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In our monthly appraisal of services, our

tester sent for casual clothes from six mail-

order companies. Were the goods any good?

TRIPS TO the high street and shopping centre will soon become superfluous, pundits tell us, as we will be doing our shopping via the computer or TV screen and the telephone line. For the moment, however, old-fashioned mail-order catalogues are still the most popular method of armchair shopping for those unable or unwilling to trudge around the stores. For some of us, however, the uncertainty of sending money off into the blue for items seen only in a catalogue and the prospect of having to send back unwanted or unsuitable goods can be seriously off-putting.

We decided to test the service from six mail-order companies, ranging from Grattan, with its mammoth catalogue selling everything from cookware to computers, to upmarket Selfridges Direct. Acting as an ordinary consumer, Robin Stummer ordered stone-coloured chino trousers and a dark blue twill shirt from each company. He compared the service offered - how easy it was to order and return the items - and gave his verdict on the clothes. We also asked Chris Breward, tutor in the history of design at the Royal College of Art and the author of The Culture of Fashion (Manchester University Press, £14.99), to add his comments on the quality and style of the clothes.

Robin Stummer, a newcomer to mail-order shopping, has not become a convert. He was unable to persuade one company, Next, to send him its catalogue, Next Directory, and therefore couldn't order from it. With the others he felt that buying trousers, in particular, was problematic because a good fit was more crucial than for a shirt. "The catalogue just doesn't give you a good enough idea of what you're getting: for example, you can't see a skimpy cut or loose threads. And although the companies try to make it easy for you to return things, it's a palaver to repackage them and send them back. It wasn't that much cheaper than buying in the shops, either," he said. But for many people this is convenience shopping.


0345 444333, 8am-11pm, every day

Chinos £19.95; shirt £17.99; p&p free (next day delivery service £2.95)

The service: The company promises that more than 80 per cent of items will arrive in 3-4 working days, the rest in 5-7 days; Robin's order took 4 days.

Grattan is from the old school of mail-order companies, allowing customers to pay in interest-free weekly instalments, and using a fleet of agents who earn 10 per cent commission to sell on to friends and relatives. There's nothing to stop customers simply ordering for themselves, though, as Robin Stummer did. The sales assistant was efficient, breezy and chatty, and the goods arrived within four working days as she promised. The approval period is 14 days. The paperwork needed to return the goods was a hassle: "It was a real bother. I had to fill in the catalogue and invoice numbers myself on the returns form (the other companies do this for you) and get Post Office staff to sign it. There's no box to tick if you are returning something because you don't like it - you have to write a separate letter stating your reasons." The goods are the only ones to arrive in a reusable parcel bag: "useful to speed up the return process," Robin said. Other bonuses are that Grattan pays return postage or will send a courier to pick the goods up.

The clothes: Robin Stummer said: "Trousers were let down by their skinflint size - more like a small 30in than a 32in waist. Turn-ups were stingy, too. Shirt colour a bit faded, but overall a good, basic item."

Chris Breward commented: "Chinos are formal and military at first sight. Interesting finish to the cotton - a rather rough and speckled twill. Turn-ups on the shallow side and pocket linings very thin. Grandparents with a nostalgia for national service might take to them. The shirt is basic as they come, simple to the point of skimping. Offers reasonable value for money, though."


0800 101101, 24 hours a day every day

Chinos £45; no comparable shirt stocked; p&p £3.95

The service: Delivery is usually in 2-3 days, the company says, otherwise with-in a week; Robin's order took 6 days.

Ordering and returning the goods was straightforward, although the sales assistant said that because of a delay (unexplained), they would take up to 10 days for delivery. In fact, they arrived in six. You are allowed to keep them on approval for an unlimited period. The chinos arrived beautifully boxed up and wrapped in tissue. Selfridges pays for the cost of posting goods back.

The clothes: Robin Stummer said: "Slick, silky waistband lining, with a puny plastic zip. Snuggish-fitting, with pleats so small they may as well not have bothered. Not much better than something that you could pick up in a market for half the price."

Chris Breward commented: "The most overtly designed and luxurious pair, with large buttons, well-finished seams and a silk-effect inner waistband. Smooth cotton and a pressed appearance give these a formal feel - paired with a cravat and RAF moustache, they wouldn't look out of place in a Terence Rattigan play. For all that, I'm not sure they merit the high price tag."


0345 100500, 8am-11pm every day

Chinos £24.99; shirt £19.99; p&p £2.50

The service: The company promises delivery of goods within 48 hours; in fact, the Directory never arrived.

Robin Stummer eventually gave up his attempt to order clothes from this company. "I ordered the Directory at the beginning of March. Two weeks later, I received a form saying that the company needed to do a financial check on me, and asked for my bank details and so on. When I heard nothing more, I rang to see what was happening and was told that they had run out of Directories and were reprinting them, but that they would send me a smaller catalogue in the meantime. This arrived on 7 April (a month after first contacting them), but there's still no sign of the Directory). My bank told me that Next never contacted them. I suspect that the so-called financial check-up was a delaying tactic because Next had run out of catalogues."

Customers can post back unwanted goods free of charge or have them picked up by a courier - a comforting thought if they are able to get hold of them in the first place. Next also offers a chance to pay by instalments - but at a hefty 29.8 per cent interest rate.

The clothes: Chris Breward (who obtained all the clothes by telling the suppliers they were for a press survey) commented: "Rather a lightweight pair of trousers, that might rapidly look untidy; however, the fit is flattering if rather homely. With no turn-ups and unobtrusive pleats, these trousers would impress the in-laws. The front-button fastening is perhaps a little roughly finished. The shirt was my second favourite, after Land's End, perhaps less rugged but more refined. Button-down collar and pencil slot in the pocket suggest postgraduate earnestness. Unusual wood-effect buttons, crisp mid-weight cotton and no-fuss detailing make this the best in terms of value. Shame about the yukky greenish colour."


0800 220106, 24 hours a day every day

Chinos £29.50; shirt £32; p&p £2.95 (free for orders over £150)

The service: The company promise delivery in 3-4 working days for phone orders, a little longer for others; Robin's order took 4 working days.

"When the clothes arrived, the shirt was very, very crumpled," said Robin Stummer. Goods can be kept on approval for an unlimited time and returning them is straightforward, although you do have to pay postage. Land's End offers some useful extras: it will send customers fabric swatches before ordering, and replacement buttons. It is also the only company to offer customers a choice of having trouser legs hemmed to their own leg length, with or without turn-ups, or of leaving them unfinished (so that customers can take tem up themselves).

The clothes: Robin Stummer said: "The trousers were quite a good fit, but not exactly luxurious. They had only a second puny pleat hiding around the waist, and a poor finish, with loose cotton threads hanging off. Despite needing a good iron, the shirt was in a nice substantial material and the colour was a lush, dark blue. It had good styling and felt good to wear. Unfortunately, it too was quite poorly finished."

Chris Breward commented: "A nice military feel to the weight and texture of the chinos. They crumple, rather than crease, like tent canvas; in fact they take me back to Boy Scout days. A good sandy brown colour, no skimping on pocket linings or bindings, or excess material at the seams. Good value for money. This is the most substantial shirt - a work shirt in the true sense. The fabric feels warm and comfortable, the colour a rich, deep indigo. Double seams and a boxy square cut lend a reassuringly chunky feel, though tucks in the pocket would be a devil to iron. Not cheap for mail order, but the best of the bunch in terms of style."


0161 9268185, 8am-9pm Mon-Fri, 9am-5pm Sat, 9am-9pm Sun

Chinos £19.99; shirt £16.99; p&p £2.99

The service: The company aims to dispatch most items in 3-5 days, and promises that all orders will definitely arrive within 28 days; Robin Stummer's order actually took 18 days.

When ordering, although Robin was told to allow up to 28 days for delivery, he was assured that goods should arrive within a week to 10 days. Our standard colour for the chinos, stone, was out of stock, so he ordered navy instead. "It was a long wait, but both shirt and trousers were well- packaged and free of extraneous creasing, crumpling and other postal wear and tear," he said. "Approval time is unlimited and sending the goods back is straightforward. The return form details had been filled in - saving a lot of time and fuss - and I didn't have to write a novel explaining that I just didn't want them." Customers pay return postage, unless the goods are faulty, and, as with most other companies, have to obtain a certificate of posting from the PO counter.

The clothes: Robin Stummer said: "At £16.99 the shirt is excellent value. It was unfussy but well put together, with strong seams, a good length, an extra button on the cuffs and well-finished buttonholes. At this price, I'd buy two or three. The chinos, too, must be something of a bargain. Though the pleats were somewhat vestigial, the trousers were finished in a nice, soft brushed cotton and were a good length with big turn-ups. The only faults were the flimsy pocket-linings and the small Cotton Traders label on the posterior. However, they seemed good for a year's hard wear. If it wasn't for the long delivery time, these would rank with Racing Green as my best buys."

Chris Breward commented: "There is something horribly dated and frankly naff about the combination of khaki lining round the neck and faded petrol blue in the body of the shirt. The cotton is thin and shiny in places, as if over-ironed, but the fit is roomy, buttons are bone-effect and, at the cheapest price, I suppose you get what you pay for. As for the chinos, they have the texture of an old duster and are a muddy colour. Deep pleats and turn-ups, together with bunched-up belt loops, accentuate a rather dated feel - a bit early Eighties. Cheap in price: cheap by nature."


0345 331177, 8am-10pm every day

Chinos £32; shirt £32; p&p £3 (express 72-hour delivery £5)

The service: The company promised delivery within 7 working days and the good arrived within that exact time.

"These were the only ones, apart from Selfridges Direct, to come in a box, and they were immaculately pressed and presented," said Robin. You can keep the goods on approval for an unlimited period, and returning them was no problem, although Racing Green do not pay the return postage, unless the company is at fault.

The clothes: Robin Stummer said: "The shirt was a comfortable medium- weight cotton which was well finished and a good length to tuck in. It looked as if it could stand up to rough wear. The chinos were the best of the bunch, with nice big belt-loops, very long (to allow for turning up) and made from a good, heavy, durable cotton. They were well finished, and boasted the essential heavy-duty metal zip."

Chris Breward commented: "There is a bland neatness about the shirt, making it adaptable for all social occasions not requiring a tie. The quality of the finish is generally high, with tidy double seams and few fussy details. But the colour is a rather putrid greeny blue which I can't imagine would do much for most complexions. A bit expensive for something so dull. The chinos have the most simple cut - straight front, no pleats or turn-ups. They would accentuate snake hips, but could have an unfortunate emasculating effect. Functional, and not particularly glamorous.