How to be a gift list adviser

Choosing wedding presents can be fraught. That's why couples turn to gift list advisers

Ladies and gentlemen, we are gathered here today to... choose your gift list. Weddings might be a time for love and romance, but they are also a time for presents. And couples who don't want 20 identical napkin rings now turn to professional gift list advisers to get the gifts they really want.

"People think my job is romantic," says Hannah Sarpong, a gift list adviser at John Lewis. "They think I'm a wedding planner, but I only control a small portion of the wedding. But then, most couples do really look forward to their presents."

The gift list service is a relatively new phenomenon. It works like this: eight weeks or so before the wedding, a couple sets up a list at the store, over the phone, or - increasingly - online. Guests then choose which item to buy, and the list is updated as the big day approaches. What a gift list adviser does is to help both the couple and their wedding guests.

According to Sarpong, John Lewis has the most established gift list service, although advisers can also be found at major department stores such as Debenhams. Heal's has advisers at its Tottenham Court Road branch in London, where the company says the job involves administration, using the online service, communication with the bride and groom via e-mail or telephone, and "ensuring that all are happy".

The skills needed include excellent customer service, good organisational skills, good communication skills and computer literacy. At Marks & Spencer, in-store staff offer advice on gifts, but there are no specific advisers.

At John Lewis in Brent Cross, where Sarpong works, there are 30 staff in the gift list department. While they cater for a variety of occasions, such as birthdays, anniversaries, christenings, Diwali and Bar Mitzvahs, weddings are the biggest part of the job.

Sarpong, 24, a law graduate, finished her studies last year. She started at John Lewis six years ago, beginning on the shop floor in the kitchenware department at Brent Cross and then moving to the gift list department.

Gift list advisers need patience, she says, and they need to be well versed in the layout of the store and what's on sale. "I sometimes go round with young girls whose mums aren't there to help. I ask them whether they want formal cutlery, what sort of diningware they're after, that sort of thing. Most have no sense of a budget; they just put everything on, basically because they are not buying the items themselves."

Sarpong also trains other gift list advisers. She says the department is much more relaxed than the shop floor, which is a help to couples, who can be a little nervous. Advisers also deal with wedding stationery and liaise with the export department if a couple is marrying or moving abroad. During busy periods, such as Christmas, they also work on the shop floor. Sarpong won't discuss her salary, but graduates joining John Lewis this year start on £20,500.

Sarpong's law background helps because it means that she knows about contract and consumer law. One future career option would be to work for John Lewis's legal service. Another option would be to become a section manager in a new store. Her law degree has proved useful in terms of being up to date with the Civil Partnership Act, as John Lewis has introduced a new civil partnership gift list.

Sarpong used to think it cheeky to have a gift list, but she changed her mind when she was married abroad last year. She set up a list when she returned to the UK and will organise a reception shortly. "It's a weird feeling being on the other side of the fence. But I don't feel it's cheeky to ask guests to buy from a list any more; not since yesterday, when someone bought a wedding album that was on my list." But she's still waiting for someone to buy the remote-control Ferrari.

As yet, John Lewis has no plans to add a new gift list category: for divorce. However, two years ago a recently divorced woman walked into the store, saying she was the happiest woman on earth. She asked if there was a divorce gift list, to which Sarpong replied: "We don't have a divorce category, Madam, but you can put it down under celebration. And women's shoes are on the next floor."

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