Tuesday, August 07, 2012

Shirt Shopping in London

I recently made a trip to London for a business event.  Before I left Nairobi, I was also assigned a mission to go buy some shirts at a famous London address. These are real cotton shirts made of good strong fabric that will last for many years and washing cycles.

I was told to look for Jermyn Street, which is a small street that in near Piccadilly Circus Train Station. What I found was a narrow street full of shops that specialize in men’s clothing – suits, ties, and shirts and to lesser extent shoes and other accessories like belts and cuff links.

The stores have old family names, many starting with the letter H - Hilditch & Keys, Hawes & Curtis, TM Lewin, with the year the company started e.g. 1866 to convey their long history of designing and producing fine clothing.

Shopping for shirts was a lesson in professionalism and efficiency. You’d walk into a shop and be faced with racks of shirts neatly folded and arranged in tall shelves by neck side ‘14.5 inches’ followed by ‘15 inches’ next to  ‘15.5 inches’, and on to the largest.  Shoppers would step up and pick out the colour of shirt they wanted, and look at other shirt features like the fit (normal or narrow) and shape of collar.

The shops all had assistants, smartly dressed young men and women, who were ready to help. They are able to look at a customer and accurately assess their size with just with a momentary glance and what shirt, trouser or suit will fit their body type. They only reach for a tape measure if you challenge them or to confirm their assessment - and are rarely wrong.

Another unique feature about the shops was their understanding of who their customers were. In many America cities or even Nairobi, if a black or shabbily dressed person walks into an ‘expensive’ shop they may be followed around by a shop assistant who will gauge their insecurity potential and who may not be very friendly in the belief that this particular customer can't afford to buy anything in the shop.

But not on Jermyn Street, which has a surprisingly large amount of West African customers. Among Africans, our brothers and sisters, from the Western side of the continent are known for their investment in fine clothing with cost not being an issue - and the shopkeepers on this street will attest that they are good customers with fine tastes. So despite being casually dressed, I was able to walk up and downs several shops, pick and choose shirts, ask and receive advice and tips, and generally shop without being hassled.

The shops also understand the power of the sale, which appeals to casual and spontaneous shoppers like myself - and on this summer day, most of them had 'sale' and 'discounts' advertised in their shop windows. The shirts I got were priced at about  £70 (Kshs 8,400) per shirt, but I paid between £30 and £50 for them and the assistants carefully packed them for me to take to Nairobi.

Article first published in 2010.

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