The human shopping trolleys

John Windsor discovers how good the major stores are at spending your money for you
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No time to shop? Then choose a personal shopper - one of the new, American-style in-house store assistants trained to serve shoppers who have no time and, dare one say it, no taste. No time to choose a personal shopper? Then heed the advice of Suzanne Wilkinson.

She tested the skills of personal shoppers at five big London stores, in her role as consumer research editor of the Good Housekeeping Institute's magazine Good Housekeeping. She liked the service at one store so much that she returned to be personally shopped in her own time. Was it Harrods, Selfridges, Dickins & Jones, Debenhams? No, it was humble, down-to-earth Marks and Spencer, which has put its first personal shoppers on the floors of its Finsbury Pavement, London, store.

Two other M&S stores, in Manchester and Birmingham, also have them. "Choosing a personal shopper is a bit like choosing a hairdresser," says Ms Wilkinson, a mother of four: "You go for the stylist, not the salon".

The service at the stores she visited is free. And at M&S in Finsbury Pavement, where up to 20 of the 30 personal shoppers are on duty at the lunchtime peak, she found there was no difficulty getting served. At other stores, appointments have to be booked up to a fortnight ahead. And there are questionnaires to be filled in.

She was in search of an outfit for the office: "I needed advice on skirt lengths, styles and brighter colours, which suit me best," she says. "It's too easy to go for the baggy grey look". She found that her personal shopper at M&S, Val Copley, was "in tune" with her taste and well versed in mixing and matching - although on her first visit she chose for her an extra- long skirt that she would not have chosen herself. "I like it, it's really different," Ms Wilkinson says: "it has brought a lot of favourable comment back at the office". The outfit of jacket, skirt, top and belt, cost pounds 124. She had set a pounds 250 limit.

"The fact that I went back to in my own time to get a summer wardrobe shows that I felt it was worth doing," she says. "I felt I was being given the sort of service that we were used to 40 years ago. You can not only achieve more in less time - it's also good for people who are less confident and would like others to see them with a fresh eye."

On her return visit she bought two outfits - the first a bright green jacket that she would have chosen herself, with a navy dress with green flowers that she would not have done: "But they do complement one other. I've worn the outfit to work - it's simple and summery". Price pounds 110.

Then a washable baby-pink suit at pounds 75. "As for putting something with it, I would have gone for a body. But Val said: `There are some nice silky tops on a floor upstairs'. I probably wouldn't have wandered up there. That's another advantage of personal shoppers. They are not only trained to have an eye for what suits you, they know the stock and are prepared to run around to fetch it.

"I took 12 or 14 silky tops with me into the changing room. Normally only two or three would be allowed and I would have had to get dressed again to go out and choose more. But with personal shoppers around, there is no security problem."

It took less than an hour to choose both outfits: "a condensed shopping trip".

The other stores? Harrods: the jacket of the Apriori suit chosen for her (pounds 248.95) has a shaped flame-red jacket that slims her - "an overwhelming success: they had me well sussed".

Selfridges: Extensive questionnaire, photograph and a new look for her; a Betty Barclay ribbed jumper - "I'd never have worn it tucked into the skirt". But the shaped belt, 5cm wide instead of 3cm, made her size 14 waist look like a size 12 (pounds 170.95).

Dickins & Jones: not much time spent finding out her needs and more attention given to colour than her preferences; St John trouser suit with vest (pounds 860, well above budget) aged her.

Debenhams: personal shopper had good knowledge of fashion and designers, gave opinions freely, and most garments selected suited Ms Wilkinson's personality, shape and taste - the bright blue Kalico suit (pounds 159) made her look and feel younger. But the changing room was pokey.

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