SEALED WITH A GIFT

TRIED & TESTED; Shopping for a wedding list can put any relationships to the test.
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The Independent Culture
Organising Your wedding can be a trying and emotional experience. But could it be a lot easier with the aid of an organised department store? More and more stores are offering help beyond the wedding list with services aiming not only to prevent duplication of gifts, but to cater for many other requirements, such as stationery, jewellery, transport to the church and so on. It's clearly big business for them, but is it really helpful for the harassed couple?

THE TEST

We compared the services of five well-known department stores, plus an independent wedding list company, to see which administrative method was the most popular. Naturally, stores are chosen primarily because couples like the product range, but our survey showed that initial enquiries into the wedding list service itself sometimes caused them to change their minds.

THE PANEL

Due to the long-term nature of the trial, couples questioned were all newly-weds of less than two years' standing. Among them were: Graham MacLellan, Lucinda Buxton, Jane Bartlett, Nicola Scicluna-Warren, Dominique Lafaur and Gail Wetherby.

*****JOHN LEWIS PARTNERSHIP

Information from individual branches

More than one interviewee in our trial commented on the "deli counter ticket" queueing system in the wedding list departments of the John Lewis Partnership, which allows prospective wedding list users and their guests access to computer terminal operators in a room the size of an airport lounge. And yet the reason why this chain runs such a massive operation is because, for most of middle Eng-and, romance is not high on the list when it comes to kitting out their marital homes. The famous John Lewis maxim, "Never knowingly undersold" appeals to many, while their carefully chosen, if not stunning, stock make consumers feel secure. They were overwhelmingly the most popular store at which to have a wedding list and nobody questioned could recall a major gripe with the service. A closely typed, photocopied handout doles out advice to list-makers and a book listing categories of possible gifts (china, cutlery etc) is provided to help prevent crucial omissions (corkscrew, for example). A special order service makes sure products which have gone out of stock can still be bought. It really does seem as if John Lewis has thought of everything. Forward planning is necessary, however. "Collated delivery", in which all the gifts are delivered at once, may become unavailable if all storage space is used up; couples then have to accept ad hoc deliveries of gifts as they are bought. Some brides make the most of it: "I thought there was something wrong with my life when the presents stopped coming every day," said Nicola Scicluna- Warren.

***THE GIFT LIST CO

Administration fee pounds 125, free delivery within London

Chosen as representative of a small number of bespoke wedding list services across the country, this small, independent service based in owner Hazel Collins' showplace north London home ostensibly offers the possibility of choosing gifts from as many stores as you like, in exchange for an administration fee. In practice, the benefits of such a personal service are much more subtle, for the charming and persuasive Mrs Collins not only carefully interviews her clients to assess their tastes, she also takes them shopping for a day in London, paying for all refreshments and taxis, and providing the benefit of her encyclopaedic knowledge of little- known stores. She then steers the guests towards much-wanted items and makes them feel that their watering can is just as important as a Lalique vase. A lot of champagne flows in the Gift List office, and although products are not wrapped, they arrive in legions of white bags tied with satin bows. It's all very festive and soothing if you can afford it. It is not, as the staff freely admit "for people who want own-brand goods; they're better off with department stores", but it works well both for the bewildered bride and the very discerning.

****HABITAT

Free service, pounds 3 delivery fee added to individual gifts

"Very nicely packaged; very Habitat," was the way one interviewee described this chain's wedding list service, which surprised us by its genuinely friendly, efficient and flexible administration. Habitat's reputation for high-fashion homewares at reasonable prices means that the stock is more prone to change than in other shops, but staff work hard to circumvent this down point, taking coveted items off the shop floor and highlighting them to guests. Each store runs a slightly different system, but in many, the wedding department staff run the warehouse themselves, setting no limit to the time gifts may be stored after the wedding. The service is computer-linked to all Habitat stores even as far away as Ireland, and the staff tend to be multilingual. They don't gift wrap but, like the wedding list brochure itself, the blue tissue paper and Habitat ribbon are chic; cards are also provided free. Customers may phone up as often as they like for updates. A current customer survey is aimed at further improving the system. So far, suggested improvements proving popular with customers include discount incentives, refreshments and linking to the Internet. "Our customers tend to be busy young professionals who could probably access it through work," said a spokeswoman.

**HARRODS

Free service, free delivery within Greater London

Britain's best known department store, with acres of retailing space featuring (mostly empty) sections with such mystifying appellations as "Room of Luxury" and "Age of Elegance", Harrods' enduring international appeal means a huge choice of products to wonder about and huge crowds of tourists to battle with in all its main thoroughfares. As one interviewee confessed, having a wedding list here undoubtedly lends cachet if you have guests from abroad; setting it up, however, can be a black affair. When wondering around the store selecting items for inclusion for the list there is a sense in which you feel the staff are anxious to contain so many people looking at so many things. And apart from the security guards at every door, where ever you look there are neatly printed signs warning, "Please Do Not Touch". In the bridal registry, your "introduction" is carried out by a poker-faced, would-be air hostess in uniform navy blazer, who runs through the copious terms and conditions, assuring you of their best attentions via a "personal bridal consultant" - one of "50 or 60" women in an off-site telesales room. The introductory folder is stuffed with offers: Lancome invites the blushing bride to a free make- up session; Harrods' photographic studio invites the loving couple to a free portrait sitting, with complimentary photographs of the engagement ring - so useful for insurance claims. As Harrods offers no storage facility, there are only two options: to have the gifts delivered as they are bought, or to take out a white plastic bridal registry card, which functions as a credit card for the account into which guests have been pouring funds. They may have had toasters and towels in mind, but as no check is kept on how you spend the money at the close of the list, you can quietly blow the money on a whole new wardrobe of designer clothes.

**MARKS & SPENCER

Free service, individual deliveries pounds 3.50

Given the limited floor space devoted to homewares in most M&S stores, users of the service are directed to the 100 "Wedding List stores" where most furniture, linens, dinner services, cutlery and glass is on show. Alternatively they can make choices from a catalogue featuring room sets under quaint design headings such as "country charm" and "freshness in floral". Notwithstanding the photographic realism and stress-free armchair shopping, selecting goods in 2-D is a risky business. One interviewee commented, "They have Provencal-style ceramics, but they are too smooth, too neat. M&S is so safe. And they wouldn't let us put clothes or non- household items on the list - I think they found the idea unimaginable." Registration is a no-fuss, no-thrills affair. I was seen immediately by a nice, mumsy woman who cleared a stack of papers off a chair for me to sit on, gave me a free catalogue and other (strictly M&S) offers including "exclusive" wedding rings. You can even register by phone, but however you do it you'll be issued with a secret password; a measure apparently introduced to forestall the jealous pranks of former lovers. Interestingly, the wedding stationery ranges from conservative to very contemporary - and they turned out to be some of the best we've seen. Gift wrapping is available at pounds 2.50 per item.

***GENERAL TRADING COMPANY

Free service and free delivery within Greater London

You would be hard pressed to find anything tasteless in this exclusive, family-run emporium located in three converted Georgian houses just off Sloane Square. The china department has wacky as well as classical designs; the textiles have a strong oriental slant; there is a whole floor of antiques, and most furniture that isn't period has been cunningly distressed. Not without a sense of humour, GTC is particularly big on horticultural themes - even the rubber glovers have fruit and veg on the cuffs - in a way which implies that a conservatory is a minimum requirement for summer entertaining. All this makes their wedding list service de rigueur with both Sloanes and style slaves, who value the very personal service above the prices, which are always on the luxury side of reasonable. A folder stuffed with GTC's mail order and other brochures, plus a helpful checklist of gift suggestions for the bridesmaids etc starts the bride off; advice on all aspects of wedding planning is also given discreet mention. The list is up and running within two days of an appointment with one of two or three wedding service staff, who trudge patiently around the shop with couples, making notes as they dither over the jardinieres. Delivery of all gifts is free within Greater London; one bride questioned chose GTC specifically because it can arrange delivery abroad. The list remains open for three years after the wedding - so useful for anniversaries and birthdays.

FURTHER INFORMATION

See the telephone directory for details of John Lewis stores nationwide; for your nearest Habitat store call 0645 334433; The Gift List Co, tel 0181 342 8211; Harrods' Bridal Registry, tel 0171 225 6500; Marks & Spencer Wedding Bureau, tel 01925 858502; General Trading Company, tel 0171 730 0411. !

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