry. (I’d no more think myself capable of working in the Rome branch of Prada than swimming the English channel.)
As you will see from my critique of the big chains, a great many sales assistants have no idea what a ‘shoe boot’ is. I mean, come on!
Retail guru Mary Portas, whose new Channel 4 series sets out to expose the shops that give us the worst service, when challenged about whether or not we should attack sales assistants, given their notoriously low pay, said: ‘It’s not the staff’s fault.
‘I see them running around and think: “Who’s looking after you? Who’s training you, developing you?” I feel really sorry for them.
‘I just look at all these kids — bright kids, running around, out of breath, just sticking stock out, throwing it out onto the shop floors . . . Sometimes, when I’ve had bad service, I think: “I’m not going to complain ’cos this is someone’s job.” I just think: “Get over yourself.”’
But I’m afraid I don’t care how little these people are paid. Unless they are interested, and helpful, and, like the contestants on The X Factor, prepared to put 110 per cent into a job, they will never graduate onto the next rung of the career ladder. We all have to start somewhere.
I am tired of walking into a shop, knowing that I will have to do all the work. The most common thing I heard during my week-long experiment was: ‘If it’s not on the shop floor, we don’t have it.’
These shops have had it very good over the years, and they have become complacent. It is time they all realised they are there to serve us, and that if they don’t shape up, and fast, we will vote with the only language they understand. Our wallets.
NEXT in Taunton, Somerset
Next was once a byword for quality at an affordable price. What on earth has happened? This store was a mess, with hideous clothes just mashed onto a rail, old Christmas decorations and a general atmosphere of fatigue. It was just nasty.
The staff were clearly not motivated. I stood among the non-sale items for ten minutes, and although I caught the eye of several members of people I guessed were staff (there was no uniform, so I just targeted a young woman without a handbag), they ignored me.
I literally had to shout to get some attention, even though the store, on a cold Tuesday, was not busy.
‘Can you tell me what the trousers are made of?’
‘Um, no, but the label should be inside.’
I took my booty off to the changing room. No one offered to help, and I had to do that thing of hopping around half dressed on the shop floor to get some attention.
‘Do you have these trousers in black?’ A few hours went by while the assistant looked at a computer screen. ‘No, but we could order them for you and they will be here tomorrow.’
I then asked for some advice. ‘What size do you think I take in a jacket?’ ‘A 10?’ A bonus point, which she then lost when I asked if I could carry off a red mini kilt.
‘Yeah, of course you can!’ My general feeling was that the staff are super-demoralised.
RIVER ISLAND in Taunton, Somerset
Oh dear God. This shop is proof that the London shops get all the good stuff, while the provinces have to make do with whatever is creased, covered in sequins and makes you look like a hooker.
Like Next, this branch was holding its sale, and the atmosphere of a smelly Camden Market stall prevailed. At least the staff were identifiable, though, in River Island black T-shirts, but I had to wait ten minutes before I caught someone’s eye.
I chose a short black dress, sequin shoe boots, brown military shorts and a pair of black leggings. I asked one assistant if the shoe boots came in a size 6.
‘I don’t know. If it’s not on the rack, then we don’t have it.’
‘So, you mean I have to look through all the shoes?’
‘Yes,’ she said, looking shocked.
‘Can’t you look, as you’re not busy?’ ‘Um, well, OK, but I doubt there are any sixes left.’
This exchange neatly illustrates an attitude I encountered all week: defeatist, rather than upbeat. I persisted. ‘Do you have the leggings in a size 10?’
‘I have no idea.’ I had to find my own way to the fitting rooms, and no one offered to help me carry my dreadful load.
But as I pulled back a curtain, a staff member swooped on me to count the items, and give me a tag. Do they really think I am going to steal this stuff?
Half dressed, unable to attract attention (John Lewis has useful buzzers in the changing rooms), I hopped out to the shop floor and again asked for a pair of black trousers in my size.
‘We only have a 14.’ ‘Can you order them for me?’ ‘No, you will have to look online.’
Does River Island pay ME a salary?
ZARA in Knightsbridge
The store was light and inviting, but again I found it hard to work out who was staff. Aha! Any woman speaking Spanish on her mobile, while trying to avoid eye contact! Sorted.
At last I managed to huff and puff so that one assistant closed her phone. She’d laddered tights, which wasn’t a good sign. (Why is there nothing in the job description that says these women should inspire us?)
But I have to admit she was sweet, despite the thick accent, and very helpful, although she guessed my jacket size as ‘large’. The cheek!
I then asked to try on the shoe boots. ‘The shoe what? Wha? Wha?’
There weren’t enough seats, and the woman took ages to find my size.
I then decided to try on the navy blazer and a sweater. The changing rooms were tiny, and grubby. I peeked out to see three salesgirls chatting, frantically putting rejected clothes onto hangers to get them back out on the shop floor again. I was ignored.
I started to think I was invisible, and resorted to yelling. Finally, one young woman came over to me.
‘Do you have this sweater in raspberry?’ Incomprehension was etched on her lovely face.
‘Erm, if it eez not on the shop floor, then we don’t ’ave it.’ Arrrggggh!
MARKS & SPENCER in Exeter, Devon
At last, my invisibility cloak is wearing off. Sales assistants can actually see me, although it did take me standing, with armfuls of clothes, in Per Una for seven minutes before someone came over.
She smiled. This is rare. I smiled back. Even rarer.
I dropped the bundle at her feet. ‘Oh dear,’ she said, picking it up. ‘Can I carry this for you?’
‘No, I can’t be bothered,’ I told her. ‘I am here to change a Christmas present of cashmere.’
‘Oh, lucky you!’ We went to the till and she peeked in the bag.
‘Do you have a receipt?’
‘No, it was a gift.’ No problem, she told me: ‘We don’t have the cashmere lounge suit here, but I can give you a credit note?’
Perfect. Well done. I then said I was having problems with a bra.
‘It has gone all fuzzy, and the wire has come out of one cup.’
‘Can I look?’
‘I’m wearing it.’
‘Oh-kay, well let’s go to lingerie, and I’m sure we can get you a new one.’
I felt a bit like a special needs person, but, really, they couldn’t have been more helpful.