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Why the High Street fails us and we shop online

By Chris Dawson August 5, 2013 - 11:26 am

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.

  • 4 years ago

    I think this is more a criticism of large retail for the masses, rather than the “high street”.

    In the true sense of the word, I believe the High Street is a collection of entrepreneurial enthusiasts, running their own independent businesses, with an ingrained ethos of good customer service leading to long term sustainability. the big retail chains mentioned in the article are purely money-making exercises with a perceived strategy of extracting cash from people, run by accountants and spreadsheet-jockeys, and having little in the way of genuine interest in customer service for the sake of customer satisfaction. They use economies of scale to increase revenue and profit, hiring disinterested employees at the lowest possible price, screwing suppliers with economic threats, using pressurised sales techniques to upsell and instilling paranoia to secure high margin warranty packages. This is not “customer service”.

    The true “high street” has also been screwed over by the war on motorists, parking charges, pedestrianisation of town centres, bus lane cameras, judiciously target-driven parking enforcement, coupled with greedy councils subsidising their frivolous spending by pricing out small retailers with above inflation rate increases. Car ownership is a necessity for many people, and after investing in their chosen mode of transport they are loathe to pay extra, or to be held to ransom, in order to visit the town centres. Instead they choose to use their vehicles to visit these retail centres with free parking and the convenience of many products in close proximity to each other. They do not have the risk of a £60 parking penalty, they do not have to lug their bags of shopping on crowded buses, or through throngs of people, and they perceive themselves to be getting bargains – but at what cost?

    The examples given above reflect my own experiences in the retail-chains, merely an exercise in revenue generation using any given generic product, whereas the car dealer demonstrated that they still holds true customer service values that have been eroded from the retail experience.

    At least with running our own online retail businesses, we can still be the independent entrepreneur and offer true customer service, selling our products confidently based on value, not just cost. We are the nation of shopkeepers for the 21st century.

  • DBL
    4 years ago

    Had a similar experience, I knew exactly what I wanted and researched on the web, I was particular in that I wanted a Samsung series 9 in black with windows 7, this was proving difficult and a large range of prices on the net.

    I’ve never shopped tech in John Lewis before, in fact I’d only purchased once from them for a wedding gift. I was always under the impression that they wouldn’t be the best place to buy from to be honest but I was pleasantly surprised to find on the web that they had this model at a nearby store for 2/3 the price of some of the net sellers.

    Being the impatient person I am (especially when it comes to buying tech), and not being able to wait one second longer I went to the store to purchase. No hassle at all from a salesman although he knew I was there and the moment I looked in his direction he was there to help, needless to say I came out of the store with exactly what I wanted with a big smile on my face complete with an extra £200 off as they had one without a box in a display case that had never been switched on, all other accessories were included and guarantees too. All packaged for me with bubble wrap and padding in a big bag. Very pleased I was too.

    • 4 years ago

      I concur about John Lewis and buying tech, a really good experience for me. I bought my Samsung Tab in the Jan sales. They didn’t have the one I wanted in stock so I ordered it online using their free wifi and it came in two days. I didn’t even have to order it online myself, the sales guy said he would do it for me.

      There was a massive queue so I told him I would do it myself so he could keep serving.

      However, before I went into John Lewis I went to PC World and a few other shops inc an indie shop. All too busy to bother selling me something or to tell me I could purchase online if they were out of stock.

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