Could this new virtual shopping service save John Lewis?

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Hannah Betts hits the (virtual shops) testing John Lewis's new online personal shopping service
Hannah Betts hits the (virtual shops) testing John Lewis’s new online personal shopping service

I am sitting in my flat in my pyjamas sipping tea while my two new best friends guide me through an Aladdin’s cave via Zoom. “The challenge we set ourselves,” beams one “was to build Hannah’s Dream World, full of your favourite clothes, accessories, make up, perfume, boyfriend styling and décor.”

Behold: an array of jewel-coloured satin dresses, the yellow handbag I have been searching for for years, and the cream lace bra I have been too housebound to seek out. All I have to do is click my fingers – or rather my laptop – and this cornucopia will be chauffeured over. As fantasies go, this is pretty much the dizzy height of them.

Four weeks after the British high-street re-opened, the world and his wife – in particular his wife – do not seem to be rushing back to bricks and mortar shopping. After some initial scenes of queuing on 15th June, the crowds have retreated and all brands are having to think of new ways to entice consumers who are too terrified, or too used to shopping online, to abandon their homes. John Lewis & Partners announced eight store closures and a possible 1,300 job cuts last week. Might this new online shopping service help to at least rescue revenue, if not footfall?  

In April, the company launched a series of free virtual styling slots to cater for Britain in isolation. Think: interiors, nursery and wardrobe sessions, steering isolating Brits as to their needs. Said schemes were a rip-roaring success, with 3,500 bookings completed since mid-April. From this week, an all-new personal shopping service is on offer, in which customers sprawl on their sofas while a crack squadron of John Lewis partners scoot about either Peter Jones or the Southampton store, sating their every desire.

Should the two services sound similar – be warned – they are extremely different. For styling appointments, John Lewis’s expert is in the driving seat; for personal shopping, you yourself take charge. It is thus down to you to decide what kind of shopper you are: pliant, open-minded, happy to take suggestion; or bolshy, opinionated, with an extremely fixed idea about what works for you.

As the guinea pig for the personal shopping service, I am asked to come up with a list of my most coveted items. I demand fabulous frocks in Forties’ fits, a sensational party dress to make me want to go out again, and an emerald autumn coat. There must be fuchsia lipstick; a cracking highlighter; pearls; Wedgewood blue lampshades and boxes of violet creams. I add – lest this hasn’t become apparent – that I crave pleasure, fun joy!

Remembering that my boyfriend’s birthday is coming up, I also request grey cashmere pullovers and a pair of navy loafers corresponding with the Goldilocks criteria of being neither too rugger bugger nor too gigolo. Creating this inventory is blissful. However, as my appointment looms, I am blighted by an apocalyptic headache. The last thing I want to do is yet more Zoom. Still, the moment 30-year-old Tim Comlay-Manson springs onto my screen, I know I am in safe hands. Tim has been a partner for 16 years and describes himself as “institutionalised”. He ferries me about Peter Jones on his laptop, telling me to shout if I see anything I like. Middle-aged tech dolt that I am, I immediately yell: “Your Air-Pods. Everyone tells me I need Air-Pods. Do I need Air-Pods? What are Air-Pods?” “You do, yes,” he confirms, “and they’re currently £30 off.” Sold.

Hannah Betts, with her buys from a virtual personal shopping appointment
Hannah Betts, with her buys from a virtual personal shopping appointment

He whisks us off to meet personal shopping star Kim Undy, 51, who has constructed the aforementioned Betts Fantasy World. It is rather tear-inducing to be confronted with all one’s wildest dreams. “Oh, Kim!” I cry. “An emerald trench!” “So you!” she beams. “I’ll show you where it will hit your leg.” She knows what size I will be in each range, and keeps me abreast of washing instructions. There are brights from Paul Smith, Max Mara and Temperley diffusion lines, a jaunty LK Bennett bag, and fistfuls of ravishing bras. The make-up is spot on and I adore the Susan Caplan gobstopper pearl earrings.

Kim is also psychic. Unbeknown to anyone, I have been eyeing up £1,000+ Matisse prints – and here is a framed poster she has picked out from the home department for £150. My late-night Net-a-Porter habit has involved gazing at Castañer espadrilles – and here is a pair in cherry red (£95). Our thirty-minute appointment goes on for three times as long, every second a joy; the dream team that is Drs Tim and Kim totally curing my headache.

Alas, my virtual styling appointment with Victoria Thewlis in the Leeds store leaves us both in agony. Indeed, it is a glorious and unmitigated disaster in a way that points to the fact that people who have firm views about what they want should stick to personal shopping and steer clear of charming advice profferers.

Thewlis, about to turn 24, has performed 70 virtual stylings and is wonderfully cheery. She tells me that, on Zoom, the pressure is on to “get it right first time”. And, yet, she appears to take scant interest in what my idea of getting it right would be. “My job is about pushing boundaries.” Before my session, I have described my wardrobe as “retro, witty, feminine, full of bold colour, spots and stripes – a real fancy-dress element.” In this context, what she has picked out for me feels bland, shapeless, mumsy. She holds up a washed-out Modern Rarity tea-dress (£100). “Maybe for walking the dog?” I wince, to be told it is my Ascot option. I turn my nose up at denim, leather jackets, and white trainers, none of which suit me.

Hannah Betts' top buys included a Matisse poster and a yellow crossbody bag
Hannah Betts’ top buys included a Matisse poster and a yellow crossbody bag

Thewlis tells me I am rare as “99% of women don’t know their body shape. They have one shelf of T-shirts and another of jeans. The majority want to blend in, they don’t want to stand out.” We have a good laugh at my intransigence. Moreover, the exercise certainly serves to enforce my sense of style: I like structure, drama, I actively want to stand out! I do not like droopy sacks in which I appear pregnant.

Happily, I have my personal shopping delivery by way of solace – and what an outrageous delight it is. My boyfriend puts on Christmas carols. He quaffs beer, I crack open the violet creams, and we begin unboxing. The hit list is far higher than if I’d been at the helm. Three of the sumptuous £145 Ghost dresses I already own in other colours, so that’s a success straight off. I cannot not have that Hobbs trench (reduced to from £199 to £149), Paul Smith cardi (reduced from £195 to £59.50) and vintage earrings (£55). The Castañer wedges and LK Bennett tote will be coming with me on holiday (£85).

The chap’s stuff is outstanding: jumpers at £99 and £13.50(!), and Tom’s Navy Classics for £36. I still don’t know what Airpod Pros are (£219), but I know that I need them, while I will be keeping – and cherishing – “my” Matisse.

Frankly, if I ever get off my backside to shop again I’ll be surprised. I may be too stroppy for personal styling, but personal shopping rules. Kim’n’Tim have got themselves a virtual stalker.

Virtual personal shopping appointments with John Lewis & Partners are free to book online, here.

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