Christmas shopping the lazy way: pay someone else to do it

Clare Garner finds a service that takes away the legwork
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The Independent Online
"Oh Auntie Mavis, you shouldn't have!" The chances are, she didn't.

The impersonalisation of Christmas has reached epic proportions this year, as thousands of people turn to professionals to do their Christmas shopping for them.

Department stores such as Harvey Nichols and Selfridges in London and Fraser in Glasgow employ teams of full-time "personal shoppers" to choose, wrap and deliver to your door suitable gifts for your friends, colleagues and relatives. The service is free - and increasingly popular. All you have to do is sign the attached tags and cross your fingers that the presents are appropriate.

Rather like a wedding list in reverse, the Christmas list consists of name and price range, plus any details the customer feels are relevant. Some specify the age or character of the recipient, a few suggest a particular item.

Gabriella Di Nora, 38, the doyenne of personal shopping who started a service in Selfridges two years ago after seven years at Harvey Nichols, says the practice of Christmas lists by proxy is becoming increasingly popular.

Among her customers is Princess Diana, whose signed photographs and Christmas cards for the past two years are framed and hung on the walls of Gabriella's swish shopping suite. Although a host of celebrities use her service, it is also popular with widows, elderly people, single men and no end of women who have been landed with the shopping. "There is no limit, no restriction and no extra cost," she says.

Few people dictate what she buys, but some give helpful hints. "They might say `grandparent, pounds 20, she's very religious', and I might choose a religious calendar or rosary or something like that," she says.

But the better the brief, the more successful the list, she adds. "I've just had a fax from a girl who said she had a very limited budget. She only had pounds 300. That's wonderfully helpful. It was a very clear list. It had the person's name and what she wanted to get them."

Hundreds of people hand over their Christmas lists to Gabriella each year. Some make an appointment to come and inspect the goods, but others don't bother. "If they trust me, some people don't even want to look at what they bought. They just say: `Wrap it up and send it over'."

The easiest customers to please are those who come year after year. "Each year I type them [their lists] again and work on them again," she said. "I've already done the repeats. Although I've never met the people on it, I'll go off and shop for them and say: `This is what I've bought for John'. You build up a picture of this person."

Those who do want to go and inspect the selected goods, are invited into the second-floor suite. Kitted out with glass coffee tables and funky furniture, bouquets of lilies and strategically scattered glossy magazines, the area is designed for maximum comfort. In the words of one satisfied customer: "They serve tea as many times as you like. On a tray. Properly. No plastic cups."

Gabriella starts the season by doing a recce of all Selfridges' stock. She selects "whacky, fun and useless - you know, nice but useless presents" to stuff in her "ideas room" - a Santa's grotto of sorts.

People start putting in their orders as early as September, but there are always men who have left their shopping to the last minute. "On Christmas Eve we have the longest queue ever with men buying presents for their wives, secretaries and mistress if they have one," she said. "A man will choose lingerie for both parties - wife and mistress - very sexy, but in different sizes, invariably. The wife invariably brings it back after Christmas and exchanges it for a Viyella nightie or a big Triumph bra. They very rarely understand the message the man is sending."