Are you being served? You will be at Daniel: Bra extenders, lone trouser pockets, toys, prams . . . Emma Brooker visits a determinedly traditional department store

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The Independent Online
MRS MAYSCH and Mrs Barclay make a trip to Windsor from Surbiton once a month. They never bother to look around the castle. They head straight for Daniel department store and spend a good hour browsing before refreshing themselves in the basement coffee shop.

'Quite often we don't buy anything, but we see something and we say to each other, 'Goodness] we haven't seen that for years',' explains Mrs Maysch, 63, enjoying a well-earned sponge square.

'We often find it's got things we want, like slimmer trousers and gore skirts,' says Mrs Barclay, 'and although we've never bought furniture here, we always say how well stocked that department is, and how nicely it's laid out.'

Daniel is one of the few traditional department stores left in the country. Its shop front stands out among the standardised chain stores of Windsor's town centre. Yet, while multinational chains have been feeling the bite of recession, Daniel has opened two new branches. The company stationery now bears the legend 'Windsor, Ealing, Newbury, Cardiff, Ebbw Vale'.

This spring, the Daniel proposed a scheme to 'bring the store into the Nineties'. It was deluged with letters from distressed patrons insisting that Daniel be 'saved'.

Founded in 1901 by Walter James Daniel and run by three generations of his family, the store specialises in toys, baby furniture, drapery, kitchenware and fashions for the older woman.

In addition to sets of Le Creuset and a vast range of Nintendo games, Daniel offers sanctuary to a host of items unknown to modern retailers: bra extenders, pressure cooker gaskets, lone trouser pockets and components for home-made suspenders.

The Duke of Edinburgh has been known to pop down for a last-minute Christmas present. Middle Eastern royalty and a clutch of television celebrities resident in the area patronise this stoically unglamorous store. 'Try Daniel' is the wisdom among connoisseur shoppers in the Thames Valley.

Major department stores base their buying on computer systems that register best-selling lines, while smaller chains use buying groups such as Associated Independent Stores. Daniel has 10 buyers, all of whom serve on the shop floor. Miss Cox in hosiery, and several of her colleagues, have served at Daniel for more than 30 years, and are more finely attuned to customer needs than the most advanced computer.

'We stock up to five times more variety,' says Richard Daniel, or 'Mr Richard' as he is known to staff, one of the founder's five great grandchildren now involved in running the store. 'Other shops go for the top sellers and they're not interested in anything else, but of course the less popular items are often the things our customers want.'

The store's display windows, crammed with 40-year-old mannequins, porcelain ornaments and baskets of wool, are a gentle introduction to the psychedelic array of merchandise on offer inside.

Sock suspenders, available in six different shades, jostle with paper frills for dressing chicken legs. Pushing through a rack of sequinned evening wear on special offer, the customer stumbles over a stack of Radio Times, some novelty miniature fruitcakes and a range of canvas peg bags and table mats exclusive to the store.

The absence of logical boundaries reflects the organic way in which the store has grown. The pram department, which now has the world's largest steel-bodied one-piece baby carriage, at pounds 450, started back in 1930 with a wrongly delivered pram which sold within minutes.

The artistry of the Daniel display team, which includes a full-time 'ticket writer' responsible for producing the store's display signs, is everywhere apparent.

Staff receive no conventional training. A poster pinned to their social club notice board reads, 'The customer IS our business. He brings us his needs; it is our job to fulfil them.'

Mr Richard, who receives a daily fax from his 91-year-old grandfather, 'Mr Charles', concerning the running of the store, explains: 'You must never say, can I help you? If the customer says no, you're finished. There's nothing else to say. You've got to find your own way that isn't saying, can I help you? I say something like, 'There's too many to choose from, aren't there?' '

The Daniel family's involvement in the business is total. Richard Daniel's cousins, the daughters of his uncle, run the Ealing store. The newest store, opened in Cardiff six months ago, was built by two of the daughters' husbands. 'We're so lucky,' Mr Richard says.

Each shop assistant has evolved a personal style. Shop-floor legends are remembered with awe. One, a drapery buyer, was 'so good that, as he got older, my grandfather used to go to his house and bring him into the shop. He worked into his seventies,' says Mr Richard.

It is no surprise that Daniel customers are more than satisfied. In these shabbily genteel surroundings, many experience peak moments in their shopping careers.

'Your staff are a credit to you and I hope I'll have the honour of ordering from you again,' writes Mrs Biggs of Stanmore in Middlesex.

'I assure you that all my future needs will be purchased at Daniel's,' writes Mrs Edwards of Virginia Water in Surrey. 'It's very obvious that service and courtesy are part of your store, so unlike the couldn't-care-less attitude of assistants elsewhere.'

The same service philosophy applies equally to computer games as to sock suspenders. Daniel is one of the biggest sellers of computer games in Berkshire. 'All our boys take the games home and try them so that they can tell customers what they are really like,' Mr Richard says.

'Our class of customer just doesn't like to be pounced on,' says Miss Griffin, a buyer and assistant with almost four decades' experience. 'They like to be left alone to browse. If they pick something up, I might say, 'Good morning madam, you're treating yourself today.' '

She is interrupted by a startled cry from behind a 'scoop purchase' rack. 'I thought these had gone out of fashion]' says an elderly customer examining some floral crimplene dresses with astonishment. She will be back as regularly as Daniel's high street competitors shed their stock.

(Photograph omitted)

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