No polka-dot ribbons please, we're British
Daniel Jeffreys loves shopping in New York, but on a trip to London he finds something sadly lacking in the wrapping department
Wednesday 13 December 1995
I don't like shopping in London, even in posh stores. My purchases never seem to be treated well. You pay your money, they bung it in a plastic bag and show you the door.
A purchase should be wrapped. Americans understand this, the British do not. If I buy a tie in a New York store, it is put inside a beautiful cardboard box, which has first been lined with tissue paper. The box is then tied all around with satin ribbon. This is done automatically, at the counter where you have made your purchase.
Even the best London stores think their obligation ends with giving you the item you've bought. You buy a tie, they give you a tie - what more do you want? What I want is a celebration of my purchase. In places like Tokyo and New York they understand this, because they have mastered the art of consumption.
Take the fashion store Bergdorf Goodman on Fifth Avenue. Purple or white satin ribbon spills from beneath counters, waiting to be tied around gorgeous silver boxes. All the sales assistants seem to have their own special way with scissors, to make the ribbon curl.Nobody would suggest you visit a basement wrapeteria to obtain this service.
All British stores of any style should check out Henri Bendel, a clothes store also on Fifth Avenue. This is my favourite, where a purchase of $10 or $10,000 receives the same treatment.
A soft voice asks that you wait. Your item is whisked away and given a tissue-paper bed in a brown-and-white-striped box. The package is secured with a brown-and-white-polka-dot ribbon, tied in a precise bow. The perfectly wrapped purchase is then placed inside a brown-and-white-striped bag made from stiff paper with thick bootlace handles.
And before the environmentalists go mad, all this can be recycled: the bags last for ever and make perfect briefcases, much more stylish than some black leather thing, and the boxes are kept for birthdays or next Christmas.
I called Harrods recently. If I bought some costume jewellery, would it be wrapped? "We'll put it in a Harrods pouch," I was told. But could it be wrapped, I asked - you know, in a sturdy box with ribbons? "You could go to our wrapping department and have that done." I imagined a room, where fellow wrapaholics are offered counselling along with their sinful boxes.
Shopping is a celebration of self. If you are not inhibited, you can enjoy it, but it's not something that goes well with a stiff upper lip. Sometimes I enjoy watching others buy, just to see their faces as the wrapping takes place; it's like the cigarette after sex.
This vicarious pleasure can be enjoyed almost anywhere in Manhattan. To Americans, shopping is a joy. A truly classless society can afford this luxury: the American dream says work hard and you can have this. Of course that's a myth, but it is believed by most Americans.
The British are not classless, so consumption must not be conspicuous. The toffs don't want to show off their wealth, lest the masses get restless. The masses want to be inconspicuous, lest anyone accuse them of being nouveau riche. This can make shopping a miserable experience.
On a recent visit home I went to the gift shop at the Victoria and Albert Museum. Every museum shop in New York has a lovely wrapping service. Not so the V and A.
We had bought a present for my wife's sister. "Could we get it wrapped?" Incomprehension. "The gift wrapped, in a box." Hostility and incomprehension. "Do you have a box to put this in?" The sales assistant sniffed. "There's a card shop, across the street - maybe they have wrapping paper. Or you could try Harrods - it's not far."
We were about to give up, but a seemingly more sympathetic assistant stepped in. "I think we might have some boxes, from that new delivery." I was transported: a new delivery, a new policy - proper wrapping had at last arrived in London. How naive. The sales assistant returned. In her hand was a used cardboard box that had once held toner for a photocopying machine. "You could tape this up and wrap it in paper," she said brightly.
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