I heard only the beginning of the sentence. “That manufacturer has not solved his sizing problem. I had 15 of his suits sent round…”
The speaker was one of the most engagingly down-to-earth fashion journalists in the business and her concern with sizing was reasonable. But her words just proved, yet again, that most people in and around the rag trade have no idea what sheer murder the average woman suffers shopping for clothes. Where, for example, would you go to see 15 suits, confident that they would all be what you wanted and about your size, even if they did vary a bit?
I know the stores get all the blame from the public and it isn’t all their fault. Manufacturers are unreliable at deliveries, they make up a limited number of pretty dresses to get them featured in the Press and then don’t produce enough of the goods. Their sizes are limited and frustration is intense for anyone with hips under 34 and over 38, and quite frustrating enough for anyone in between.
Even the few manufacturers who shine like a good deed in a stock-size world and do make up large and/or tiny sizes seem to think that anyone so disfavoured wants to wear only the drabbest and most conservative clothes. There is a huge market awaiting the first designer to realise that a lot of large girls just want his pretty, well-cut clothes in large sizes. They aren’t all plump and stately matrons; they are just well-built women. Similarly, not all little girls are cuddly pieces of blonde candy floss dressing like baby dollies. They are just searching in vain for adult clothes in small sizes.
But whatever the faults of the manufacturers, it is at store level that screaming-point is reached by most women. Something has gone wrong and the stores haven’t kept pace with the revolutionary developments in the clothing industry. Not so long ago a department store had a definite character, stocked a certain kind of clothes, and you were fairly sure that it would have what suited you.
Now for a store to be exciting it must have an ever-changing variety of clothes from many different manufacturers rather than a comprehensive range of a certain kind of clothes. This makes shopping difficult if you are a stock size, and almost impossible if you are large or small, because no buyer is going to order a lot of sizes and run the risk of being left with slightly passé dresses in sizes that are difficult to sell.
It would be nice to see more manufacturers selling in their own retail shops – as the Polly Peck Boutique in Bond Street and such firms as Jaeger and Aquascutum. The great advantage of this is that you feel that the salespeople have some contact with the people who supply the goods and can pressurise them. This doesn’t, alas, always work out in practice and everyone has her own bitter tale of bad service in individual shops. The trouble at the moment seems to be that it is impossible to lay down what service in a shop should mean. Are the salespeople there just to wrap your goods and take your money or do you want their advice, even when it is frank and useful?
This problem has been solved in other retail markets. Either you go to a specialist shop if you want more service, or else goods are more or less standardised wherever you buy them. When buying food you go to a supermarket for freedom and lack of interference or a small grocer for service. It seems to me that the big stores should follow suit. Either they should be self-service stores with no pressure to buy and the minimum of attention. Their attraction would then be just this and the fact that they had large stocks at all price levels. Or they should offer real service to attract custom.
A department store depending on service should have – among other things – a children’s creche, somebody in every department to advise dispassionately on materials and brands, a fashion co-ordinator to advise on clothes and accessories, a real rest room with writing materials, magazines, etc. It should send goods on approval, refund money immediately, give you advice about where to obtain goods unavailable in the store.
If the idea of service were to become a highly skilled reality this might also go some way to solving the salesgirl’s plight. At present her life is a pretty unrewarding one. The paltry commission is her only incentive and her relationship with her customers is fraught with resentment on either one or both sides. Yet the most interesting thing potentially for a salesgirl is making contact with the customer and guiding her with the knowledge of something she knows about and the customer doesn’t – i.e., clothes in general and the store’s stock in particular.
If the department stores would only make up their minds about service – either to do away with it completely or to make it a specialised rewarding job – we might, just possibly, see shopping reinstated as one of life’s pleasures.
This is an edited extract, click to read more