Christmas Shopping 2010 - on the High Street and Online

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Christmas comes around again, and the madness of Christmas shopping descends upon us once more. In previous years I plan the campaign many weeks in advance and have a list with names and intended gifts. I then typically spend one weekend shopping in-Town (Saturday + Sunday), in my case West End London first weekend in December; and anything I don’t buy in-store on Saturday or Sunday, I order online on the Sunday night.

There is a vast difference to shopping online and shopping on the High Street, yet both are a necessary part of the process for me, for the following reasons.


High Street Shopping

  • Inspiration - Browsing product-laden physical retail spaces is the best form of shopping inspiration
  • Try before you buy - Certain wares need to be sampled in advance - check fabric / material, quality of finish, colour etc.
  • Instant Satisfaction - Buy and cross said item immediately off your to do list (no pending actions)
  • Returns - If you live close to a Town centre like I do, you can return and exchange goods in a matter of minutes


Online Shopping

  • Product Hunt - If you know exactly what you want, you can seek it out online amongst potentially dozens of suppliers
  • Range - They did not have the size or colour you wanted in-store, seek it online
  • Price - Clever importing via Channel Islands gives you cheaper CDs and DVDs; in fact most things are cheaper online
  • Home Delivery - You need not be weighed down by half a dozen heavy bags or boxes - have the goods delivered to your door


Stress Points

  • Congestion - The West End of London can turn into a mini-riot in the lead-up to Christmas
  • Time - How long does the acquisition trail take? Going from shop to shop is an all-day program, online is typically a matter of minutes
  • Availability - The High Street has limited availablity, you might need to run around several shops to get specific size or variation / variety - sourcing a known product is usually easier online (although not necessarily quicker)
  • Receipt - Buying online means that ideally someone needs to be at home to receive deliveries
  • Delivery - Unless you buy expensive ’Priority / Next Day Delivery’ you never really know when your package will arrive - sometimes it does not arrive!
  • Returns - Most online retailers are poor at dealing with returns, the basics of re-usuable packaging and self-addressed labels are often ignored - I am surprised that Amazon packaging is not better designed for returns


The Online Experience 2010

As always, Amazon was a good friend of mine this Christmas - mostly, that is to say. Both last 2 christmases one of the gifts ordered did not make it! The Amazon delivery deadlines are actually all over the place; possibly because of post office congestion (poor UK Winter-Weather-Preparedness), packages rarely arrive in the specified time - frequently the supposed early arrivals arrive late, and certain packages that weren’t supposed to be there until next week arrive earlier.

 

This year 2 packages went missing in the post! Royal Mail can find no trace of them! They should have arrived more than a week ago. I had to dash into town to get replacements - which I fortunately was able to do, although I paid a lot higher for those gifts than I would have on Amazon. Amazon very nicely (as they should of course) refunded the missing packages.

 

I’m not sure I would start the process any sooner next year, as the allotted time should have been quite sufficient; there was plenty contingency in there! If you are a serious shopper like me though, you just need to have a number of contingency plans - a plan B and a plan C. If everything had arrived on schedule, it would all have been perfect, apart from one gift which I ordered online, which I was not 100% happy with its quality - of course I had a plan B here, which unfortunately usually involves more expense.

 

In the last 10 years, 5 years in particular, Royal Mail has become increasingly unreliable. If I have a choice, then I deliberately choose not to go with Royal Mail, as they have lost nearly half a dozen packages addressed to me in the last 2 years. Unfortunately Amazon only really has 2 proper delievery options - First Class Mail (couple of quid) or ’Priority’ at £9.99. I partly blame Amazon for relying on Royal Mail, and not offering a cost-effective intermediate delievery service at around £5 - this is what my main online music retailer - Juno charges for delivery (£5.10 in fact) - quite reasonable.

 

Upon further consideration, I might even start my Christmas shopping earlier next year. Extreme winter weather always has a habit of grinding everything to a halt in the UK - and the best way to avoid inclement weather side-effects is to engage in the process well in advance ...

 

 

The Perfect Online Experience

Based on my various recent experiences, and extrapolated from over a decade’s worth of online shopping, I am able to make the following best practice guidelines for online retail:

  • SSL Certificate - Do you see the appropriate HTTPS secure URL with colour-coded padlock icon to indicate all your personal date is properly encrypted and secure? It’s still a surprise to find that certain sites don’t do this - I just won’t buy from them - simple as that
  • Proper Stock / Inventory Identifiers - Way too often and still on far too many sites, certain products purported to be in stock turn out to be on back-order or are somehow unavailable after you have made your order - it needs to be 100% clear whether what you are buying is in stock; John Lewis does this particularly well
  • Frequent and Timely Notifications - This is something Amazon does really well - sending out notification alerts for every stage in the process - order received, order processed, goods despatched (for some reason my John Lewis order was still being processed 48 hours later!)
  • Tracking on all deliveries - Most mail sorting is digital now - why can’t every package have a tracking code? For small items, it makes no financial sense to select priority delievery - often this kind of delivery is in excess of the price of the goods - the alternative (Royal Mail First Class) gives you no peace of mind
  • Legible and full-featured Order Notifications - Amazon sends out lots of notifications, but it takes thorough reading to figure out which product/s the notification refers to - Amazon needs to strip out some of the superfluous text and stick main Product Title and reference front and centre
  • Proper Account / Order Information - Once you have purchased - it’s nice to be able to login and see the status of what you bought - date and time purchased, last 4 digits of card used, date despatched, actual cost of delivery etc. - too many sites fail to do this, or fail to do this properly
  • Returns - Of all my orders, only All Saints covered this process properly - superb re-usable packaging with self-addressed label and self-adhesive tabs for returns - quite faultless really, all online retailers need to follow said model / example, of course All Saints was poor in other areas

 

Wrap-up

For various reasons, I ended up buying 65% of my Christmas presents online. On the Sunday in particular I frequently departed from a store when I saw the length of the queues for the tills. John Lewis was like a cattle market really, and when I asked for directions to a specific item, I was told that different products within related ranges were stocked at 3 different locations on the shop floor - this is something you never have to deal with online. At other times, the exact item I was looking for in-store was not available in the particularl configuration I wanted, or at the correct price point. Like I said, High Street shopping is a necessary part of the process for me, particularly when I am not 100% sure of what to buy for certain individuals - something might just catch my eye, and even though I might not buy that exact thing, It will certainly shape my online retail experience.

In some ways, and if I could, I would really want to buy everything in store - as I could then immediately tick it off my list and be reassured that everything had been organised and sorted. Buying online gets rid of the transport hassles and queues, but it does bring its own problems. Many products are very nicely presented online, and their various defects cleverly concealed - even if you have sampled certain wares in-store, the variation you buy might be made differently - using different materials, and the colour references can be all over the place. The biggest issue with online though is real availability and delivery. Many products are said to be in stock, and then are not; and once you make a purchase it can be as much as two weeks for delivery - which leaves you a lot of time to worry. I ordered all the Amazon stuff on the Sunday Night, some of it had arrived by mid week of the first following week, some of it not until the end of the following week. Amazon presents additional difficulties by way of its ’Marketplace’ - which means that several products you may buy from Amazon are actually coming from a 3rd party retailer, and their service can be fairly variable. Some of Amazon’s Markeplace retailers are actually more expedient with their deliveries than Amazon is, some are not!

When buying online, you can buy cleverer and cheaper, but you have to put a lot of research into your process to ensure that you’re not ripped off or left disappointed for one reason or another. Because of the range, price and ’anytime’ convenience of online shopping, I see online retailers getting a bigger and bigger slice of the action, but it’s no way near over for the Hight Street retailers - there’s a place and a purpose for everyone! In some ways it’s even a catch 22, as High Street shops sell out of items sooner - so that if you leave your shopping too late, you need to go online, but if you leave it way too late, you cannot rely on timely delieveries - so you are back to the shops, buying something at a higher price range than you intended ...

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