Mary Portas spent seven months writing her exhaustive, 50-page report on how to save the nation's high streets, so I am pleased to inform the Government and retailers that I can tell shops how to save themselves in the next 700 words. Fundamentally, the secret is to emulate John Lewis and not to be like La Senza, which will all seem very obvious when I explain it.
There are two main things to notice about John Lewis: (1) shopping there is brilliant, the staff are helpful, you can buy what you went in for with a minimum of stress and then have a nice sit down and a cup of coffee; (2) its profits are up. Meanwhile, we can see an opposite trend at La Senza and similar chain clothing stores: (1) shopping there is horrible, its products are mostly made of polyester, its staff know nothing about what they are selling yet nonetheless they follow you around the shop repeatedly demanding to "help" you; (2) it is expected to go into administration within days. The most important thing for all retailers to understand is this: in each case, facts 1 and 2 are connected.
As a lifelong reluctant shopper, I am overjoyed that the consumer worm is at last turning with me. After years and years of suffering increasing disdain from high-street stores, shoppers are finally deciding that if shops must make the shopping experience so unpleasant then we will no longer give them our money. People have noticed that we are living through a recession. We have never needed any more Ugg boots, Thai basil or polyester pants, but now we can't afford them either, and if shops in addition make it difficult and stressful for us to buy them then we just won't. And shops are beginning to respond. After a year of dragging along the bottom of every customer-satisfaction league, for instance, Santander has started providing customers with "relationship managers" who actually answer and can help when you phone them. What a brilliant idea!
This is not just the case in clothes shops and banks, nor just in the January sales. Even the weekly groceries shop illustrates the difference between the shops that get it and the shops that can get lost. In Tesco before Christmas I couldn't find any coconut milk in the usual place, so I hunted around for a surly and underpaid member of staff and asked him if there was any in stock. He sighed and made me follow him on a tour of the shop floor before sullenly handing me a tin of Carnation milk. "Err, that's not it," I told him. He looked at me as if he had just found me the Higgs boson and I had turned up my nose and asked for it in duck-egg blue, and replied, "Well that's what I gave to the last customer who wanted coconut milk, and she didn't complain."
In Ryman, I was testing some pens on the little pad that they provide, when a shop assistant insisted for the third time that she must "help" me. "I'm looking for a pen with a purple body but black or blue ink," I said. "Hmm, I don't know," she said, before snatching out of my hands all the pens that I had already tried and trying them again herself. Next time someone asks, "Can I help you?" I am tempted to reply, "I doubt it", but that would be rude and it's not really the staff's fault that they don't speak good English and it's their first day and nobody has told them what they're supposed to be selling and there's no real point in learning for £3.68 an hour.
When John Lewis announced another record week of sales before Christmas, it said that Croydon and Cardiff had been its most successful stores. I was one of its customers in Cardiff that week, where all I wanted was an intelligent member of staff to identify when I needed help and then provide it – which is what I got. (Translating my brother's garbled text message to tell me where he was waiting for me was a bonus.)
For too long, most shops have ignored this model and instead treated customers and staff worse and worse in an attempt to maximise profits. Surely they don't need a shopping czar to tell them that their way is not working.
First a couple parts, then they go their separate ways
Two more famous people have been "pictured without their wedding rings" this Christmas, meaning, in tabloid code, that a told-you-so gloat is coming about the end of another celebrity marriage. Katy Perry was photographed swimming off Hawaii wearing nothing but a skimpy bikini only 14 months after marrying Russell Brand, who spent Christmas in Cornwall and later shopping in London, ringless.
In their case, the papers had it spot on, and the pair are now to divorce, we are told. But I can think of many reasons why ordinary couples might take off their wedding rings. Last September, I went to a beautiful wedding in the south of France. The day after the 40°C ceremony, the groom and his friends cooled off with some snorkelling. He instantly lost his wedding band in the sea. When he replaced it, therefore, he put the new ring in a very safe place when they went on holiday. He's now forgotten where that is.
Fortunately, my French friend is a very patient woman, and spent a lovely Christmas with her husband of three months despite his missing ring. The Brands, on the other hand, spent Christmas 7,000 miles apart, which is harder to explain. The moral of this is, don't look at a couple's fingers; look at their geography if you are really nosy about the state of their marriage.
One poorly old man among many
Even as a professional news junkie, I wouldn't usually listen to all half-hourly news bulletins, but during a Boxing Day drive from Norwich to Cardiff (why can't everyone's family live in the Midlands?) I ended up hearing the radio news headlines every 30 minutes. I say "news", but each time the lead item was that there was "no news" about Prince Philip in hospital.
Given that lots of 90-year-olds in Britain are living in fuel poverty, struggling with care home fees, or dying alone at Christmas, would it have been too much for the BBC to find some news about how the elderly are faring in and out of hospital this winter?
Even the Queen would have been bored if she had had to listen to the repetitive, obsequious non-news about her husband dozens of times a day.
The 6.15 will depart without you
Rail fares are set to rise by up to 11 per cent tomorrow as punctuality slides. But, for a change, I am going to complain about trains leaving early. On South West Trains services, train doors officially close 30 seconds before departure, for reasons mysterious to passengers, and often they leave stations up to 30 seconds before their stated departure time, too.
Anyone who takes these trains daily knows that this happens, despite staff denials, and no amount of reasoning, sobbing or begging station staff will make them hold the train until its official departure time. Smug signs all over South West Trains stations warn commuters not to run on platforms, but a passenger who walks to a train due to go in 40 seconds' time will miss it.
Good luck, commuters, in 2012.