Susie Rushton: A frosty start tofestive shopping

Urban Notebook: The almonds had been picked off the top of a Dundee cake; the champagne bottle was empty

The retail catastrophe is a great leveller. Not long ago, life-threatening scrums only happened at Primark. The posh shops, the sort where one not so much buys as "makes an investment", were palaces of low-lit serenity.

Customers willingly paid a premium not only for superior goods, but to align themselves with a brand. On Saturday, as stores made desperate pre-Christmas discounts, I sensed change afoot in the "experience" offered by some of the West End's gilded names.

Jostled in the jam department (where strawberry-and-rose-petal sells for £9.50 a jar) at Fortnum and Mason in Piccadilly, we battled through the crowd, past £500 luxury crackers, upstairs to the hamper floor. Beside each type of hamper, all expensive, there was a display of its contents: a Christmas pud, a bottle of fizz, a jar of cognac butter. But the fantasy was frayed at its edges. The almonds had been picked off the top of a Dundee cake by passers-by; the champagne bottle was empty, to stump shoplifters.

Over on Bond Street, it was a similar story: desultory crowds, a sense of there being too much stock on the shelf, and gloomy service. Outside Chanel, a little queue formed as a security guard held back a group of Japanese shoppers. "I can let you in," he said, "but nobody's going to be available to help you."

Perhaps these things seem trivial. But at the upper echelons of retail, expectations are high, reflecting price. When we're hesitant to spend tens of pounds, let alone hundreds, less-than-pristine displays and twitchy security are all it takes to drive the shopper back home, empty-handed.

You can't be serious

We also passed a dozen anti-fur protesters garrulously picketing the Bond Street branch of Joseph. I'm reasonably interested in the fur debate, but it was hard to be sympathetic to their cause, for the same reason I couldn't take the Stansted invaders seriously. Sniggering at the policemen, the protesters were having too much fun. Taking obvious pleasure in an act of "naughtiness" undermines any message, however important.

* My family are keen subscribers to Amazon's "wish list" function, which allows you to indicate that you'd rather receive the latest Doris Lessing over Richard Madeley's memoirs (or the reverse). An unexpected bonus is access to the biblio-cinematic desires of strangers: thousands of wish lists are open to public view. Less affected than "My Top 10 Books Ever" smug-lists, they are fascinating, sometimes inspiring and often alarming. Just type a random name and press "go". I've got a message for George Rushton (no relation), of Liverpool: enjoy caravanning in Oz, forget astrology – and, crikey, I hope that Miley Cyrus DVD is for your daughter...

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