Hi, how are you? You after knickers?
As part of its image overhaul, Marks & Spencer is introducing `greeters' in its stores. How will the reserved British shopper react to this intrusion? Joanna Briscoe braves Bond Street and finds the welcome resistible
Friday 09 July 1999
An American would automatically drawl back: "I'm good. How are you?" Yet how can they tolerate the overt fakeness, the waspy irritation that constitutes the entire charade?
Now Marks & Spencer, that majestic flagship of the British High Street, has announced that it is to introduce "people greeters" as part of its forthcoming overhaul. But M&S is so English: foreigners pile there in droves to buy their slacks and bath salts; dreamy expats require the sending of M&S food parcels and bras in Jiffy bags; and we all buy our knickers there. Will we be able to cope with intrusive enquires into the state of our health?
Although we are traditionally left to cope alone in England's shops, there have been sightings of nodders and smilers poised in doorways, security guards trained to crank up a grin, and overheard choruses of best-friendliness from the shop floor.
Are we becoming like New York's Upper East Side, then? There, the customer, usually white, is ushered into a perfumed refrigerator by a greeter, almost inevitably black. All fawning and awnings, it's apartheid meets My Fair Lady.
In the lukewarm smog of central London, I popped into the Gap. No eager youngster armed with medical enquiries assailed me. I was briefly nodded at by a crop-headed woman in Gap utility wear as though I were a faint acquaintance. My friendly greetings were met by lashings of Britishness in the form of a shy smile. They aim to smile at 80 per cent of the customers arriving, but from the floor, not by the door, tensed like a turkey vulture .
Next, I slalomed gracelessly through a choke of Japanese and rucksacks to Bond Street. A woman stood at the entrance of Hermes looking slightly uncertain of how to open a door. Ladies in rust-coloured linen suits; gold necklaces and scrawly scarves are simply not equipped to negotiate brass-clad portals.
Bond Street is greeter central. At Gucci, a taut-necked guard stands sentry in the glass-and-brass doorway, his stance apparently the product of some military academy where men with set-square shoulder-to-hip measurements learn to stand - bull of gaze, Velcro of scalp, feet planted solidly apart.
There is clearly an entire subculture of guards, greeters and bouncers and, increasingly, those who combine these roles. There are those armed with radio phones whose only expression is a twitching neck; the trendier- than-you-matey black suits; the models who guard Hilfiger; and the quaint old men, uniformed like Chelsea pensioners, outside Asprey and Garrard.
At Tiffany, a burly guard opened the door with eyebrows raised. The guard at Emporio Armani resisted my smile. A greeter at Chanel was eventually encouraged to have a little chat. This is beefeater culture: stare, tickle, shout filthy suggestions, and you won't ruffle a second's worth of training. I attempted a few lunatic grins - nods or watery smiles were issued in answer.
No, we are altogether too British. Our greeters are not about to embarrass themselves, let alone embarrass the embarrassed. Bond Street was shining with brass and clean pavement. Blazers, hairbands, tan handbags. To make matters more culturally comic, an old men's brass band came blaring along the street. I escaped to Jigsaw. A handsome young guard ignored me.
"Hello!" I called brightly.
"Hello! How are you doing?" he enquired, equally enthusiastically.
I engaged my new friend in an enjoyable chat. He was voluble and forthcoming (was that a South African accent?). Merrily chatting with him in most un-English fashion, I felt as though I could ask anything, from guidance on summer florals to whether we should pop out for a quick coffee. "I'm a friendly guy," he explained, all handsome grin and sunny, clipped vowels.
He doubles as security guard and greeter. He will say, "Hello," and "How are you?" on occasion. Brits bolt; some linger. About twice a day, he has a proper natter: "Americans love to talk." Chat outbursts bloom in summer. "You ought to see customers in winter, they all clam up." Cheerily waving go, I sauntered up the street. I caught an eye outside Dickins & Jones.
"How are you?" boomed a voice.
Smartly kitted in hat and long jacket featuring gold buttons and brocade, Dickins & Jones's doorman was clearly something of a tourist favourite, ushering in customers, directing them towards banks and tube stations, responding to emergencies on the floor.
Two years ago, he explained, two members of staff were stationed by the door to greet the customers and thank them upon leaving. This was the initiative of a new general manager who visited America a lot; it has since been dropped. "I don't think it worked, because the English people, they don't like that," said my friendly guard. "I could see them being a bit startled at first when they came in and realised what was happening. They like to be anonymous."
Indeed. So it was off to Marks & Spencer to finish my trip. As we know, good old M&S has suffered a raging annus horribilis. That there's a smattering of Schadenfreude inspired by this can't be denied - ha ha, Squaresville's in trouble. But as we know, they are making efforts. Pashminas and shrunken cardies, advertising campaigns, of course, and the uniformed greeters are all to come.
In the meantime, dear Marks & Sparks is as it ever was. Yes, brown straw donkey sun-hats near synthetic sarongs. Endless navy suits and mortuary pink clingy tops. Brown-speckled carpets, ranks of dull lights like serried bug zappers arranged on Fifties-style ceiling tiles, with morgue lighting, wood- trim pillars, beige stippled walls. Will leaping, cap-doffing health enquirers be at one with the mood?
No, they will not.
Let's face it, it's just not in the British character. Our hamburger servers can no more say "Have a nice day" than they can do double back flips. I do not anticipate retail terrorism on the British high street. We don't like people who talk on the tube. We are a nation of coat wrappers and eye droppers. And we like to buy our knickers in peace.
Dos and Don'ts of a Greeter
(M&S, please take note)
Directions - but make it snappy. No rambling explanations about how the knickers used to be on the first floor, but since the change of management, they've been moved to the second floor, funnily enough in the Croydon branch, they're in the basement, blah blah.
Discretion - no booming voices announcing: "That way for stomach slimming pants!"
No chat-up lines - don't even think about it: "Do I make you horny, baby? Do I?" (Unless you're the cute guy from the High Street Kensington branch. that is).
No weather comments - we can all tell whether it's hot or cold, thanks.
No touchy-feely - forget embraces/kisses on two cheeks. This is not the Groucho.
Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challengeTV
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