Customer service. It makes all the difference, doesn't it? Particularly at the moment, when entering into a shop is so traumatic, and heading for the till so guilt-inducing, that the last thing you could possibly need would be the added obstacle of sulky store-management.
Done well, customer service can ease the whole transaction, aiding you in the fantasy that what you're buying could, at a stretch, be considered essential. You know the sort of thing I mean: that approving tilt of the head, the exclamation of: "Oh! Everyone needs a good pair of jeans/little black dress/pair of five-inch platform stilettos."
Call it trickery, but in these angst-ridden times those words come like a balm to my Calvinistic soul. (OK, before you send those angry letters, please note that I'm in no way advocating total self-delusion. I simply mean that, when you're as compulsively penny-pinching as I have become, the occasional reminder that there's more to life than frugality doesn't go amiss – especially if it's true that consumption is keeping the economy propped up.)
Done at its best, of course, decent customer service offers the chance of a bargain. Has there ever been a more welcome phrase than, "Those are two for one at the moment"? Or, even better, "Oh, we can give you money off that." I know – it doesn't happen very often. But those were the exact words I heard the other day, during a lunch-time flick through the sale rail at French Connection. I happened upon a cardigan (in practical navy) that had been reduced by 70 per cent. It fitted, or well enough at that price, and I decided to take the plunge. Out came the debit card, and off I went to pay.
"Have you seen that one of the buttons is missing?" asked Huma, the very lovely shop assistant. Obviously, I hadn't: most of my own clothes are so scruffy (or, ahem, vintage-look) that my eyes no longer recognise the presence of such trifling details. At any rate, I had already decided I wanted it, so I wasn't going to be deterred like that.
"Are you sure you still want it?" Huma asked. "How about we give you some money off?"
Ooh, a discount! I should have thought of that. Luckily, I didn't have to, as Huma suggested it for me.
"Yes please!" I sang. She took off an extra 25 per cent – making the total reduction 77.5 per cent.
Of course, it just goes to show how low the high street can go before they start losing their profit. But still, the gesture was thoroughly appreciated.