WE’RE used to hearing the announcement of the latest profits report for Marks & Spencer with the same doom-laden air of inevitability that Royal flunkeys once reserved for updates on the Queen Mum’s health.
And although the Leeds-born grand old lady of retailing is finally showing signs of a partial recovery, it’s no surprise to me that it’s mainly on the back of its food sales.
If you’re after a decent sarnie or salad, then M&S is the place to go.
But based on my experience, if you’re looking for anything else it’s more like S&M – you’d have to be a sado masochist to tramp your way from floor to floor searching for something you may have no hope of ever finding.
I really didn’t think I was asking for the impossible. There was no tartan paint or left-handed screwdriver on my shopping list.
All I wanted was a pair of black shoes and a single duvet cover. Easy, wouldn’t you think?
Ok, so I am a size 12 shoe and the duvet had to be something suitable for a young child, but I didn’t reckon on this being mission impossible.
There were rows and rows of duvet covers downstairs – but not a single one of them was remotely suitable for a child’s bed.
“We used to stock them in store but we didn’t have enough space any more,” the assistant explained to me. This in a shop with three cavernous floors.
And then she came out with the stock phrase that every high street shopper has come to dread: “You can always have a look online and order one from there.”
I tried to explain that I needed one for that night because my nephews were coming to stay at our house and we’d realised we were a duvet cover short. “If you order today you can pick it up from the store tomorrow,” she assured me.
I could have wasted the next five minutes explaining that the whole point of me taking the time and effort to walk into town in my lunch break was so I could get what I needed when I needed it – today.
But I didn’t. There was still a pair of shoes to buy. So I headed for the escalators and made a beeline for the menswear department.
To be fair, there were lots of little signs on the shelves pointing me to the size 11s and 12s. The only slight niggle was that I couldn’t find the bigger size for love nor money.
Once again, I asked an assistant for, well, assistance.
“Everything we have is out,” she told me, motioning to the shelves.
“I’m just after a size 12 black shoe,” I pleaded. “Could you help me look?”
Bless her, she did. And she couldn’t find a pair either.
“I think they’re the ones with a red label,” she said, peering at the shelves. But we still drew a blank.
Then, right on cue, there was that phrase again. “You can always have a look online and order some from there.”
And it wasn’t just me. An elderly couple behind us were being told the same thing.
Again, I could have explained that I needed the shoes today as I was going to a wedding in a couple of days’ time, so if I ordered a pair and they didn’t fit me right, I’d be in bother.
But I didn’t. After all, it’s not shop staff’s fault that their managers are failing customers by constantly resorting to the “order it online” get-out clause.
There’s been a lot of talk about Britain’s disappearing high streets and the complaint that physical shops are dying out because everyone’s shopping online.
But if retailers provided a better standard of service in those shops then they wouldn’t be fighting to avoid closure – and the devastating impact on jobs that comes with stores closing their doors to customers.
And anyway, shopping for things on the internet isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Chances are you won’t be in when they deliver. Then, if it’s the wrong size or isn’t quite what you wanted, you have to go through the hassle of sending it back and reyling upon the Royal Mail.
That’s why I took the trouble to make a one-and-a-half mile round trip on foot to Marks and Sparks on Briggate in Leeds. But I’m not sure I’ll be bothering again any time soon.