Why the High Street fails us and we shop online

John Hayes is a marketing strategist at the email marketing firm iContact, he also is a non-executive director at multi-channel retail technology company SellerExpress and the author of two books including the recently published: A Crash Course in Email Marketing for Small and Medium-sized Businesses. Like many who work in the online world occasionally he has to venture out, which reminds him just why shoppers are deserting the High Street in favour of shopping online:

High Street ShopsI don’t tend to make too many purchases on the high street anymore. In fact it’s been quite a long time since I last darkened the doors of a traditional store other than grabbing a quick sandwich from Marks and Spencer or an emergency bottle of wine from my local Spar.

But two things happened in the past couple of days that forced me into the real world retail environment to make fairly large ticket (certainly for me) purchases. My experiences were completely different and, I have to say unexpected.

It’s funny how things tend to wear out at exactly the same time. In this case it was the family car (finally giving up the ghost after 11 years of near perfect service) and my trusty, battle-scarred laptop.

The thought of buying a new car filled me with dread. A new laptop would be easy.

As it turns out, buying a car was much easier.

We arrived at the dealer, initially looking for a second hand car with low mileage. We knew the model we wanted and how much we willing to spend. Believing there is always a little truth in stereotype, we were ready to haggle with a slippery salesperson. Instead, we were greated with complete professionalism.

By good fortune – the dealer had a special manufacturers offer on the model we were looking at and we were able to pick up a brand new vehicle (for less than many of the second hand models on display). The deal was so good, there was no room to haggle (I really tried) and within 30 minutes (during which time we were furnished with coffees and juice for the kids) we were presented with the paperwork for our new car. It was painless. The salesperson than asked us to complete a survey and, as this was very important to his career progression, if there was anything he did wrong during the transaction he wanted the opportunity to put it right before we walked out of the door.

Purchasing a new laptop was a different story.

My laptop popped on a Saturday night. I needed something set-up and running to hit a deadline on Monday morning so buying online wasn’t an option.

As a marketing writer I hardly push technology to the limits. I needed something I could run Office 2012 on, get online, answer emails and occasionally throw together a PowerPoint presentation for my regular marketing boot camps and webinars. You can pick laptops that can handle these kind of tasks from any high street electrical store and an increasing number of supermarkets. But being a bit of a tight wad (read: savvy shopper), I wanted to shop around.

After spending a small fortune on shoe leather walking between stores to compare a range of laptops and prices, I found myself in PC World/Currys.

I could see the laptop I wanted locked up in a cupboard under the display unit. But could I find a member of staff to serve me.

Bear in mind, I didn’t need to be sold to or given advise. I just needed to be handed the box and walk to the checkout. All the PC World staff were tied up with tyre-kickers or important looking pieces of paper. The Curry’s staff told me they couldn’t sell me a computer and I would have to wait for a member of the PC World team to be available. In the corner of the store was a Phones4u franchise with four sales assistants (serving nobody) who also couldn’t help me. A manager, with a phone stuck to his ear said he would get someone over to me ASAP.

I waited for over 45 minutes for someone to unlock a cupboard. The salesperson then told me that the only laptops he had in stock came with recovery discs and I would have to pay an extra £30 for the privilege. I declined and asked him to remove the disks. He walked off, spent 10 minutes speaking to a colleague before returning and then processes the item without removing the discs at the original price.

While completing the sale and unsuccessfully trying to sell me an extended warranty, the salesperson noted my email address and asked if I had any jobs going. Needless to say I won’t be waiting for his CV with baited breath.

In way of a final insult, as it was raining I wanted to protect my new purchase from the elements on the way back to my new car parked at the other end of town but was told they didn’t have a bag big enough for a fairly small laptop.

What should have been an easy purchase, stole the best part of two hours of my life, raised my blood pressure significantly and has put me off visiting the high street again anytime soon.

At a time when high street retailers are lobbying the government to impose additional taxes on online retailers to create a “level playing field”, perhaps their time would be better spent looking at their own business practices. Shoppers on the high street deserve better and until they do, we will continue to flock online unless we really have to.