Service comes with a smile and a biscuit: Fashion shops are finding that old-fashioned service and friendly assistants make loyal customers, says Tamsin Blanchard

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THERE are too many shops selling too many clothes in Britain. Many of them were spawned in the late Eighties when money was plentiful and the shopping was easy. Those same high street chains in anonymous town centres are now struggling for business at a time when analysts suggest clothes are coming farther down people's order of priorities.

The slump has produced a new breed of shopkeeper, one who is putting emphasis on a distinctly old-fashioned idea - giving customers good service. Such shopkeepers appreciate that the customer needs ever-increasing incentives just to enter a shop, let alone part with money. And it seems the technique is working.

Small things make shopping an enjoyable experience. Retailers, many inspired by successes such as Paul Smith, are working hard to individualise their shops. It can be as trivial as the kind of music that is played (or the complete lack of it). It can simply be that the shop assistants are interested and know what they are talking about. Often it is the subtle lack of pushy service that makes a shop more pleasurable to browse around.

More Cherubs is one of the new small clothes shops that is putting service at the forefront of its appeal. The Liverpool shop sells small designer labels (mainly local and from Manchester) to the city's club-happy, bright young things.

What sets this shop apart is not so much the clothes on the rails as the friendly atmosphere. 'I go against conventional rules of selling - I've never been motivated by money,' says Sarah Singleton, the 27-year-old owner.

The service in her shop is never pushy. She has a great eye for detail. Her changing cubicles are bigger than most and have a mirror in each one, so customers do not have to come out into the shop if they do not want to.

'When girls come into the shop and try something on, she'll always tell the truth,' says Sarah Boden, 24, a regular customer. 'If it doesn't suit them, she tells them.'

'I know it'll be right for someone else,' says Ms Singleton. 'That way, people trust my judgement and keep coming back.'

A huge tin of sweets (Thornton's) stands next to the cash till, alongside a plate of home-baked cakes and biscuits. The shop feels homely and intimate. Ms Singleton's friend Jenny Clague, 'bakes a mean cookie'.

Compared with the chain stores that originally bought shop space in Cavern Walks shopping centre, Ms Singleton's initial investment was laughably small. Yet More Cherubs is now thriving where the big names failed. Chains such as Sock Shop (which originally owned the More Cherubs unit) have been shutting down outlets.

It is surprising how many people hate going shopping. The prospect of finding a new pair of shoes or some other much-needed addition to the wardrobe can be daunting; all that traipsing around those shops with their superior, unfriendly assistants.

'I hate going into designer shops and being looked up and down by the assistants,' says Joanne Pendleton, 24, shopping in London's Covent Garden. 'It just makes me want to walk straight out again.'

Some old firms have always valued their standards of service. Austin Reed has a high proportion of regular, loyal customers - a fact Catriona Wemyss, its spokeswoman, attributes to the intimate and knowledgeable relationships built up between staff and regular customers. 'People want to be looked after and cared for. They are becoming much more aware of service and are more demanding of it,' she says.

Austin Reed offers its customers coffee on every floor, consultations for busy women who need a working wardrobe, and a dry- cleaning service.

Steve Cochrane, owner of Psyche, a designer menswear shop in Middlesbrough, says: 'So many retailers get complacent. I like to give the customers something back - let them know we're grateful for their custom.'

He sells pricey labels such as Dolce e Gabbana, Dries Van Noten and Jasper Conran. To compensate for the prices, he organises wine, cheese and Guinness nights for customers (he has a mailing list of 2,000 from as far afield as Durham, Newcastle, Sunderland and York).

Mr Cochrane sums up the views of the new kind of retailer. 'It's all about building a rapport with your customers,' he says. 'It's the only way for us to stay in business.'

More Cherubs, 3a Cavern Walks, Matthew Street, Liverpool 3 (051 258 1700); Psyche, 215 Linthorpe Road, Middlesbrough (0642 240 848); Austin Reed, 103-113 Regent Street, London W1 (071-734 6789) and branches nationwide.

(Photograph omitted)

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