This is a snob-free zone Shopping without snobs

Stewart Hennessey on the open appeal of Argos stores

The London Victoria branch of Argos is like every other branch of Argos. That's deliberate: bright soft light bounces off pale-grey walls, computer terminals and orderly display cabinets: CD players, toys, cameras, prams and other goodies/consumer durables rest temptingly on shelves. Clutter is absent and decorative touches non-existent. The ambience is functional; it's less a shop, more a showroom.

Milling around are city suits examining briefcases, a tartan bonnet looking over cheap compilation CDs and a plum mouth inquiring about answering machines. The surprise about Argos is that it is a far cry from what most people often take it for: a council-estate spin-off. The classless appeal of technology fills the air.

Michael Coutts, 37, a systems analyst in a smart Italian suit, is here to buy appliances for his new flat. "I wouldn't order from catalogues. That's lazy," he says. "They're expensive, you can't inspect the goods and you have to wait for them. Argos is different."

Argos shoppers often talk like converts. The sales method is unlike any other. Purchased goods don't come off the shelves. They are ordered via computer from massive unseen storerooms. The customer fills in a form, takes it to the terminal to pay, receives a receipt and picks up his or her item from the collections desk.

Sandra Nowman, 35, a south Londoner, has been working in the Victoria branch since it opened 10 years ago. "I was quite surprised at the customers because I thought `oh yeah, a catalogue shop', but we get all types," she says. "Our busiest time is lunchtime because of the office staff round here. The atmosphere is very friendly and relaxed. My friends and family come now - it's so cheap."

Argos is cheap partly because the stores are never on prime sites and partly because they deal in sums that look like they are in lira. The catalogue print run is one of Europe's largest, measurable in tens of millions. Annual turnover has topped £1bn for the fourth year running and last year's profits, announced last week, ran to £100m. Their newest distribution centre, Magna Park in Leicestershire, involved enough steel to build 2,500 cars. The 306 stores offer more than 5,200 items and the 44 superstores some 7,200.

"Our customer profile echoes UK demographics," explains Janet Hildreth, public relations manager. "People may find that surprising but we don't. The only discrepancies are at the top end of As and the bottom of Es."

Uniquely, Argos targets the whole of Britain, with no emphasis on any class income, type, set, taste or age. "It suits me because I'm busy," says Lisa Ferguson, 24, an office administrator buying an Olympus camera. "I get 30 minutes' lunch. I can't browse or queue. I thought of Argos because I work round the corner."

Argos also seduces technophiles and young people. "I don't shop in department stores," says unemployed Adrian Haberman, 18, who spends his day surfing the Internet. "They're too expensive but anyway I can't stand waiting, even when I'm not in a hurry. This is flashy."

It's getting flashier. In 1994 Argos became the first UK chain to use touch-screen technology, now available in 20 stores, which enables customers to process their own purchase and order it from the storerooms.

"I never cared about convenience shopping before," says Alison Warnock, 47, a suburban housewife who is buying a present for her brother-in-law. "I came here on a whim. Friends made comments about me going to a catalogue shop as though it were a bookmaker's. Now I come because I'm addicted to the sedate atmosphere. When I leave the house the thought of crowds in Harrods makes me come here."

As with most convenience ideas, catalogue chains hail from the less class- bound and more sophisticated consumer culture of North America. They caught the eye of Richard Tompkins, who had introduced Green Shield stamps in Britain in the early Seventies. He launched the first 17 Argos stores from a London hotel, with much razzmatazz (18 dancers and specially written songs) on 17 July 1973, when the average income was £975. Sales totalled £6.5m in the first financial year.

According to Jenny Beamish, 31, Argos is a success because Argos equals egalitarianism. "I started shopping in Argos when I was on the dole in a crap council house in Willesden. Now I work in an auditor's. I'll still shop here if I become a senior partner. It saves time and money but it's also calm. If that doesn't suit you, you're probably just a snob."

Suggested Topics
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Feeling all at sea: Barbara's 18-year-old son came under the influence of a Canadian libertarian preacher – and she had to fight to win him back
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Living the high life: Anne Robinson enjoys some skip-surfed soup
TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
Doctor Who and Missy in the Doctor Who series 8 finale

TV
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    10 best PS4 games

    10 best PS4 games

    Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
    Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

    ‘Can we really just turn away?’

    Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

    ... and not just because of Isis vandalism
    Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

    Girl on a Plane

    An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent
    Markus Persson: If being that rich is so bad, why not just give it all away?

    That's a bit rich

    The billionaire inventor of computer game Minecraft says he is bored, lonely and isolated by his vast wealth. If it’s that bad, says Simon Kelner, why not just give it all away?
    Euro 2016: Chris Coleman on course to end half a century of hurt for Wales

    Coleman on course to end half a century of hurt for Wales

    Wales last qualified for major tournament in 1958 but after several near misses the current crop can book place at Euro 2016 and end all the indifference
    Rugby World Cup 2015: The tournament's forgotten XV

    Forgotten XV of the rugby World Cup

    Now the squads are out, Chris Hewett picks a side of stars who missed the cut
    A groundbreaking study of 'Britain's Atlantis' long buried at the bottom of the North Sea could revolutionise how we see our prehistoric past

    Britain's Atlantis

    Scientific study beneath North Sea could revolutionise how we see the past
    The Queen has 'done and said nothing that anybody will remember,' says Starkey

    The Queen has 'done and said nothing that anybody will remember'

    David Starkey's assessment
    Oliver Sacks said his life has been 'an enormous privilege and adventure'

    'An enormous privilege and adventure'

    Oliver Sacks writing about his life
    'Gibraltar is British, and it is going to stay British forever'

    'Gibraltar is British, and it is going to stay British forever'

    The Rock's Chief Minister hits back at Spanish government's 'lies'
    Britain is still addicted to 'dirty coal'

    Britain still addicted to 'dirty' coal

    Biggest energy suppliers are more dependent on fossil fuel than a decade ago