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The high street is dead. Kick it in the kidneys!

Posted by putsimply on 16th December 2009

Are you being served? Nope. These days you'd be lucky if Mr Humphries even acknowledged you, let alone tried to flirt with you.

Mobile phone retailers must hate BBC Technology Correspondent Rory Cellan Jones right now. Rory has taken the bold step of describing the difficulty in taking a mobile phone back to a dealership as compared to the experience of buying a phone across the internet.

Right now, when the retail industry is in the worst shape it’s been in for years, and people are being laid-off left, right and centre, this is terrible PR for the retail industry. It’s like Rory has kicked the retail industry’s teeth in, then returned to steal its wallet and insult its Mum.

We’ve all done it, right? Looking into the eyes of an eager phone salesman, knowing you’re using him to test-drive the latest models; then walking home to get a cheaper deal on the intertron.

This is symptomatic of a larger problem; and one that’s not just about price.

I’ve said many times that I’d pay a premium for high-street technology. In return for this premium I would want the personal touch; a bit of face-to-face expertise, a relationship with the shopkeeper, and a bit of take-back value if anything goes wrong, as in Rory’s article. I think a lot of people think this way.

The trouble is, having tried this approach, you don’t really get any of these things any more. You get all of the drawbacks of the shops; having to go slog there through the crowds, deal with the staff, and then lug your goods home. Plus you get all of the drawbacks of an inferior aftersales experience and some extra expense thrown in for your troubles. Perhaps that’s something for shops to consider.

My father always tried to dissuade me from shopping for gadgets, cameras, computer accessories, etc, on the internet. Compared to a store, he thought, you’d have difficulties returning things if ever anything went wrong.

Unfortunately the exact reverse now seems to be true. In fact, I suspect the figures will show that this Christmas has been the most-lucrative-ever for internet retail.

Just as important as the poor after-sales, though, is the poor level of customer service you frequently experience on the high street when actually buying my various gadgets and gismos. And there’s a lesson in this. I had two revealing retail experiences this weekend; both involved polite and courteous customer service; one a taxi driver, the other a shop assistant. In both cases I came away thinking two things:

– Isn’t it nice when the people you’re paying are polite and courteous?
– Why have I noticed this?

This is something our transatlantic neighbours have got right. Though I’ve found American customer service to occasionally be cloying and saccharine, shouldn’t staff be polite if you’re paying them?

In contrast I’ve found that British shop assistants are frequently sullen, rude, unhelpful and often poorly-trained.

Is it any wonder people are turning to the internet in droves?

The British retail industry has been, to some extent, its own worst enemy. So what should we do? Continue to use internet trade to kick the retail industry in the teeth until it learns? Or cut the retail industry some slack, putting up with bad service even more until the storm passes?

Personally, I’m a fan of the model of ‘recession as consolidation and fat-trimming improvement’. I’m no economic conservative; many good and qualified people have been losing their jobs senselessly. But recession would be even more senseless if we didn’t at least draw some hard lessons from it. Treat the customer right, know your stuff, and offer takeback value, and your PR will take care of itself.

[As an addendum to this posting – I’d like to add that I am 100% a fan of the high street, and would hate to see it disappear. I’d love to hear other people’s opinions on this.]