Clothes have become more throwaway; customers more discerning. Are today's shop assistants keeping up?
The joys of clothes shopping can be experienced alone but, like many of life's activities, it tends to be more satisfying and productive with the input of one other person. In this case, the significant other is the shop assistant. In an ideal world this relationship, however brief, should be based on trust, respect and diplomacy.

The wealthy will always attract doting and lavish assistance thanks to their spending power. For the rest of us shopping is often characterised by cramped changing rooms, over-zealous sales assistants working on commission or those who aren't and so repeat like a mantra: "Size 10? If it's not hanging up we haven't got it."

Certainly the traditional shop assistant - blue-rinse matronly type with a tape measure dangling from her neck - has died out with the rise of big High Street names. The decline of this established figure really dates from the Sixties when ready-to-wear clothes and cheap boutiques began to boom. Suddenly it was hip to wear cheap, throwaway fashions - all that expert attention to fittings and alterations seemed so old-fashioned.

That's still true today, although Anthony Miles at Harvey Nichols says the Nineties has seen a shift in the other direction - especially in the department store - with the rise of personal shopping. "It's more like 30 or 40 years ago. You can go to one particular section, Calvin Klein say, and buy a whole lifestyle - hat, suit, shoes etc without the hassle of going round the whole store," he says. "The girls on each area know a lot of their customers and build a rapport with them." But they're a different breed from the old-school shop assistant who now only seems to exist in the rarefied atmosphere of specialist bra and lingerie shops like London's Rigby & Peller. Here their presence is a strong selling point, as owner June Kenton explains: "There has to be the cosseting of the customer - we fit them, give them cups of tea and magazines." But cosseting can be suffocating: not really conducive to the casual no-commitments browse. Miles agrees: "With that old mentality it's really a hard-sell. It's too involved - there can be a lot of pressure."

So where do you go if you're in search of the hassle-free shopping experience; where the assistant's attention is unobtrusive and they never fix you with a "Don't-touch-what-you-can't-afford" stare as you rifle through their rack of silk lingerie; where assistants will give kind, objective advice and pad off obediently to get the next size up?

Not H&M Hennes, I quickly concluded during the first leg of my consumer hunt for the perfect shop assistant. There is little difference between Oxford Circus Tube station and Hennes separates department on a Saturday afternoon. Fighting through the hordes to a rack of nondescript voluminous cardigans, I walk into a navy, size large, which hangs somewhere below my knees.

When I eventually track down an assistant for a second opinion she's like a rabbit caught in headlights. "Do you think this is the right size?" I ask while she still has her back to me pricing up jumpers. Looking startled, she sniffs loudly, and rubs her nose. "Um. It looks all right," she says with little conviction.

Could you tell me where the fitting rooms are? She points towards a mile long queue and turns away again. "Does this come in any other colours?" A visible effort not to roll her eyes and then, "No, it doesn't", and a curt smile. Not surprisingly, Hennes declined the offer to photograph an assistant in her natural habitat. When I asked another one about training she seemed baffled. "Well we get a short induction course but you don't have to give advice really, just tell people where things are ..."

After an extensive search of West End shopping haunts, I found only four shop assistants who came up with the goods.


The shop: Miss Selfridge, Oxford Street

The assistant, Martha Eghan, 16

Before: Skulking around the new autumn range, I tried on a Size 8 black jacket and asked the only available assistant for her point of view. Martha told me that it looked too small on the arms, picked out a size 10 and suggested a range of skirts and trousers to match the jacket; she even offered to look after my bag while I went in search of a mirror.

After: Martha has been working in Miss Selfridge for a month and completed a two day induction course. She was the only interviewee honest enough to admit that honesty can be a trial. "It's hard, especially if you don't like the garment yourself. It happens a lot, so I just say, 'Well, I wouldn't wear it'. If they agree, I suggest an alternative." Given the sniffy stares of other New Bond Street haunts, communal changing rooms and Oasis at high-volume never seemed so enjoyable. And it's a pleasure to know that no self-respecting Miss Selfridge shop assistant would look down their nose and inquire in a withering tone: "Can I help you, madam?"


The shop: Harvey Nichols, Knightsbridge

The assistant: Farhana Hussain, 28

Before: The small, exclusive Yves St Laurent section of Harvey Nichols could double as Ivana Trump's walk-in-wardrobe; a sea of shoulder pads, brass buttons, fuschia and scarlet power suits. l ask to try on some pink jackets and Farhana, one of two assistants there, is very helpful. She gushes at my appearance in a dazzling fuchsia creation that I feel ages me by 10 years. "It really suits your hair," she says. I'm not convinced but she is. "It's meant to be that bright," she enthuses. "It would be great for a cocktail party."

After: Farhana has been working in Harvey Nichols for nine years and hopes, eventually, to be a buyer. She believes the essential traits in a shop assistant are honesty, good communication and friendliness. Her approach is, she says, completely candid. "I like to be honest, otherwise the customer feels uncomfortable," she says. She has been trained in "customer acknowledgement" which means smiling and making eye contact within the first three minutes, then keeping a discreet distance until help is required. Farhana did win points for a welcoming, non-judgemental manner; I was probably dressed far more shabbily than her average well-groomed Yves St Laurent customer.


The shop: Prada, Knightsbridge

The assistant: Mauro D'Amato, 31

Before: Here, even the crassest question is met with impeccable politeness. Ipick up a teensy-weensy, knee-length dress. A suave assistant - Mauro - appears and escorts me to a changing room. He waits patiently outside. I emerge with bulging seams - the dress is obviously too small so I ask the obvious question: "Do I look fat in it?" "No, but the next size would suit you more," he says and whisks off to get another one. I try it on and his advice is considered. "Mmm. I think it should be shorter and you need the right shoes." He comes back with a pounds 300 pair of heels, then kneels down to pin up my hem line. Despite the attention, I don't feel pressurised to buy.

After: Mauro D'Amato, 31, has worked as a shop assistant for seven years. He completed a basic training and attends regular refresher courses. It is vital, he says, to treat all customers equally. When faced with "difficult" customers he tries to give "an even better service - the more you give, the more relaxed they become. It's a bit like therapy." The real learning, says Mauro, comes with experience. "My personal standard is always to be honest. I'll say, 'It looks horrible on you' if it does because they'll respect you and come back."


The shop: The White House, New Bond Street

The assistant: Pat Roper, 60

Before: My appearance certainly worked against me - I felt - when I walked through the doors of The White House on New Bond Street, an exclusive store which sells linen, china and clothes. Maybe it was paranoia but it seemed that I'd barely set foot inside before three assistants chimed, "Can I help you madam?" in that indefinable "Why-are-you-here?" sort of tone. In ladies fashion I attracted the much more sympathetic attentions of Pat, who asked if I needed any help and then let me browse. "It's much too big on the shoulders," she observed frankly, as I slipped into a large Dynasty-style red jacket. "Can I try a smaller size?" "Sorry, we haven't got any in, but perhaps you could try this one," she said, offering me an alternative. Pat's skill was discretion: she kept her distance as I ambled from rail to rail, shuffling through leopard skin silk shirts at pounds 400 a throw.

After: Pat Roper, 60, has been a shop assistant for 44 years, and completed a two-year sales training. "It isn't in my personality to be pushy," she says. "Knowing how to deal with customers is intuitive; learning when to hold back and when to offer help comes with time."