The price of finding love: How much would you pay?
"I felt I was paying for a first class-service and that is what I got: privacy, successful introductions, kindness and efficiency."
So says "Susan" of the thousands of pounds she spent signing up to The County Register introduction agency.
The fact that Susan does not wish to be identified by her real name demonstrates how highly she values her privacy.
And that to her was one of the main attractions of the County Register.
Susan is 63 years old. She had read about the agency several years ago, not long after her husband had died.
Then in 2003, when she felt she was ready to meet somebody new, she decided to take the plunge and contacted the agency.
Introduction agencies do pretty much what they say on the tin - they introduce people to potential partners to whom they think they are well suited.
Discretion is the name of the game. Your picture won't be plastered on a website for anyone to see: instead, your name will be added to the agency's private database.
They interview all clients before taking them on, asking them about their expectations and sometimes even visiting their home.
People who approach them are nearly always looking for a long-term relationship, so they are asked questions such as "Where do you see yourself in three years' time?" and "Do you want children?"
Heather Heber Percy, founder of the County Register, says people's expectations are high. "They are relying on you to find someone who's going to change their life."
Often clients who work long hours come to her, seeking help.
"There's been a huge social change in this country that doesn't allow people to meet each other in the way they used to."
Not for everybody
But acceptance is not guaranteed.
Gray & Farrar, one of the most exclusive agencies, openly states that "only the most eligible single people are accepted" and acknowledges that "we are certainly not right for everybody".
While Karen Mooney, founder of the Sara Eden agency, says: "If people have unrealistic expectations, we don't take them on. It doesn't matter how much money you throw at us, we can't wave a magic wand."
But turning someone away is a delicate process, she says, particularly if you are dealing with someone who has been bereaved.
"Often people people come to us who are widowed - probably more men than women - and often they haven't thought about grieving."
If you are accepted though, the agency will then pre-select potential dates for you.
And the more you are willing to pay, the more bespoke the service.
For instance, a higher premium may get you your own personal matchmaker and priority introductions to new members, or the agency may even place personal adverts on your behalf if necessary and then screen the respondents.
The kind of money we are talking about is much more than you would associate with an online dating site.
Some dating websites are completely free to use. For the more popular ones like mysinglefriend.com or match.com, subscriptions start in the region of £22 to £32 a month, but get lower if you sign up for a longer period.
By contrast, services on offer at the County Register range in price from £2,000 for 12 months' membership to £10,000 for 18 months' membership.
At some other agencies, £10,000 is just the starting level.
'Hoping for a Bentley'
Susan paid about £7,500 for a year's subscription when she joined the County Register in 2003.
She met someone whom she went out with for a period of time, but the relationship later ended. A couple of years later, she rejoined the agency and has since met somebody new, with whom she "is in the first stages of something".
She admits that if the fees had taken up a large chunk of her savings, she would have thought twice about subscribing, but she was lucky enough to be in a financial position where she could afford it.
"I suppose one hopes one is buying a Bentley and not a second-hand car with 100,000 miles on it!" she says.
"Yes, it's expensive, but Heather [Heber Percy] provides a service. I thought it was probably worth it paying for the quality of the service and the security of privacy."
She adds that it worked for her - someone a bit older, who has never wanted to go to a bar to meet someone and who didn't want to put her picture online.
"I think it's good for anyone of my age if they don't want to go through life on the internet."
The fees themselves have to cover a variety of costs, which are enormous, according to Heather Heber Percy.
"We have just placed four adverts for a client and the costs for those four ads will be around £1,000," she says.
"Then when someone comes back, I have to travel and interview them on her behalf. Then you create a profile for them and you present the details to the client."
She also has to pay for six full-time staff (who cover 2,500 clients between them), the costs of running two offices, plus the costs of travel all over the country.
In fact, for her most expensive service, the £10,000 fee would actually leave her with a loss if a client were to require all the introductions and advertisements on offer.
But she prices it like that as "a conscious effort to try and keep it at a reasonable cost".
And ideally, she will introduce two people who "click" relatively early on in their subscription, so they don't need to use up their full quota of introductions.
She is passionate about the business she started 27 years ago. Back then, the agency charged a mere £30 for a year's membership, guaranteeing six introductions in that time.
"This is genuinely about wanting to help people, making sure you take on clients you can help and trying to keep the costs down. We're not a company who makes a huge profit," she says. (She's right - in 2009, the County Register made a profit of just £17,500.)
But she concedes that not all agencies may share her motives.
"One of the difficulties in this industry is people start up, thinking they can run an introduction agency, and then when the going gets tough, they disappear with people's money," she says.
She also chairs the Association of British Introduction Agencies (ABIA), which strives to maintain a code of practice for introduction agencies.
Dating sites' influence
Karen Mooney from Sara Eden says that interest in the industry has grown 10-fold since she started her agency in 1988.
She admits that the start of the recession had an impact on business, as people were panicking about losing their jobs. But then things turned around.
"Once we got into the swing of the recession, it was actually good for business," she says. "People thought more about their needs as a person rather than monetary needs."
Nor has the rise of dating sites such as match.com as a cheaper alternative had a wholly negative impact.
She admits that it has taken away the bottom end of the market, creating a clear divide.
But it has also "brought dating into people's homes and now people are more willing to go into an agency", she says.
Heather Heber Percy, meanwhile, says that for all the people who meet someone on a dating website, there are many who don't.
Many of her clients, she says, are people who have tried online dating and found it was not for them.
And she is confident that introduction agencies have a secure future.
"However it changes on the internet, there will always be that niche market for personal services for people who are willing to work that little bit harder to meet someone."