The early bird buys a tie and a pair of knickers: Hester Matthewman on the intimate secrets of station shoppers

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Indy Lifestyle Online
8.30 AM, EUSTON STATION. Inside the Tie Rack retail unit, tucked away along the corridor that leads to the ladies loo, a lone businessman is foraging through silk ties printed with garish coral-tinted Marilyn Monroes. He discards the psychedelic Marilyns, rifles dubiously through some patterns, and finally buys a discreet dark green, which he tucks into his briefcase before trotting briskly off towards the Underground.

What kind of person wants to buy a tie at half-past eight in the morning? Whoever they are, there are thousands of them: enough, apparently, to boost Tie Rack's business in the middle of the recession by a phenomenal 23 per cent (according to the company's results announced last week.)

'Buying in a station's no different to buying in any shop. The customers are human beings with the same necks, they see something and fancy it,' says Roy Bishko, Tie Rack's chairman, stressing that they now have branches in 11 countries.

In fact, my researches reveal that many early morning tie-buyers are making panic purchases. 'Normally my wife buys my ties,' explains John, a barrister, aged 50. 'But I spilt my tea on the train down from Birmingham and I need to look presentable this morning.' Student James, 19, is buying some socks (which you can also get in Tie Rack). 'I'm going to stay with friends and I've forgotten to pack any. If I try to make one pair last four days I won't be invited again.'

Later in the day, more frivolous shoppers appear. Mario, a dispatch rider, 29, picks a fish- shaped tie in bilious orangey-yellow, lilac and blue shades. 'I'll probably only wear it once, this evening. I'm going out for a drink with someone who always has dreadful ties, and I want to outgross him.' 'I'm just giving myself a little treat while I'm waiting for the train,' explains Margaret, 60. 'This scarf makes me think of Monet's garden at Giverny in France - all blues and lilacs and pinks.'

Buying gifts at the station is no longer a last resort, according to solicitor Claire, 33. 'I bought my brother a silk shirt for his birthday as I was dashing for the train.' Won't he spot the Tie Rack label and know it was a last-minute thought? 'Possibly. But a silk shirt is a silk shirt, if he hadn't liked it I'd have kept it myself.'

Roy Bishko is extremely sniffy when Tie Rack is 'lumped in' with other station shops, and takes particular exception to being called a niche retailer. 'Niche, smiche] First, niche was a buzz word, then it became a swearword, a word for failure,' he says. However, Tie Rack is not the only store to take advantage of the 85,000 commuters who pass through Euston station every day.

Outside the trendy, glass conservatory-style Sock Shop at 10 past eight, a smartly suited woman was stuffing six small pairs of childrens' socks into a briefcase crammed with papers. Inside, women brandishing pairs of tights were jostling at the till. An auburn-haired girl was choosing a Vivienne Westwood lycra body and a pair of lace hold-up stockings. 'I'm going out after work and I don't want to carry a change of clothes - new undies and a squirt of perfume will see me through.' Across in the twin unit that houses Knickerbox, Rosie, a travel agent, 32, decided to pick up a navy camisole trimmed with lace on her way home that evening. 'I'm going for a long weekend and it's nice to have all new undies - romantic.'

There's definitely something naughty about the supplying of intimate items of clothing at all hours; though the dingy expanses of the loos at Euston are a sad venue for commuters slipping illicitly into fresh undies and clean shirts after a romantic all-night rendezvous. Knickerbox managing-director Stephen Schaffer has more prosaic explanations for his company's sucess. 'Why do people want knickers at a station? It's convenient. People need underwear, even in a recession.' He sees Knickerbox Woman as 'confident, positive, forward-thinking, modern, willing to experiment'.

Some commuters are bemused by shopping on the run. Inside Knickerbox, a confused man inspected some grey patterned pants.

'Are these men's or ladies'?' he asked helplessly. Over at Tie Rack, an elderly gentleman was undecided. 'I don't like buying without my wife's opinion. This is all very trendy. Thirty years ago you wouldn't have dreamed of buying a tie at a station. You might have found a sandwich and a cup of tea - and a newspaper if you were lucky.'