There were two things that caught my attention in Tuesday night’s opening episode of the new three part documentary ‘Shopgirls’ shown on BBC2. Firstly, the description by London society hostess and journalist Lady Mary Jeune of the shopping experience in the 1800s as being “a solemn and dreary affair”. Secondly, that in 1851 there were 2.5 million unmarried self-supporting women in Great Britain. What a fascinating thing – all those ladies with their own income and yet a day perusing the shops was joyless. No retail therapy for them then. No doubt the retail industry feel good factor was in short supply when in 1860 after the introduction of female shop assistants, many were either struck down with ill health (sometimes even resulting in infertility) due to the long hours standing on their feet or graduated into prostitution; in the case of an outlet in London’s smart Burlington Arcade, carrying out the extra curricular duties in the room above the shop.
It’s hard to imagine a Britain where there were half a million more women than men – dating must have been even worse then it is now and what did all the women if they weren’t shopping one wonders? No wonder there was a movement to get all these single women working in the shops. Although Regent street at this time was not the upscale destination it is now. Wander down Regent Street in the 1800s in search of a special blend of tea or an overpriced pair of flip flops and you’d likely be arrested for prostitution. Yes, things were very different on our high streets in those days. According to the documentary, shopgirls were “often having fainting fits” on the shop floor – perhaps a ploy to get out of having to sleep with the customers upstairs?
Years ago I worked on the shop floor of a department store. Whenever I got achy legs I went and put my feet up in the fitting room with the curtain pulled across. Well, standing around doing nothing can be really tiring and there are only so many surfaces you can polish and piles of knitwear you can refold. It wasn’t exactly busy so I got away with it. These days, the beautiful teenaged hot-panted staff at Hollister have folding and making piles down to a fine art so that you almost feel obliged to mess up the piles in case you put someone out of a job. Mostly though in this country it is a surprising and uplifting thing if the service you receive in a shop is friendly, polite and helpful. I have worked as a mystery shopper for over ten years and have reported on hundreds of establishments all over London from Bond Street to Clapham Junction and I can honestly say the times I have considered the assistant to have (to quote the questionnaire) “gone the extra mile” is below twenty. On those rare visits where I have felt welcomed, valued and encouraged to spend dangerously, I’ve found myself worrying that I’ve been rumbled as the undercover shopper because I doubted if any British person was really that fabulous in their shop role. How depressing is that? At least I’ve never been offered a fumble upstairs by anyone behind the counter – that would be an upsell too far, although certainly “beyond my expectations”. I have however been informed whilst on an assignment that I would need to come back in half an hour as the person on duty needed “to go toilet”. And my sister Hannah, who accompanied me on a Covent Garden restaurant assignment expecting a free meal, got far more when the manager tried it on with her in the corridor on her way to the loo.
Those companies where there is an ongoing focus on customer service, stand head and shoulders above the rest and although you might expect this to be the more exclusive brands, it isn’t always the case. You can rely on a Jimmy Choo assistant to be smart, polite and knowledgeable but then I’ve experienced complete disinterest in Louis Vuitton. In Asda when I asked where I might find peaches, the response was “What are they then?” – twice. Meanwhile at Nando’s, across the board, nothing is too much trouble. Now shoes I can understand being passionate about, but chicken?