“Ninety-nine percent of the jackets I sell are jackets that I pick for customers,” he says. “Allow me to pick one or two jackets, without you telling me what you want or what you are looking for. I will decide what I think is right for you. And one more thing, Madam, so you can relax. I’m not a pushy salesman, you don’t have to buy nothing whatsoever. But. There is one thing: you must try what I pick. If you don’t try what I pick, I won’t bother. Because when you try what I pick, then you see what I see, alright?”
The speaker, Ned, is the owner and proprietor of Fit Rite on the High Street, an establishment which, from the outside, seems like a fairly ordinary shoe shop. The customer today is a forty-something mother of two, wearing a Kenzo hoodie with an impressive amount of louche style. She has come into the shop with her son and daughter. She is not really here to buy a leather jacket. But, as Ned tells me, he makes most of his sales from customers who aren’t expecting to buy anything.
The stump speech is the first part of Ned’s magic.
He would like more customers to come to Fit Rite for the sake of the products, which are largely of outstanding quality and represent excellent value for money. Quality is the most important hallmark of Fit Rite’s products and his salesmanship. The shop is sometimes mischaracterised as a vintage shop, but Ned prefers to say that he sells ‘classic’ products with proven long-term popularity. Indeed, 80% of his stock is new. “I like old-school stuff,” he says. “Those boots there, called the Monkey Boots – I wore the identical shoe in 1975. I like things like that, things that have been tried and tested.”
Frankly, it is difficult to write about the shop without writing about him. He has the gravitas of a celebrity tailor – indeed, he claims to have catered to Olivia Newton-John, alongside a host of other celebrities, at his shop in London. Here, as there, he sells fine mostly fine leather products: Chelsea boots and brogues; pilot and shearling jackets; and a range of miscellaneous accoutrements from berets to tinted sunglasses to what can only be described as “fetish goggles.” The array, piled onto racks at the back of the shop, is overwhelming, which Ned explains is deliberate. “I won’t allow this young man to go through the leather jackets,” he says of one customer. “Because there’s no point. I already know what is right for the customer, and I can do it in less than ten seconds.”
Boldness is not cockiness where it is justified. The first two leather jackets for this customer are not quite right. She says that the arms of the first jacket are too short, which Ned claims is because she is standing wrong: “Madam, in that position, even my jacket is tight. You have to try leather jackets in the most relaxed position, which is here.” The second jacket has a different issue: “It won’t keep me warm.” “It’s for looking good in, Madam,” Ned objects. But he has the expertise to back this up: “I’ll tell you how to keep warm in leather jackets, right. You don’t need to wear woolly jumpers. You need two natural fibre garments. One skin-hugging, and one whatever you want, wool, cashmere, whatever.”
This is probably true. Ned has run Fit Rite for 21 years, though it is only in the last three years that the leather goods business has expanded. He runs the shop almost entirely by himself, as he cannot afford to employ staff. One suspects that employing more staff would not necessarily be the best thing for him. His bespoke service, if we can call it that, has always been a feature of his business. Some customers are more difficult than others, he says, because they already have style and character and their own way of dressing. “Figuring that out is quite deep,” he tells me later, after the customer has departed. “With [this customer] I could tell what she was like from her bag and her jeans. I’ve met other ladies who would have that bag, and would wear those jeans, so – though she doesn’t know it – I’ve already served her before.”
This uncanny power is central to Fit Rite’s business. But it is no guarantee of success. Ned tells me that the business has struggled in recent years because of the pressures imposed by online stores and chain stores which do a better job of “manipulating” customers. And when it comes to leather goods, Ned explains, people rarely know how to identify quality materials – or they simply don’t care, and instead buy products for the brand names.
Ned personally picks all of Fit Rite’s products. To have confidence in him is to have confidence in the quality of his products. The products aren’t all unique – he is a businessman, after all, and he tells me that he is always watching to determine which products will be the most successful, so he can buy more from the wholesalers. The best styles, commercially, are “the ones that cater for everyone… after a month of studying a particular product and seeing customer reactions to it, I place more orders.” But alongside these products, there are rarities with £800 price tags, which Ned keeps stowed away in Fit Rite’s cavernous basement. He tells me fondly about an extremely high-quality sheepskin jacket nicknamed “The Ginger”, which he described to me on my first visit to the shop. He refused to show it to me because I was not the right person for the jacket, which may or may not be a polite way of acknowledging that I did not have £800 to hand to spend on it. The Ginger, he explains, was recently sold to a businessman who came in at eleven o’clock at night (the shop is open at semi-random hours). He spins the tale of the Ginger’s sale into an epic, personal tale.
Anyhow. Back to our customer: like a Goldilocks story, the third jacket is the one that – please pardon the pun – fits right. She is smiling as she puts it on and poses in front of the mirror. “That’s the best out of all of them,” her son tells her. “You look like Captain Marvel.”
In the end, she doesn’t buy the jacket. This isn’t a failure, not necessarily. Ned tells me that he gets more pleasure out of picking the right products for customers than from making sales. And in any case – just supposing that this is a salesman’s standard bulletproof rhetorical claim – she picks out a grey wool beret. He tells her to wear it in “the French way.” “It’s not very warm then, is it?” she says. “Madam,” Ned replies, endlessly polite. “England is only mild cold. It’s not severe.” “I’m moving from the East!” she explains. “I need the warmth.” He only smiles: “I know you, Madam.” And so she buys.