The Irritations of Modern Life: 23. Harrods

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The Independent Culture
THE CUSTOMER is always right. An axiom faithfully observed in shops the world over, with one dazzling exception; a certain "top people's store" in the heart of Knightsbridge.

Harrods, despite all its pretensions, is merely a shop. But since Mohamed al-Fayed took the place over, it seems to have become a surreal fiefdom-cum-theme park.

The first challenge is to get into the place: Harrods operates a dress code every bit as stringent as the swankiest hotel bar or the most hardcore of S&M clubs. No tight shorts, no singlets, and no "rips or tears" in clothing (presumably there's an attendant on standby with a splitometer to determine exactly when a snag crosses the rip/tear boundary).

Kate Winslet and her husband Jim Threapleton (rip and tear respectively) are the latest celebrity victims of these strictures; previous high-profile lockouts have included Jason Donovan for his cycling shorts.

Once you've been admitted, finding what you're looking for becomes a quest that assumes Holy Grail proportions. The store is a labyrinth, with the unlikeliest of juxtapositions (pets next to furnishings, books next to luggage), and teasing signs assuring you that kitchen appliances are to be found through men's grooming and car maintenance, when, in fact, they lead you into designer china via dry-cleaning and stationery.

Progress is further impeded by armies of tourists bumbling around in search of the Room of Luxury (an airport lounge affair with the same range of overpriced knick-knackery), and the Diana and Dodi Memorial. Other hackle-risers include an array of player pianos, tinkling in every corner; baffling changes in temperature, from Arctic to sub-Sahara; and the battalions of staff, obsequious and condescending by turns (though they get their just desserts at sale time, when they're forced to sport red rosettes, giving them the look of prize ponies at gymkhanas).

Even if you succeed in making a purchase, you're obliged to take it home in one of those smug bags that are the last word in naff. As you're spewed back into the street, exhibiting the post-trauma look of your fellow bag-clutchers, you can pause to reflect on a marketing opportunity the store has failed to capitalise on; along with their own-brand teddy bears, aprons, and shortbread biscuits, an "I Survived Harrods" T-shirt should surely be a compulsory purchase.

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