Zen and the art of chain store shopping

In Clothes, Shopping on June 24, 2011 at 9:02 pm

Lily Cole, the model with a face like a Victorian painting of a flower fairy, skin like double cream and ridic long legs, has just got a Double First at Cambridge in History of Art. 

So she’s rich, thin, beautiful and clever. Probably also really nice and funny. But can she shop a chain store? Can she? Huh?

There is an art to it, but it can be learned. What has been surprising to me was realising that friends who can shop a flea market like a pro, are like rabbits in headlights when they walk into, say, H&M or TopShop, Oxford Circus, or even the lovely branch of Zara in Regent Street.

Dorothy Perkins £30

They wouldn’t even walk into a branch of Peacocks. I frequently do and sometimes come out with a gem.

For me it’s like surfing (or what I imagine surfing is like, having watched other people do it from the bar of Bondi Icebergs, in very high heels, nursing a mojito). You wait, you bide your time, then wheeee… jump on and ride your wave.

Zara £29.99

I’m trying to analyse why I can do it and others can’t and I can only assume it’s so many years of painful practice. If you subscribe to the 10,000 hours theory of expertise (read the book, Outliers, it’s brilliant…) I’ve definitely clocked up mine, stalking Chelsea Girl and Miss Selfridge – the only cool shops for young women in the 1970s – for anything vaguely wearable. The skill to search out the one good thing among hectares of shiny polyester, already splitting at the seams, has stuck with me.

I don’t want to be rude but I have noticed that chain store freak out is particularly prevalent among my Aussie gal pals, even among the most stylishly dressed. Especially amongst the most stylishly dressed…

TopShop £46

I think it must be because chain store culture just isn’t embedded there the way it is in the UK – the local market just isn’t big enough for the key economies of scale behind mass-produced kit to kick in. So I think my elegant Aussie pals are simply used to a much more exquisite shopping experience. With novel ideas like ‘service’.

I was bemused when I moved to Sydney in 1993 to find so many of my new friends, who I considered normal people with normal jobs, wore designer labels. Full retail!

TopShop £40

None of my friends in London wore them, unless they got to go the sample sales. But I soon came to realise that it was because the lower priced clothing offer was so limited in Australia, it was better to invest in a few good designer pieces instead and I started doing it too.

Zara £12.99

That is actually a much better way to dress, but as soon as I moved back to the UK (to be near my elderly mum…) I was immediately re-seduced by the chain store.

TopShop £5

And how they have improved! I shop right across the range from Primark and Peacocks at the lowest end, up through H&M, Next, Dorothy Perkins, River Island and TopShop, to the marvel that is Zara.

Ah, Zara… How I love it. All the Aussies who queued outside the branches there when they opened last week were right to do so. Such style, such élan, such quality – such prices.

Zara, floral blazer £39.99

But as my chain store-phobic Aussie friends tell me they find even that Aladdin’s cave bewildering – one texted me the other day, frozen with panic in a Rome branch – here is my guide to Zen and Chain Store Shopping.

Don’t go with any expectations
You can’t be looking for a particular thing, just be open and see what comes along.

Get into the zone
Switch your active brain off and just drift through seeing where your eye falls. It’s instinctive, there’s no method. Examine what you’re drawn to, then move on.

Don’t expect any service

If you’re really lucky some grumpbag might agree to go and get you another size, but don’t bank on it.

Never go chain store shopping at lunchtime
Every working girl in London is out looking for a new outfit for her hot date that night. Go morning, or afternoon, or you will have to queue to try on and to pay.

Rise above the other people
The place will be full of very annoying numpties. Just accept that as a given. Channel your inner Yoda and rise above it.

Buy and return
If possible, buy what you think you might like to try on at home/in your hotel room, with the right shoes, bra, jewellery, cardigan etc and return what you don’t like the next day. It’s a hassle but better than the heinous changing rooms.

Brace yourself for the changing rooms
If you do have to try on, be grateful they’re no longer communal as they were when I was a teen. That was hell. Remember the mirrors are tricked up to make you look taller. They deny it, but they are.

Put your handbag on the hook inside the changing booth
Even if the walls go down to the ground, hands can come through under the door when you’ve got a dress stuck over your head.

Check the fabric and trimmings
Don’t be entirely seduced by a cool and style, no matter how it flatters. Make sure the fabric, zips etc aren’t too cheap looking. Buttons can be changed but it’s a bit of a faff.

Check the seams and buttons
Make sure you haven’t picked one up that’s already been knackered by multiple try ons. Go back and pick up a fresh one exactly the same.

If you like it buy it
It won’t be there next time. Or not in your size.

Keep the receipt
Essential to return stuff.

Zara £29.99

  1. Oh, Maggie, what a brave woman you are! In my younger years, I shoped some chain stores, but not the mega ones. The U.S. has some awful ones. but I lived in NYC and had Saks and Bergdorf’s and Macy’s. In that era, Macy’s had a shop on some high floor for “new designers” and you could really get a bargain there and some fine design, too.
    Your tips are great. As I now live in the New England wastelands, our shops are small and not all that great for clothes. I don’t do chain stores here as they are box stores and awful beyond words. I wait until I am in England or Italy. I also now mostly wear the same thing all the time. I concentrate, as most my age seem to do, on fabulous shoes and bag and hats ….
    This is a super column! I love receiving it.
    A nice break. I am “re-listening” to a Marian Keyes book because, well, there is nothing else at the moment!

    • Not even J Crew? I love love love J Crew. It’s always my big treat of a visit to NYC. I do love the sale rails in New York big stores though. Have got some of my all-time bargains there.

  2. I work in the industry and buy ‘core basics’ from the Australian chain stores owned by my employer. I think most new to store customers would be surprised at the improvement in quality of leggings, cotton t-shirts and singlets in such stores. Team with your more expensive garments/shoes and you’re done. And remember that with so much competition in the Aust retailing market, excellent service is essential and should be expected.

    • This is very good news. Thanks so much for filling us in. I totally agree that some Aussie chain stores are great for basics – I bought 4 pairs of pants in Coutnry Road last October! And another pair in Witchery…

  3. Ha ha ha “annoying numpties’! I don’t even know what a numptie is but I can imagine. This is so me, I have a bunch of Diane VF dresses and Max Mara skirts and Jimmy Choo shoes etc gathering dust at the back of my wardrobe. All full retail. My current uniform of jeans, breastfeeding cami, longline cardi and ballet flats precludes the wearing of these beauties. (oh, and the post children bumpy bits). I’m ashamed (pleased?) to say one of those longline cardis I wear all the time is a Max Mara camel cashmere number, so far it hasn’t been baby burped on, but of course that’s just a matter of time. It’s not the chain store merchandise that’s the problem (although it IS limited here, you’re spot on) but the Chain Store Shopping Experience I hate. Your tips are great: just change my expectations. And there’s always online shopping, so many things going for it if you’re prepared to return things. My mirror doesn’t lie.

  4. Someone tell me what numpties is/are? I am curious adn clueless

  5. i love chain stores.
    when i lived in the country, i would scour BIG W for anything vaguely fashionable. its amazing what you can find if u know where and what to look for 😛
    and after working in chain stores for 10 years i must say i agree with every point you made!
    im so grateful because i was fully prepared when i did finally travel and hit the REAL chain stores (that the ones in australia are trying to be like), i knew exactly what to do, and apart from a couple of duds i bought while i was caught up in the moment, i knew exactly what to look for, and how to pick the one noone else has touched 😛

    For two reasons:
    – i hate changerooms (u can always try jackets and certain tops on on the shop floor using the store mirrors.
    – like you said “if you like it buy it – it won’t be there next time” it’s better safe than sorry! u can always take it back – the big stores refund for change of mind.

    couple of extra tips:

    if there are other stores in the same chain in a close proximity, go to both because they often stock more or different pieces even though its the same chain. eg in sydney pitt st mall has more than george st stores and in melbourne bourke st mall stores have more than melbourne central store. this is more important overseas where there are 3 zaras within two blocks of one another. u must go into all of them!

    they have markdowns on the same day every week or every fortnight. usually a tues or a wednesday – so go mid week to snap up first reductions 😛

    Ultra fashion fwd pieces that might scare the ordinary customer will always go on sale. Don’t waste good money paying full price.

    LAYBY. if it goes on sale u pick up the layby, refund it, then buy it back at the sale price.

    if u see something featured in “grazia” or “shop til u drop” it has probably already sold out, or if it hasn’t its about to.

    don’t be a snob. go into all of them.

    • This is the WORD from one who knows – and I am going to update the post to put your advice in. SOOOOO true about different branches. In London H&M has a crap store at the west end of Oxford St, going into their flagship on Regent’s Street, it’s like a different brand. xxx

  6. i suck at op shops and flea markets though…

  7. Hi Maggie – so good to find your blog… reconnecting with an old friend….and maybe even better now through the joys of blogging rather than waiting for Saturdays. You were missed x

    • Thanks so much Lyn… I’ve actually been doing this from the first week the column wasn’t in the mag. It’s just really hard getting the word out, so can you do me a massive favour and tell anyone you think might be interested? I also do the Rules in the S section of the Sun Herald and the M section of the Sunday Age xxx

  8. I am both an op shopper and a chain store shopper. To me the rules are similar – have no expectations being the key! In both cases I’ve learned not to buy something that’s almost right. It took some years and a pile of clothes requiring just a little adjustment that I didn’t ever get to, to realise this. (Except for hems. I accepted years ago that I’ll be shortening hems for life!)

    The combination of chain store with op shop results in freshness and individual style which I’m often complimented on. Like you I’m a little puzzled as to why more women are unable to embrace the two. I’m hesitant to say it, but my feeling is that snobbery is involved in both cases.

    • Snobbery maybe, but for me it’s just pure laziness. I know with a designer piece it’s going to fit (good cut), last (good fabric & timeless style) and, usually, look stylish on its own rather than having to think about putting this with that to get the same look. Which is not to say chain store stuff won’t, but it’s more hit and miss. At this and other points in my life, I don’t have time to go into chain stores or op shops every other week to try and nab something decent. That’s why I’m loving online shopping – I subscribe to the chain store sites and get an email every other week reminding me to check the site: if I see something I like I can either order it with one click or go into the store for what I call a surgical strike. I hate browsing, I always end up buying a bunch of stuff I didn’t want and that doesn’t go with anything else I own!

      • Very savvy indeed… but I still love the thrill of the chase live! LOVE your concept of the surgical hit, but if I ever do that it’s sold out or they don’t have my size… x

    • You are my soul sister. That is exactly how I dress – but I add in key pieces of designer from the SALE RAILS and one or two serious investments.

      I’ve got some proper designer handbags and years ago I invested £2000 in a really good watch. That has paid me back over and over. You can be chain store and op shop head to toe, but with the good watch and a designer bag (some of mine are 20 years old now…) you can go anywhere.

      I think it’s more fear than snobbery with a lot of people, scared that they will come out looking cheap and/or poor. it takes confidence to trust your own instincts rather than just trust that a big price tag = big style. And I am SO with you on the ‘nearly right’. Such a mistake. xxxxx

  9. Love your blog and seriously miss the column in The Age !! Great advice here and after years of spending way too much I now have learnt to ‘pick the eyes’ out of chain stores and op shops . There are some gems out there. Fridays trawl: MaxMara skirt (withtags) $25 .Perri Cutten silk shirt $7 ( yipee).Carla Zampatti redpencil skirt unworn $12. All because of Maggie!!!! 😉
    ps now – what do I wear with a red pencil skirt?

    • Good haul – all DESIGNER! all from op shops? way to go! Designer bargains are another core of my shopping philosophy, but chain store is something else. The trick is to combine the two.

      With the red pencil skirt you could not go wrong with navy, but beware mixing white in as well, or you will look like a French flag. Personally I loathe red and black. Depending on the shade of red it could work with camel. Great with prints of mixed colours. Also with white, if you are one of the lucky ones who can wear it. Let me know how you work it! x

    • PS as I keep saying to people. Please please please tell anyone you think might like it about the blog. Got to get that word out!

  10. Great tips! I have just bought your latest book and I love it.

  11. Love the tips Maggie but my problem is the horrible atmosphere in the new Oz Zara stores.

    Having shopped the chains OS I was really looking forward to Zara opening here, but I’ve been in the Sydney store several times now and left feeling agitated without trying or buying anything. Everyone humping around great piles of clothes and an agitated energy that says,”Buy it now or regret it forever” and that means I don’t feel comfortable looking around for those pieces I will wear, amongst the muck.

    I never feel like that at Sportsgirl and still manage to find a few treasures there in my mid 40s, actually have a favourite pair of shoes and some jewels from there on today.

    • I agree Jo, I think I must be the only person in Melbourne who isn’t excited about Zara. It all seems a bit frenetic for me and the clothes aren’t out of the box. But I hope they succeed, it is good to have competition that will sharpen up the other chains (hopefully).

      • Yes, it sounds HORRENDOUS. My advice is to give it a while to settle down. Trust me, though, you can get truly amazing style and quality in there, at amazing prices, but not everything is great. I would give it a while – and then go first thing. x

    • I think the key to the Aussie Zara thing is to wait for the hysteria to calm down. It’s too new at the moment. It might take a year ha ha ha but once that happens – and they’ve opened more stores – it wil be much better. Mind you, it’s still like that in London at lunch times. Sometimes I walk in and walk right out again if the atmosphere feels too intense. Not worth it. x

  12. I get a thrill when I find a fabulous item at the chain stores here in Australia. My recent finds include an emerald green wrap dress from Barkins, a red ‘secretary’ dress from Jigsaw, black cargos from Dotti, a green knit from Zara and a black and cream knit from Portmans. I add my designer shoes and bag. And voila!

  13. What about Sportsgirl and Witchery in Oz? I always get super service in both! But you ate definitely right about 10,000 hours = expertise! And how about Zara? Zara + Melbourne= lookout!!

    • The Aussie stores are better on service than the UK equivalent. I love Witchery. Zara sounds like a zoo in Aus right now – I’d give it a while… Or go when it first opens in the morning, x

  14. Great tips Maggie. LOL at the annoying numpties, hence I NEVER try anything on in a chain store because they all seem to congregate in the fitting rooms! Chain stores are very useful (years of being poor taught me that!). My theory is that it all comes down to fit, if something fits you well, is in a colour that suits you and you feel good in it, it looks great. Even the most expensive designer piece can look nasty if the fit/colour/feel good combo isn’t working. And some chain store pieces can free up the budget for other special pieces……

    • SPOT ON. That is exactly my philosophy. Classic French women have tiny wardrobes with jsut a few key pieces, but it doesn’t work for me. Lots of cheap and cheerful with the designer (sale!) pieces to anchor.

  15. I love Zara, thank heavens there is now one in Sydney. We need a few more as the Sydney shop is still fairly chaotic. I buy nearly everything I wear in chain stores. I find the smaller stores are too expensive and the sales staff annoying. I like to be left alone until I need help by which time the staff have usually disappeared.

    • Yes, I’m as useless in one of those small shops with pushy assistants as my friends who shop in them are in chain stores! I hate to be observed and have comments. And I always think they’re on commission.

  16. […] Zen and the art of chain store shopping [Style Notes] Tagged:ausecurityshopping […]

  17. I love your comment about finding a zen moment. I think that is why I shop online so much, it is so much easier to be zen and browse pages and pages of clothes when there aren’t numpties everywhere. Possibly I just need to summon up my little book of calm and venture into the chain stores again, so that I stop spending so much!

  18. Someone tell this clueless american what a numptie is! Please and thank you. I have some ideas, but what to hear from you in the know.

  19. I love shopping online, boutiques and chain stores. You are crazy not to explore the chain stores – they can do the best interpretation of classic items for every day use. I have a David Lawrence trench coat (middle of the road Aussie brand) which elicits rave reviews where ever I wear it, it is finished beautifully. I find shopping can be hits and misses where ever you shop – a designer tag is absolutely no guarantee of quality or style.

  20. I remember when surf stores became chain stores – somewhere in the mid-90s – and I took my 10-year-old in to spend her birthday money. She found a fab jacket and then set off to find pants. The (oldish) sales assistant stopped her and told her that she had the great jacket now all she needed was a pair of black track pants from Target; no need to waste her money on expensive basics. Great advice that we shop by to this day.

    • That’s what i call real service – had the same in the Conran Shop, when the guy advised me to buy a picnic blanket in John Lewis not there, for half the price… I did!

  21. Great post. My friends and I talk about clothes ‘out of context’. You walk into some of these shops ad among all the crap, pieces get lost. You have to imagine them with your clothes and most importantly, on their own. Similar to what you’ve said about trying things on at home. A friend came to dinner last night in a new jacket, immediately we were all saying, ‘cue?’. Nope, a cheapy shop! Out of context who knew!?

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