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."

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