Silver Service

The comeback kid – otherwise known as my mother – decides that her make up needs updating before leaving the care home and returning to her own house.  This is a sentence I thought I’d never write for two reasons:

  1.  This summer I thought I was saying goodbye to mum.
  2. Mum’s make up bag, and its contents puts mine to shame – I’m speaking to her agent about a silver vlogging contract.

For the purpose of this piece we’ll concentrate on the retail angle; the return home will need full disclosure about the comedy potential of stair lifts and pimped walking frames.  Another time, perhaps.

I drive mum to her nearest town, relieved that the passenger door on my car will now open, meaning that mum doesn’t have to suffer the indignity of clambering across from the driver’s side and getting caught up on the gear stick.   We also take full advantage of her new disability sticker. I have never parked this close to the front entrance of a department store, legally. It feels like a good day.

Both Debenhams and Clarins deserve a mention here for both humanise mum’s retail adventure. Mum hasn’t been walking far lately, and she doesn’t really want to be seen in public with her walker, so we blag it, and make it to the Clarins counter by means of my friendly biceps and mum’s incredibly snazzy pink walking stick. She is exhausted.  She eyes the high stool by the make up counter longingly, but I recognise defeat as she instead leans back heavily on my arm.

I tell the assistant mum’s story.  93, three months in hospital, one month in care homes and now desperate to put her face back on to greet her public back home. ‘Well we’d better see what you’d like then,’ says the assistant and we both take one of mum’s elbows and she flies up onto the stool, queen of the make up counter.

It’s a quiet day on the retail front, but nonetheless I love the assistant for making mum feel she has all the time in the world.  I love her for speaking directly to mum and not using me as an interpreter.  I love her for telling mum what beautiful skin she has.  Mum gets the full works – latest foundation, loads of freebies (thanks mum) and then when we mention that we need  the perfume counter next, she gets another assistant to come over and solve the cryptic puzzle mum sets by asking for a nameless perfume – brand unknown – simply by drawing what she believes the shape of the bottle to be on a scrap piece of paper.

A cynic might say we are a retailer’s dream on this trip, that may be so, but the point is that good service and human touch are the best medicine in the world. I think you get that in a department store.

I worry this week to hear that all the big department stores are now struggling.  I know my Amazon habit makes me a total hypocrite for sighing as I hear the House of Fraser and Debenham headlines, but I really feel there’s room for both on-line and face to face.

The older I get the more I become a sucker for excellent retail service. I know I’m being schmoozed.  I know that in Marks & Spencer for example, the assistant will say two affirming things about the item I am paying for at the checkout ; ‘what an unusual colour, how beautiful,’ and ‘this is going to look perfect on you.’ I soak it up anyway.  Some days I want the assistant to rebel against their training and see if they’re brave enough to say, ‘this colour on you, really?’ or, ‘will your large backside really suit this g-string?’ but I’m reassured that it’s never going to happen.

I also hear on Twitter this week that someone posed the question of how you would describe your age without using numbers.  The debate quickly starts trending.  I empathise with the tweeter who says, ‘my school milk would freeze in winter’, but then realise my own response would be, ‘I can remember regularly having silver service lunch in a John Lewis store with my whole family.’  I share this memory with my students at school and they think I’ve made it up.  They can imagine nothing worse than spending a full day in a department store with their parents, full stop, but as they contemplate slow food (three courses) on white linen, with silver cutlery and waitress service, their minds are truly blown.

I tell them about the silver bowls of sugar cubes that would sit in the centre of each starched table in the John Lewis dining room along with the silver condiment dispensers.  I tell them that while you waited for the waitress to take your order, and while your parents were perusing the menu (choosing for you, naturally), you quietly used the tiny silver tongs to bag some sugar cubes to crunch discretely before your parents looked up again.   They are not impressed.  ‘I bet you’ve got shocking fillings miss’.  Sad times; they are right.

I just hope that we don’t lose the human touch altogether. I’d miss bespoke service.  I know there’s a hint of nostalgia in my department store eulogy.  I know it’s unrealistic to be able to get everything you want in one shop and for the assistants to make you feel special, for I know I often don’t even have time to shop and then I expect everything delivered to my home.  I do like to chat to the delivery chap though (in my ideal world he would arrive on a sit up and beg bike with my parcel in his wicker basket). Click and collect is convenient but too impersonal for me.

I help mum down from her make-up throne and carry her many bags of shopping to the car.  We crown the morning by treating ourselves to some lunch – we can’t find any silver service but I do snaffle some sugar cubes when we get to coffee.  I look up to see the Clarins assistant come into the same cafe for her lunch with a friend.  She notices mum and gives her a cheery wave.  Mum’s day has been made. I commit to do more department store shopping.  Hang on in there, big retail, I’m coming.

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