By Sean Coughlan
BBC News Magazine
Anxious about what lingerie to choose for the woman in your life? A shop is hiring male assistants to help nervous men choose underwear.
You can see them when you're Christmas shopping. Awkward, not quite sure where to look, not sure if touching is encouraged or downright prohibited, fiddling with labels at an embarrassed arm's length...
Yes, it's men in the lingerie department, trying to guess what their partners would like for that special present. Too much or too little? Too risky or too sensible?
Even the word lingerie has a rustle of the exotic about it. For many men, this area of the shop is unknown territory for the rest of the year, with its own code of styles and measurements.
And making this once a year trip to the underwear section, men shuffle through the shimmering shelves, trying not to catch the eye of the mannequins, looking like smugglers going through a tough customs checkpoint.
Of course there are assistants there to help - but what exactly are you going to ask for? How many questions can you ask before the sleaze alarm goes off?
So unable to ask - and trapped in the headlights of embarrassment - you grab the first approximation of what you think is wanted and head for the check out. Job done. Mission accomplished.
A mannequin appeals to Christmas shoppers
Or not, according to Marks & Spencer, which says that its research shows that only one in three recipients of these seasonal stocking fillers is happy with her partner's choice.
So in an attempt to soothe the anxious male shopper, and to help women get something they might like, the retailer is hiring specialist male advisers to work in the lingerie departments in 50 of its stores.
These so-called "stocking fellas" will be able to step in with comradely advice. Suits her, sir. It really suits her.
Katy Pratt, spokesperson for the shop, says that its research showed that men buying underwear for women "didn't know basic things like sizes or what kind of lingerie she liked".
In one case last Christmas, she says, a male shopper came to buy his wife's underwear present armed only with her shoe size.
"Some men are quite confident about asking for help - but there are others who are embarrassed and would much rather talk to another man about it.
Male shoppers can feel out of their depth in the lingerie section
"Often you'll get men who sidle up, grab the first thing they see, they'll get to the till as quickly as they possibly can and get out as quickly as they can. And what are the chances of getting something their partners actually like?"
Sandra Boler, former underwear editor at Vogue, says that anyone shopping for Christmas lingerie should consider what the recipient is likely to want to wear.
"Before they even go into a shop, they should really think hard. It's pointless buying a push-up cleavage bra for someone for whom it's wildly inappropriate, the head of the bridge club or whatever.
"You've got to know vaguely what you're doing, vaguely what they like, rather than imposing your own fantasy and I think most women have a horror of being given tarty underwear." Of course, if it still looks like a tricky operation, and many men secretly think about shopping as a time-sensitive military exercise, there's always online shopping.