Monday 8 June 2009

John Lewis drove me to drink

14st 10lb, 9.0 units. Yes, I know that I swore this was going to be a daily account when I took it up again in March, and lasted less than a month before I ground to another halt. But, on the other hand, I do have diary notes for all the intervening days and only need to pull out or invent at least one amusing anecdote per diem and paste it up. Which should not be too much of a challenge, given personal and national developments over the last seven weeks, and I will get around to it eventually. But right now I feel an overpowering urge to relieve my chest of a great load of venom directed at a well-known department store chain, so I will just crack on with that.

As will eventually be revealed in my posting for 6 June, I gave up drinking the day before yesterday. I had had a week of alcoholic excess, as I drove Mrs H around the country in a final, pre-baby cultural frenzy, taking in four operas at Glyndebourne and The Grange, socializing with generous friends and just quietly soaking in my London clubs. It struck me that it was high time to dry out, and that doing so might help to kick-start my disastrous diet. Though the clincher was the realization that it might be pretty handy if, when the tell-tale signs of labour commenced, I was actually sober enough to drive Mrs H to the hospital. So that was it; I resolved not to touch another drop until I was able to crack a bottle of champagne to celebrate the new arrival.

But that was before I had an afternoon blighted by Messrs Never Knowingly Undersold. Who would, in my opinion, be enough to drive much stronger men than me to drink.

First let me share a bit of my history with this organization. I suppose I inherited an initially favourable disposition towards the local branch of the John Lewis Partnership from my mother, who every Thursday morning took a trolleybus ride to Bainbridge’s (as it was then known) in Market Street (where it then was) for tea and hot buttered toast in the oddly named “Chattery” café with her best friend Big Fat Maisie. This simple pleasure was the absolute highlight of her week.

There was also, for me, the appeal of history; Bainbridge’s, founded in 1838, laid claims to be the world’s very first department store, a fact which made my young heart swell with Geordie pride. There used to be a little shrine to the memory of the founder Emerson Muschamp Bainbridge set into the wall of the new store in Eldon Square, but it seemed to have vanished when I sought to point it out to Mrs H a few weeks ago. Obliterated, perhaps, in the name of the new, uniform John Lewis branding, introduced in recognition of the fact that we consumers are far too thick to grasp the concept of a company trading under more than one name.

It all started to go wrong long before that, in fact more than 20 years ago when I moved into my then new house and loyally went to Bainbridge’s to buy such essentials as carpets and curtains. It was only October, yet the ironically named “assistant” in the floor coverings department actually laughed at me when I said that I would rather like to have my house carpeted before Christmas. A family-owned shop in Alnwick happily supplied precisely the same carpets at a lower price, and had them fitted within a month. I am not really sure why I ever went back to Bainbridge’s after that, but Peter Jones was handy for my flat in London and so I kept giving the Partnership further undeserved chances.

What should have been the last straw came three or four years ago when I had some friends from the soft south coming to stay with me in Northumberland, and felt the need to make my house more comfortable, but did not have time to trek into Newcastle to shop. So, in a moment of madness, I ordered a load of things (including, critically, electric blankets for all three guest beds) from John Lewis online, chose a delivery day when I could definitely be at home and sat back confidently awaiting their arrival. It started to snow in a half-hearted way, making me congratulate myself all the more for having had the presence of mind to order all this stuff to make my guests cosy. Having sat at my desk all day, enjoying a panoramic view of my garden gate and front door, I finally rang at about 5 o’clock to find out how much longer their driver would be.

“Oh yes,” said a woman, “he called but you were out.”

“No, I wasn’t.”

“No, he definitely called and got no answer, about half an hour ago.”

“Well, I’ve been here all day and I’m here now, so tell him to come back.”

“I’m sorry, sir, we’re not in contact with the driver and we can’t ask him to do that.”

“Look, the guy never came here. It’s snowing and he’s decided he can’t be bothered to come out all this way. This is not the sort of service I expected.”

“I can assure you that he did call, and we have a system where the driver records the colour of your front door to ensure that there can be no misunderstandings. And … let me see … your front door is white.”

“No, actually, my front door is brown.”

“Ah, but you did say it was snowing …”

I think I might well have sworn at this point, while pointing out that there were a few flakes gently fluttering downwards, not a full-scale Antarctic blizzard. The excuse was then modified to the thoroughly unlikely one that the driver had called at the wrong house. At this point I cancelled my order (which was done with exemplary ease and politeness, as though the lady at the other end had rather a lot of experience of this sort of thing) and I vowed never to buy anything from them ever again. Then along happened Mrs H, who wanted to have a wedding list, and where else do People Like Us set up their wedding lists other than John Lewis? So we compiled a longish catalogue of things we did not really need and some people actually bought them. While others informed us that they “could not see anything they fancied” on our list (a way of telling us that we have appalling taste, I suppose) and either bought us things they thought we should like (as a result of which we are now the proud owners of more than 40 champagne glasses, to take the most bizarre example) or gave us John Lewis gift vouchers in the hope that we might select something a bit more appropriate if we were allowed time for further reflection.

Since we needed a load of stuff for our forthcoming baby from somewhere, it seemed that we might as well buy it from John Lewis and use up these vouchers, so we went to their Newcastle store on 17 April and duly spent more than £1,000 in their nursery department. I even commented favourably on the experience on this blog, because the assistant really did seem to know her stuff and did an apparently disinterested job of steering us away from things that were either unnecessary or needlessly expensive. The only disappointment came at the end of the exercise, when I revealed that we wanted some of the larger items delivered to Chester. Can’t be done, apparently, which makes one wonder what was the point of all that investment in creating a single, national brand. Still, we were assured that everything we had ordered was already in their central distribution centre and could be delivered within a couple of weeks, when I needed to be at my house in Northumberland anyway. So I agreed to have it all brought there and to move the stuff across the country myself.

More than three weeks went by before I stirred myself to ring up and ask where my delivery was. Ah, they were still waiting for the cots to come into their distribution centre, but if their supplier did not let them down they would be in touch the following week to arrange a delivery date. Those would be the cots we were assured were already in the distribution centre when we ordered them? Yes, the very same.

I duly received a call the next week and arranged a delivery date when I could next conveniently make a special trip to Northumberland for the purpose. This was now some six weeks after the stuff had been ordered. I was assured that it would be with me between 7 a.m. and 2 p.m., so I drove up the previous day and arranged a series of appointments for the following afternoon. Then I thought that it might be a good idea to give the store a quick ring to confirm that they were actually coming and got the good news that they were, and the bad news that they would be with me between 2 and 9 p.m., completely screwing up my day. This was, I pointed out with admirable restraint, “less than helpful” and completely at variance with what I had agreed. Surely any organization that cannot stick to an agreement with a customer might at least bother to pick up the phone and let them know? I was told, again less than helpfully, that I would have to take that up with the person with whom I claimed to have made the original arrangement, as if I were the sort of person who went around making careful notes of my conversations with random call centre operatives (though I strongly recommend that you do, if you are crazy enough to deal with them).

I wish now, with the benefit of 20/20 hindsight, that I had told them to coat their delivery with a suitable lubricant and ram it into a cavity where bleaching by the sun would be unlikely to prove a major problem. As it was, feeling unable to trust any statement they made about their likely arrival time, I sat at my desk for 12 numbing hours with my eyes fixed on my open front door. Their van finally rumbled up at 8.20 p.m., and its tired occupants made it painfully clear that it had been a close-run thing as to whether they came all the way out to me or went back to their depot. A couple of items we had paid for and not taken with us were mysteriously missing from the consignment, but I only had myself to blame for not noticing their absence from the original despatch note. So I duly loaded the vast bulk of the stuff into my car and transported it the 222 miles to Chester, where we had wanted it in the first place.

Yesterday, back at home after our cultural tour of England, we finally set ourselves to unpacking it all and setting up a suitable nursery for young Charlie. First we could not assemble the cot because one small barrel nut had a defective thread. Cue a just-pre-closing time dash to B&Q to buy a packet of replacements, which at least allowed us to complete the job and had the saving grace that in Chester a well-equipped DIY store is only a five minute drive away, rather than the 80-mile round trip I would probably have had to make in Northumberland.

Then we plugged in the nursery light we had bought, only to find that it did not work. A slip of paper in the box suggested that it had already been returned by one customer, quite possibly for that very reason.

Finally we laboriously unpacked our new “travel system” of buggy and car seat, only to find that it did not contain the vital components needed to fasten the wheels to the pushchair. I thought that Mrs H was going to go into premature labour with all the stress and frustration, while I found that my need for a stiff Bloody Mary and the best part of a bottle of red wine with my supper was completely irresistible.

Still, a couple of good things have come out of this. For one, I am looking forward to hearing Mrs H treat the Newcastle branch of John Lewis to a wide-ranging piece of her mind when she returns from an appointment at her building society. And, for another, I can say with total confidence that neither of us will ever spend another penny with this bunch of epically unreliable [expletive deleted]s until Hell freezes over or Gordon Brown wins a landslide General Election victory. Whichever comes first.

With this blow coming on top of the loss of all that lovely business kitting out MPs’ second homes, I wonder if it is too much to hope that the organization might go bust and its partners be reduced to camping on roadside verges and stewing grass for sustenance? Vindictive? Moi?

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