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Liberty's of London asks: are you being served?

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: December 07, 2013

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I can almost understand why the management of Iceland opted to have supermarket life laid bare for Life in the Freezer Cabinet. It illustrated their jolly, simple and down-to-earth attitude to retail and must have done them more good than harm.

But London's famous Liberty's? That elegant, mock-Tudor-facade temple to shopping for the rich and famous? Surely not.

Brash, American managing director Ed Burstell must believe that Channel 4's Liberty of London (Monday) will somehow help the 138-year-old business, struggling against competition from the new kids in town.

It's a thin line between traditional, bespoke service and being old-fashioned and stuffy.

Ed was obviously brought in to stir things up. It was make or break when he arrived, as the store struggled to find enough money to pay wages in the month he started.

"People feel like they own a part of it. It's such a part of British retail history... although it is a bit like Are You Being Served?" he laughed. He's not wrong there. Some of the staff look like they've come straight from Grace Brothers.

Maybe that's what you need with millionaires like Felix who have gold loyalty cards and come complete with their own personal shoppers.

Felix likes the fact that the staff allow him just to take what he wants and send him the bill later.

Or cross-dressing artist Grayson Perry, who says Liberty's is for "people who think John Lewis is too beige".

He shops for fabrics to create clothes for his feminine alter-ego, picking patterns from the store's massive range.

Fabrics are at the heart of the store's success, along with the exotic carpets and artefacts that the business was built on – one of the first to import items for the home from around the world.

Shukla, still working at 70, is Liberty's secret weapon. When Ed arrived he went undercover to visit the store and was subjected to Shukla's softly-softly but highly successful sales technique.

"It was like being mugged," he drawled. But for Shukla and the other staff, there's a real incentive to sell well.

They get commissions on sales and a top earner can take home £32,000 on top of their (I suspect very) basic salary. Shukla says she's happy if she sells £500,000 in goods in a year.

With her selling three cushions to a customer for just under £400, it shouldn't take her long.

But if it's to survive, New Yorker Ed has to retain traditional, high-spending customers and find new blood. People prepared to buy a life-size cuddly grizzly bear, a snip at around £2,000 in the Christmas shop.

Still, the staff are confident it will be sold. They seem a cheerful lot. Liberty's must treat them well... they each get a £5 Liberty's voucher on their birthday. So what can they spend it on? Ed pauses... "Maybe some stationery... or a chocolate bar?"

Simon Reeve makes a welcome return to our screens with Pilgrimage with Simon Reeve (Tuesday, BBC Two), following in pilgrims' sometimes muddy footprints as he sets off from Holy Island in Northumberland for his ultimate destination – Jerusalem.

I suspect he will find more pilgrims, the closer he gets to his destination. There's certainly not many of them to be spotted on the British leg. Even the traditional pilgrimage at Walsingham in Norfolk mainly consists of visitors and tourists.

Although professing to having no faith, there's a gentle and calm air to proceedings and Simon makes a great guide.

Finally, a plaudit for Nicola Walker for her excellent performance in Last Tango in Halifax (Tuesday, BBC One).

I always liked her as Ruth in Spooks, and this week she showed great dexterity as an actor with her performance as Gillian – packed with sadness, bitterness, anger and fragility as the show took a shock detour into a darker side. Brilliant stuff.

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