Victoria Summerley: Just give customers what they want - it's not Christmas yet

The high street stores behave as if selling required some sort of supernatural powers

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For the past four or five weeks, the shops have been succumbing to a stealthy coup d'état. One by one, they have fallen victim to a festive ideology that waves a silver, sparkly wand over their shelves like a wicked pantomime fairy and removes any evidence of a quotidian existence. But this isn't going to be a rant about how we get tinsel in September or putting up the high-street Christmas decorations a full three months before 25 December.

For the past four or five weeks, the shops have been succumbing to a stealthy coup d'état. One by one, they have fallen victim to a festive ideology that waves a silver, sparkly wand over their shelves like a wicked pantomime fairy and removes any evidence of a quotidian existence. But this isn't going to be a rant about how we get tinsel in September or putting up the high-street Christmas decorations a full three months before 25 December.

I like tinsel and I love Christmas decorations. I don't even mind canned Christmas music - as far as canned music goes, it tends to be no worse than any other sort. No, this is my complaint: in order to make way for all those tottering towers of mince pies and Santa-design socks, anything useful that you might actually want to buy has been withdrawn from sale.

I went into my local Sainsbury's the other day to buy some wholemeal rolls. I could buy giant hamburger rolls ("ideal for parties!"), or boxes of vol-au-vent cases ("ditto!"), but the selection of ordinary rolls had been squeezed on to one shelf to make way for these delicacies. It took me all of my strength to fight my way through the Christmas crackers to the crispbread.

I went in search of a pack of black pens, the sort that you leave beside the phone and which promptly go missing. I could buy packs of colouring pencils ("the ideal present!"), scented gel pens with sparkly ink, and even rather smart gold pens ("ideal for writing those Christmas messages!"). But there was nothing as useful as a plain black pen.

Cut to John Lewis and a search for table mats. I had in mind something stylish and minimal: leather, maybe. Again, nothing, unless I wanted something with a Christmassy theme - gold; gold with a leaf design; silver; silver with a leaf design; silly sheep (hmm, must be left over from Easter) or holly borders.

It's the same in the fashion outlets. A friend is trying to buy an outfit for her niece's christening (this child's parents obviously need to be sternly reminded that this is the season of nativity plays, not baptisms). She has fought her way through thickets of net and sequins, only to find that, at the moment, there are plenty of gorgeous frocks to be had, so long as you want something black, preferably trimmed with feathers and fiddly bits of silver or gold, that reveals acres of embonpoint.

And talking of nativities, if you're thinking of buying a birthday card at this time of year, you might as well go home and forget it.

Call me naive, but I thought the secret of successful retailing was to stock what customers want. In my case, this rarely includes a gift set of three golf balls and a hankie ("ideal for Dad!"), or boxer shorts emblazoned with reindeer ("ditto!"), but is much more likely to involve plain, non-patterned underpants and serviceable socks. Well, who wants their husband or son to be the laughing stock of the locker room?

This week, yet more high-street giants have fallen victim to what they probably consider to be the incomprehensible fickleness of customers. The business pages are full of chief executives, wringing their hands and bemoaning the inability of the general public to part with shedloads of dosh in their shops. Marks & Spencer, Sainsbury's, French Connection: they all behave as if the concept of selling required some sort of supernatural powers. They describe certain sections of the market as the "holy grail" of retailing; a terrible cliché that masks the cruel fact that they haven't had the sense to hire the right buyer or designer.

It doesn't take a rocket scientist to work out that if you sell a T-shirt that bears the slogan "Born To FCUK" (French Connection), you're not going to sell it to anyone over 30, thus ruling out a large proportion of the market. You grow out of that sort of thing at around 16. And women of more ample proportions will be only too eager to tell you that they won't buy a cashmere sloppy joe that comes in bright salmon but not in black (Marks & Spencer).

So how do the stores get it so wrong, when, if the PR handouts and photo-opportunities are to be believed, these chief executives spend most of their time wandering around their stores talking to their customers?

My theory is that people who spend a lot of time shopping, and are therefore more likely to bump into these men (these chief executives usually are men), are not necessarily shopping because they have to. The rest of us are limited to a mad lunchtime dash or the odd supermarket sweep on the way home from work, but they're probably shopping for fun. They might not really need anything.

Of course, the answer might be even more sinister. Somewhere out there, perhaps, lurks a deluded individual who lies in wait again and again for Stuart Rose of Marks & Spencer or Justin King of Sainsbury's and tells them that what they really want to see in their stores is lots of seasonal rubbish and very little else. It could explain a lot.

v.summerley@independent.co.uk

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