Some digital Christmas reflections for this season…
For increasing numbers of Christmas shoppers, the question about whether it’s better to shop online or on the high street is largely academic. People use the malls and shopping centres as showrooms, then order online.
Last Christmas around £8 billion was spent via the web, accounting for 10% of total UK retail spend. That will grow this year.
Not for most users is their any dilemma about wanting to get the best bargains more conveniently against the hope that British shopping hubs can flourish and be interesting places to visit. The internet is the head decision; the actual shops the heart one.
Pros and Cons
On the plus side online stores never shut, there is no parking hassle and expense, aggressive salespeople are avoided and the range of systems now available for price comparisons is enormous. Some genuine bargains are out there in cyberspace because stores are saving on energy, business rates and staffing expenses.
On the other side, you can’t physically check goods, you get few guarantees about delivery dates, you can find your parcels sent back if you are not in when the carrier chooses to knock on your door.
You have to trust the site’s security and many people complain that shipping costs far exceed actual ones. Returns are rarely simple. Once in their system, no company will leave you alone without bombarding you with further offers.
So, it’s a question of balance, as a straight comparison is not the full picture. Which method is the easiest for you overall?
One aspect of online retailing that many complain about is the emergence of hidden charges till the very last moment in the process.
The UK’s Office of Fair Trading (OFT) wrote in October to more than 60 online retailing outlets to warn them they need to sharpen up their websites before Christmas or face prosecution for breaking consumer laws in the Distant Selling Regulations.
These were unnamed retailers who charged unexpected fees, imposed quite unreasonable restrictions on refunds or provided customers with woefully inadequate contact details.
Tail-end charges are particularly galling, as many customers having struggled through an often tedious buying process feel rather than start again elsewhere, they will just pay up.
‘Shopper-friendly’ is the mantra the regulators are looking for. The same process was gone through with airlines who whacked on card and booking charges right at the final stage of the process.
Complaints and Customer Services
For many consumers the notion of ‘customer services’ is at best quaint and old fashioned and at worst, just a misnomer for a section of vaguely customer-facing staff.
Most systems are so fully automated that complaints are ‘dealt with’ without any human contact at all. It’s almost impossible to speak to a living person at Amazon, for example, as they have thought of ‘everything’ through their FAQs.
Even in a real shop, there is no certainty that a complaint will be handled seriously or timely, but at least with other customers present in the shop, you can make a fuss which may wake the manager up enough to realise other sales are at risk.
Would you spend money in a shop where an angry customer was loudly complaining about shoddy service/goods/attitude? Online you don’t know who is dissatisfied and you can’t rely on customer reviews as necessarily honest and genuine.
One exception to online poor service is the Great Little Trading Company, Children’s Retailer of the Year 2012. We ordered two Christmas presents online, one to go to one address, and the other to a different location. They both ended up at one address.
When we complained, their automated, default response told us we should have checked the email confirmation, SO IT WAS OUR FAULT!
A further, very angry email was sent to them which produced a very fulsome apology, free pick up of the unwanted package, free delivery of a new one to the right address, refund of all delivery charges and a reduction in the total bill.
Not bad at all and full marks to them. The lesson is that it’s always worth complaining hard and persistently if you are in the right, and some companies do still care about customer service, online and in the actual shop. Thank goodness for that.
Does Facebook Have Friends in All the Right Stores? 30 August 2012
Deck the Malls With Money, 24 December 2011
Getting the Christmas Shopping All Wrapped Up, 26 October 2011
Image: Graham Richardson