Life is a warm shopping bag

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The Independent Online
It's Thursday afternoon, the day after Gordon Brown has warned in his Budget statement that consumer spending needs to be damped down, and on Oxford Street there's little sign that anyone has taken much notice. Today is the first day of the Selfridges summer sale and beneath the Greek columns that lend the store its Parthenon air the pavement is clogged with people carrying those trademark yellow carrier bags. Inside, in his inner sanctum on the third floor, the high priest of this temple of shopping is trying to understand the mysterious ways of the secular Chancellor.

"What was he saying? People are spending too much money and he wants to put a cap on spending? I can't believe it," says Vittorio Radice, the 40-year-old managing director of Selfridges. "I try to do my best all the time. I know I can do more, but he wants me to do less. It sounds very strange to me. It's against nature in a way. He doesn't want the people to enjoy themselves, that's what he's saying basically," he concludes, with a twinkle in his eye and a hint of mischief in his smile.

Vittorio joined Selfridges in March last year, having previously been the very successful managing director of Habitat UK. Buying and selling is in his blood - his parents owned and ran two furniture stores in his native Milan, and although he rebelled briefly by choosing to study agriculture at university, he's worked in retailing all his life. But he doesn't see himself as a salesman. He's an entertainer.

"You want people to enjoy themselves," he says. "The important thing about life is to enjoy it, whether it's by having lunch or by buying a packet of cigarettes. People don't need anything any more. I don't know how many jackets and suits and shirts and pairs of shoes you've got, but I've got more than I can use for the rest of my life. But I'm still buying. It's because you've got a lot of free time, you've got some money in your pocket and you want to enjoy yourself."

He says he's fascinated by the multi-faceted nature of a department store and likes the idea that someone might come in to buy a copy of the evening newspaper and walk out with a new Armani suit. (He's wearing an Armani suit when we meet. "Do I get discounts? Yes I do!") And he's dismissive of what he calls "DIY shops", that is, soulless, self-service outfits, compared to the welcoming world of Selfridges and its 4,000 ever-helpful staff.

"This is a business of people," he says. "It's not a business of product any more, it's a business of understanding and smiles and well-being. You can walk out of the store with a warm shopping bag or a cold shopping bag. And the warm shopping bag is the one that makes you come back because the people in the shop did more for you than you were expecting."

As an example of what he expects from his staff, he recounts a recent visit to the cigar counter to buy Indonesian cigarettes. "The guy said, 'I don't have them, but tomorrow morning I'll get them for you.' " The cynical might suggest the man behind the cigar counter would probably have been willing to walk all the way to Indonesia to get them, considering his customer was the store's managing director, but let's move on. Vittorio is very keen that his shop is not seen as elitist. "It's a shop for everybody, and make sure you write this," he says. "You can buy aspirins, you can buy a T-shirt for pounds 5, you can buy a shirt for pounds 35."

After a certain amount of pressing on this point, he changes his position slightly. "If you want to buy the least expensive kettle, there's a place 300 yards up Oxford Street. Selfridges is about trying to do something more with your life. It's not about survival and living on a shoestring. It's about being happy with your life and happy with yourself. You don't have to be Tony Blair to be happy with yourself." Beyond the calm of the management suite, the tills were ringing away. Vittorio was cagey about how much money he expected to turn over on the first day of the sale, but he was willing to say it was "in the order of millions" as opposed to just under a million for a normal day. The signs from the temple suggest a rise in interest rates is imminent.

The real problem with fat cats

Gordon Brown's Budget was supposed to be the one that nailed the fat cats of British industry. But what about the real fat cats? Presumably a windfall tax isn't going to have much of an impact on Tibbles's intake of Whiskas. I rang Joan Moore, editor of Cat World, and she told me that the problem of overweight felines shouldn't be taken lightly. "I think most responsible cat owners know that a fat cat is not a healthy cat," she said, "and in fact not a happy cat either, because they can't frolic like cats are supposed to. It's best to keep cats fat-free because obviously they live longer and they're a lot friskier."

Over at Your Cat, editor Sue Parslow cheerfully explained the reasons behind the fat cat phenomenon. "Because there is such a wide variety of cat food on the market now - fantastic flavours, gourmet foods and so on, there's a great temptation for the owner to go overboard," she said. "Cats used to have a natural mechanism that told them when they'd had enough, but because some foods are now so palatable, they just keep eating and eating and eating. I think most cat owners will be familiar with the cat that keeps miaowing for more food so they give in to get a bit of peace. But cat owners need to be strong and if their cat is overweight, they should take it to a vet. Vets actually run weight clinics now and there are slimming foods for cats. So it's all perfectly possible."

Problem solved. Okay, Tibbles, time to go for the burn...

How high will smokers go? One aspect of the Budget that's gone pretty much unnoticed is the stonking rise of 19p on a packet of cigarettes from December. I brought up this topic with my favourite smoker, Mariella Frostrup, who's just started presenting The Car Show on Channel 5. "I think the more expensive they make them, the more likely it is that one day I might find the strength to give up," said Mariella, who's tried acupuncture, hypnotherapy, patches and simply gritting her teeth, all to no avail. But the big question is just how expensive they would have to be before she stopped. "Oh, I don't know about that," she said. "I remember I once said it would be pounds l.50."

Natural born thrillers only

There were weightier matters than Gordon Brown's Budget for the readers of The Sun to mull over last week. On Wednesday the paper invited readers to vote on the big question - should Page 3 be a silicone-free zone? And on Friday "Britain's bust-selling newspaper" announced the verdict: 82 per cent of respondents had voted to ban models with breast implants (but only from Page 3 - they'll be allowed on other pages). Yes, "natural born thrillers" won out over the surgically enhanced charms of the likes of Melinda Messenger, the paper's "Page 3 Girl for the Thrillennium". I rang Stuart Higgins, the editor of The Sun, to ask him why they had the vote in the first place, but a very polite woman explained to me that neither he nor his deputy were available for comment. However, I did speak to Yvonne Paul, whose model agency looks after a considerable number of Page 3 girls, including Melinda Messenger. Speaking through somewhat pursed lips, Yvonne told me she had no idea why the vote had taken place. I wondered if it would affect her business. "Not really," she said. "We'll just have to give them girls that haven't had silicone implants." But how will the people at The Sun know if they've had them or not? "Well, with new girls coming along, I don't know how they're going to know. Maybe the girls will just have to be honest. Or maybe the photographer will be able to tell. I mean, you can tell." How exactly? "Because they're more perfect than perfect." But Yvonne wasn't surprised by the result of the vote. "I think anybody would rather have something natural," she said.

All I was offered was dinner

I Was interested to read Rupert Everett's admission in Us magazine that he'd worked as a rent boy during his years as a struggling actor (struggling financially, that is, rather than struggling to act - I believe the latter is still an ongoing problem). Rupert said he "sort of fell into" male prostitution when he was propositioned outside a London tube station. As it happens, I was also once propositioned in a similar way many years ago when I was a struggling writer (same joke as above).

It was a weekday evening and I was standing on Piccadilly Circus trying to find an empty cab when I was approached by a middle-aged man in a shiny suit. Obviously Rupert attracts a better class of clientele than I do, because the rather seedy-looking gentleman failed to offer me "a massive amount of money, like a year and a half's pocket money" but instead asked if he could buy me a meal. I mean, he didn't even offer to take me on to a nice show afterwards or anything like that. Bloody cheek. But it didn't really matter what he offered me because sex with other men isn't my thing, so I politely declined his request. He then became quite persistent, possibly thinking I was playing hard to get, but eventually he went away and presumably bought some other young Adonis a meal, perhaps even the young Rupert himself. I returned home with my honour and integrity intact.

But that was then, of course. These days, my hair is falling out, my joints are seizing up and I'm anyone's for a fiver.