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March 26, 2023

DOWN AND OUT: A headless mannequin lies discarded in the store.

WHAT would Captain Peacock and Mrs Slocombe have made of today’s final day closing down sale at House of Fraser in Cardiff?

Mrs Slocombe’s pussy would have been in danger of being sold to a barbarian like me for 50% off the final marked price and Cpt Peacock’s wig might have ended up in the bargain bin with all the other designer goods. As for Mr Humphries’s pink feather duster, God alone knows what would have happened to that (Mike Ashley might re-purpose it as a retro furnishing item for online sale if you hurry, hurry, hurry).

The closing down sale that seemed like it would never end – martialed partly by Sports Direct vultures who used “closing down” merely as a marketing con to get punters in to their stores – was the nearest thing to grave robbing I’ve ever seen.

Burke and Hare at least had the decency to dig graves at dead of night to lift the corpses.

Here, hollow store mannequins which in a byegone age might have been luxuriously attired in designer gear by Miss Brahms in fourth floor ladies lingerie and Mr Rumbold in second floor men’s tailoring were down and out lying permanently robbed of clothes and dignity but available to buy for a small consideration along with all the other fixtures and fittings as what was left of Howells hurriedly disappeared before my very eyes.

The staff, some of whom might have applied to Grace Brothers if it actually existed in rosier times when service was king and not a dirty word and the customer was always right, were not for sale at any price and kept their dignity.

I told one lady that there was no need for her to call me “Sir” but she explained that that was what she had been taught to do or possibly face a bollocking from one of the Grace Brothers if he ever caught her and dropping it would be like losing her identity. To her, of course, I was still an opportunity with potential.

This is the end of that end of the pier nudge-nudge, wink-wink humour we enjoyed in shows like Are You Being Served much, much more than it the end of yet another overstaffed city centre retail outfit no longer able to compete in a digital age.

Even the meanest shoplifter wouldn’t have been low enough to sneak some Hugo Boss, Armani, Ralph Lauren and Paul Smith clobber out of the door manned by scruffy security wardens on this day of all days.

As the clock ticked closer to 4pm when it finally did shut, more and more of the merchandise went either to bargain hunters or was salvaged by store bosses for other purposes. 

This was not an everything must go sale so many things stayed unpurchased and at no stage was bartering welcomed though some staff complained about customers removing price tags and replacing them with cheaper ones and they relied on mobile phone data to value things without price tags.

Receipts were given and there was even a returns desk, suggesting that there is more to this than we know or understand.

Howells and David Morgan were Cardiff’s Harrods and Selfridges – impressive department stores you wandered through to look at luxury items you couldn’t afford while dreaming of being rich in a gratification bubble.

Both have now gone and the future for high street retail looks dire everywhere as internet purchasing grows more routine and normal with a younger generation habituated to it and nothing else.

Bouquets of flowers were brought into the store for staff and balloons with the number of years the store kept going flew proudly over a service point.

Throughout this period, staff have been present in the grimmest, sickest working atmosphere imaginable. It was difficult to distinguish them from customers as they had no uniform, making the store feel like a ship sinking slowly with an ununiformed crew staying on to the bitter end as shoppers piled in to plunder the polished brass, silver cutlery and crystal chandeliers then hurl the booty into the lifeboats they manned themselves.

This made interaction with staff problematic, to say the least.

Howells, like the BBC, was an anachronistic uncompetitive institution which feather-bedded too many dependent lifers who grew to expect audience loyalty without having to market themselves and offer something people actually want at a realistic price sharing with the broadcaster a fatal inability to adapt and evolve while putting the users and not the staff first.

Behind the surface gloss and glitz was a sense of entitlement and snobbish class consciousness exemplified by the woman who called me Sir who might very quickly have dropped the patter if I called her Madam in a certain tone of voice.

“I’m free” said Mr Humphries, more in hope than expectation. We’re all free now – free to shop till we drop in splendid isolation with nobody calling you Sir or Madam.

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