Friday, April 08, 2011
High-tech on the high street hits a brick wall

Ever since we could buy things on the internet, the issue of 'bricks vs clicks' has created an ongoing slew of questions.

Is e-commerce going to kill the high street? How much money did people spend online last Christmas compared to the one before? Will it arrive in time for her birthday? Is it really cheaper to buy online? What if I have to return it? Will we ever leave our homes again?

The main issues for me are 1) service and 2) instant gratification. Sometimes I need to ask a question, and a shop is better (although being able to live chat with an customer service rep on some websites is really good). Other times I need to have something immediately, so certainly can't be hanging around the for postman.

But it's becoming painfully obvious that the online route is the only way to go for consumer electronics. Shops like PC World and Currys seem to be staffed by people whose sole purpose in life is to con you out of extra cash, while hiding the fact that they have less idea about how the devices work than you do.

The number of times I've overhead salespeople in these kinds of shops upselling insurance, or anti-virus software, or pointless accessories to older people, has reached the point that it has really started to annoy me. The final nail in the coffin for me is something that's happening to my friend (and our office IT support guy) Aqeel.

Aqeel is tech savvy, and chose to buy an Android tablet in the branch of Currys local to our office. He got it home, and realised he'd been drastically mis-sold its features - the device doesn't have full access to the Android Market, the battery life was terrible, and it will also never be able to run Google's tablet-ready operating system Honeycomb.

So Aqeel changed his mind, and took it back to Currys after six days of buying it... Only to be told that he couldn't return it. They kept him waiting in there for an hour before they grudgingly agreed to keep it and test it. They made him feel dreadful. That was days ago, and he hasn't heard a thing from them.

Let's compare that to an experience I had with Amazon last year. I bought a netbook which arrived and wasn't what I wanted. I tried it out for a while and was unimpressed. It was fine - I just didn't like it. I phoned Amazon, got straight through to someone who knew the product inside out, who said I could just send it back. No questions asked, full refund, very sorry.

It's this kind of attitude that all commerce, whether it's offline or online, should be built on. Good service, understanding staff, and respect for people's decisions. I shop at Amazon a lot, and my experience continues to get better.

It's time that the high street retailers began to realise that it's unsustainable to treat people like idiots. The mentality of e-commerce retailers has always been 'f**k it, let's give it a go'. And that has created some of the best service out there. I'd include Apple in that too - and they've successfully translated some of that online spark into their bricks & mortar stores. If something breaks, they blame themselves and fix or replace it straight away. Keep the customer happy (and coming back) is more important than saving a few quid on a refund or repair.

As more e-commerce retailers start to move offline, and the traditional shops start going online, the boundaries are going to shift. It almost already no longer about 'bricks vs clicks', but about whether the retail brands have a customer-centric attitude, or a profit-centric one.

I, for one, will continue to buy a lot of technology. And I'll leave you guessing where I'm going to buy it from, and where I'm not.