/ Shopping

Online shopping: does bigger mean better service?

Does shopping from a large online retailer mean it’s better equipped to deal with customer service issues? Our community member, Ian, shares a recent experience.

This is a guest post by Ian. All views expressed are Ian’s own and not necessarily shared by Which?.

Some people complain that huge online retailers, such as Amazon, are dominating the market at the expense of smaller retailers. But is that a fair assessment?

Recently, while searching for a quality chess set and board, I decided to look outside Amazon and instead to a smaller, independent business. It was an interesting journey.

I placed an order with a smaller company on 5 September, and I received an email by return promising me that I’d be advised when the set was dispatched.

Okay so far, I thought, but that’s when things started to go wrong.

Delivery dramas

On 10 September, I found the dreaded missed delivery card through the door. The card advised us they’d tried to deliver without success and we could either collect it from the post office (three miles away) or we could rearrange delivery.

I chose the latter, gained confirmation from the delivery company that it would be delivered the following day, and waited in all day. It failed to arrive.

What to do if your delivery doesn’t turn up

Things were becoming irritating at this stage – we’d had no promised email from the retailer and had lost an entire day waiting for the delivery company.

I followed up with two emails to the retailer. It told me that the delivery company said it had made two attempts to deliver.

This wasn’t the case, and could be proved by the security cameras I have covering the front and rear entrances.

The delivery company went on to argue that there was no trace of a rearranged delivery time… but I had a screenshot saved of that, too.

Dealing with disputes

As a long-term member of Which?’s legal service, I pointed out that our contract was with the retailer, which covered the delivery to my home.

I gave them 24 hours to contact the delivery company again to arrange a second delivery, or I would exercise my right to cancel the purchase.

The response I received was very disappointing and didn’t fully comply with the responsibilities a retailer has when selling products online.

Would any of this had happened if I’d shopped at a large company?

I believe that responses to escalating queries like this are why the likes of Amazon have done well.

Why would you want to put yourself through protracted wrangling and arguing with a business when you can order and know – with cast-iron certainly – that they’ll keep you informed as to the delivery date every step of the way and refund without question if anything goes wrong?

I eventually ended up placing my order with one of the largest chess set suppliers in Europe – I received outstanding service.

Could problems with customer service like mine be contributing to the decline of the highstreet?

This was a guest post by Ian. All views expressed were Ian’s own and not necessarily shared by Which?.

Comments

I try to buy from shops if possible. It’s easy to return new products if there is a problem and if something goes wrong I can go back to the shop and get the problem sorted out to my satisfaction. Nowadays I anticipate misinformation such as being told that I must contact the manufacturer and go prepared with printed information to confirm my claim.

I did once have a problem with Birco Lighting, which gave excuses for non-delivery, but the product eventually turned up. That’s the only problem I can remember with an online order in the past ten years.

I’m not keen on using Amazon unless there is no alternative or it’s much cheaper. When I was working their inability to give accurate information about delivery meant that I had to have deliveries sent to the post room at work. Nothing seems to have changed and a product ordered before Christmas arrived two days before the date that I had been advised by email. Amazon is not alone and I welcome the option to have goods delivered to a collection point rather than having to stay at home for two or three days for a delivery.

What really put me off using Amazon was their failure to take responsibility over a safety issue relating to a product sold by one of their Marketplace traders. In another Conversation we learned that Amazon and other marketplaces are not legally liable for what their traders sell. Some of us feel that this must change and that Which? should be driving this change. It was Which? that provided evidence of the dangerous and counterfeit products sold via online marketplaces: https://www.which.co.uk/news/2019/09/killer-chargers-travel-adaptors-and-power-banks-rife-on-online-marketplaces/ In fairness to Amazon, I have seen recent evidence that they act quickly in removing unsafe products from sale but they need to do more to ensure that these products are not offered for sale.

Thanks for the Convo, Ian.

I don’t follow the concluding sentence as we are talking here about on line purchases that have nothing to do with the high street and its decline. I sympathise with you for the hassle you have had and, particularly the misinformation and deliberate lies that were sent to you. This firm doesn’t deserve to be in business and I hope that you have lost no money in the process. It is a lesson to use the on line retailers who can deliver. Amazon have collecting boxes in public spaces and, in my case a post office willing to accept my parcels — two or three times out of ten. The rest of the time they offer this collection point and then tell me it is unavailable and ask for another address option.
In the early days Amazon was less concerned about delivery and goods could turn up at any time. Now they detail the delivery day and if this changes I am notified and told when to expect items. The only improvement they could make is to narrow down the time of day from between 9am and 10pm to an hour or so.
Like Wavechange, I prefer to deal with stores. Last week I ordered a new compressor from Halfords, at about 4. 30pm, to replace my broken foot pump, and it was available for collection the next morning. I used it today and was impressed. Currys have also been good with click and collect items. One knows when the order is ready and there’s no waiting around for the van.
Also, like Wavechange, I am concerned at the poor quality control that allows Amazon to be a conduit for dangerous and poor products, sold by all and sundry. Amazon is just the intermediary, but it should monitor as part of its massive operation. Some while ago I ordered (from Amazon) a Von Haus rice cooker and the first arrived without the on, off switch. The second replacement had the switch but the product was temperamental when cooking, turning off before it had cooked everything, and the construction was poor. This is only bad purchase from Amazon and, of course Von Haus is now off the shopping list.
I have had good service from Europadisc, Presto Classics, Musicroom and Carus Verlag (who supply me with an interesting glossy magazine free of charge.) Sheridan Marine have also been very helpful. It is trial and error, but a little background research helps as does narrowing those I do business with on line. I have never used E.Bay.
Thanks for an interesting topic to write about. The umbrella of a large company helps, but if one gets to know an on line corner shop that really works – and many do – then I feel happy to continue doing business with them. Hirondelle (yeast) is one such.

I’m glad it Amazon deliveries work better for you, Vynor.

I’ve just looked at my emails from Amazon about the phone case I ordered on 3 January. I received an order confirmation which said:
Arriving:
Wednesday, January 8 –
Thursday, January 9

On 5 January I had another email saying:
Arriving:
Tuesday, January 7

On 6 January at 9:14 I had an email to say that it would be delivered today and the courier rang the doorbell a few minutes later.

I appreciate that it was early in the new year and some people would prefer products to be delivered by yesterday, but I would prefer to deal with companies that provide more useful information about deliveries.

I presume that your order from Halfords was a click & collect purchase or reservation. I have used this a few times and having a local store it works fine, as have orders from Argos, Currys, B&Q, Screwfix and local businesses. I have not had so much success with reserving goods by phone, so click & collect has been a great improvement and is my preferred way of online shopping.

I have bought many inexpensive items from eBay traders and remember being disappointed once, but was offered a refund. I don’t buy electrical items or anything that might be dangerous or counterfeit, but it’s a good source of ‘new old stock’ products that may not be available anywhere else. I avoid anything that is not from a UK address.

Perhaps we should have a Conversation about delivery companies? Those I have imposed on me often have given me a 2 hour time the night before, but I’ve still had to keep the whole day free until that point. However, I’m happy to accept that as timing deliveries in a round robin is not easy and can easily go wrong. Many offer a shop as a delivery point instead which saves waiting in – if the product is small enough. Others ask for a safe place to leave it if I’m out – not a problem for my house.

I suspect one problem is we expect delivery to be free, or very cheap, and that inevitably leads to using carriers who cut costs to the bone and service suffers.

I usually place orders on a Saturday when I have nothing planned during the day for the next week. Very rarely do I need anything urgently, so I make a list of what I need to order and place several orders at the same time. I do like the tracked deliveries but they do show how how demanding it can be to be a delivery driver. As you say, it’s about cutting costs.

Mindful of drifting off-topic, the larger companies do seem to have done more to reduce non-recyclable packaging.

I don’t think size of the company is an issue. I’ve dealt online with large and small without, so far, any problems.

I have a number of times complained to Which? about amazon’s attitude to product safety on their market place; whether the law allows them to do what they do or not they must clearly realise the potential damage promoting, distributing, taking money for unsafe and dangerous products does to the consumer. They could take a responsible approach to this, irrespective of current legal obligations, but seem to choose not to.

I do not praise them for taking unsafe products off their listing; they should not have been there in the first place. How many have been distributed before they were found out? How many more products are they distributing that have not yet been found out? I’d like to see amazon label all entries for which they take no responsibility accordingly, and warn they are sold at the buyer’s risk.

I will try to buy a proprietary product from whoever offers the best deal, after trying my best to also decide whether the supplier is reputable.

For items not available in local shops, I like to use ebay and prefer to deal with UK based retailers.

I doubt that problems with the customer service of small firms are a major cause of the decline of our high streets.

I’d say that the apparent convenience and lower prices of online stores is much to blame.

Thanks Ian, that explains your point of view.

In the early days of Amazon, a work colleague ordered several music Cd’s from them, of which some were delivered to our workplace. Very often, these were niche CD’s that he’d have not easily been able to get in local shops.

More recently, I’ve become aware of many people flocking to Amazon because of the continuing convenience of home shopping and very competitive prices.

As long as I can remember, home shopping has always been a thing in the UK. In my schooldays at Kings, Worcester was a stronghold of the Kays, who were a major local employer. That sector is still covered by Littlewoods, but such channels have always tended to be more expensive than high street shops (apart from BrightHouse).

Thanks to, ahem, efficient tax accountancy, Amazon can be less expensive than the high street, so I think its growth to current dominance has been most due to that.

I’m now seeing newer companies like Wish striving to undercut Amazon, but only by offering a cheaper service for cheaper goods.

What online shopping does is make searching for products and prices simple, together with the convenience (for many) of home delivery. I’d suggest it is also good for pollution in that we don’t have to make individual journeys touring a range of shops in our polluting vehicles.

I like browsing round a shop looking at the item(s) I might want to buy but I do not believe |I owe any shopkeeper a living by buying at what may be a higher price. However, my local art shop was talking to me about this the other day; he survives even though he sells a huge range of products that others do not, and at prices that undercut his chain rivals like WHS and the supermarkets. He’s found a model that works. Shops have to evolve and adapt to changing markets, recognise their strengths and weaknesses and make what they offer appealing to physical custom.

Having wiped the tears of mirth from the eyes, I am wondering what arrives “dead on arrival”. Fish from the pet shop? live bait? The tarantula that got into the parcel by accident? Plants from the garden centres? I suspect that the term “dead” applies to the state of the packaging and the damage to the product, but it is a description that is new to me and it struck me as being somewhat off beat. I use the term for batteries and for equipment that has failed and is not likely to work again. I am quite sure that on line retailers are tempted to send products, that would be rejected in the shop by an observant customer, in the hope that someone will eventually be too busy to send them back. Hence the “dinged” washing machine that arrived and the subsequent offer of a discount if I kept it. The ripped box that has had some rough handling in transit, leading to a suspicion that the contents have also received the same treatment.

Dead on arrival – DOA – is commonly used for products that are faulty when they are received. Electronic products can have quite a high failure rate when they are new.

I went to a funeral recently where, upon delivery, DoA is acceptable……. 🙁

I guess that anyone who wants to cheaply buy goods online, will also want low cost (or “free”) deliveries.

From what I’ve seen, these low cost deliveries are tracked but not signed for. This easily allows goods to be left “somewhere in your garden” (as experienced by a friend last week) instead of requiring return visits, if doors are not answered.

Amazon seem to have no real control over what is sold under its name – market place, unsafe products, flawed reviews and improper use of the “Amazon’s choice” endorsement. I wonder if it cares (until it is found out and says ” We don’t tolerate Amazon policy violations, such as review abuse, incentivised reviews, counterfeits or unsafe products.”).

Read more: https://www.which.co.uk/news/2020/02/amazon-flawed-amazons-choice-endorsement/ – Which?

One of my concerns about online shopping is whether or not it is more or less environmentally friendly than buying from shops. My guess is that both can apply depending on the circumstances. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2016/feb/17/how-green-is-online-shopping

We seem to have moved on from companies packaging small items in large boxes full of polystyrene and other non-recyclable packaging used to protect products in transit. On the other hand, I’m not keen on unprotected packages being left in the back garden.

It would be really helpful if all companies selling small items online would state if the package will fit through a standard letterbox and make it clear if a signature is required.

I could make arrangements for parcels to be left but I would prefer a company to let me know when goods will be delivered and then stick to this date. It’s bad enough to change the date once but to do it twice – as in the example I gave above – is shoddy service.

DPD does seem to be one of the best delivery services.

Amazon is under the impression that we all want everything immediately. This is the underlying selling point of Prime – next day delivery. But I want to receive goods when it’s convenient, not when it suits a van driver.

Since they set up Prime their performance on non-Prime purchases has been slack and erratic. They give a delivery window that can span three or four days; they then send an e-mail message to say it’s coming in two days time, but it turns up the next day.

The tracking system for Amazon deliveries is very crude and does not yield much helpful information. In our area the Amazon carriers seem to start late because they can finish late; perhaps they find more people at home after 6:30 pm but it’s annoying having to stay in hearing distance of the doorbell all day long just in case they turn up earlier for once. I have now created a safe place to leave things and the drivers are gradually learning not to put things in the wheelie bins.

I have had to use Amazon a bit more lately because I have wanted some specialist things that I cannot find in the shops and could not buy anywhere else on-line. I have ordered separately a number of small low-value items to take advantage of my unintentional one month’s Prime free trial membership before it expires; the packets all go through the postal plate so I haven’t had to wait in for them.

I often use the Amazon website to research products before deciding which to buy and whenever possible I then source them locally. I am not as impressed as Ian is by the website. I have come across a lot mis-descriptions and I think the layout is a mess. I wish they would group together all products of the same type but available in various different forms, brands, colours, sizes, etc. I understand why they don’t, of course; it’s the bazaar mentality which hopes people will spot something else they might also want.

The underlying reasons why I avoid Amazon if possible are that it’s not a UK or even European company and has far too much of a market share for my liking. Likewise, when I’m visiting a supermarket, I generally go to Morrisons or Tesco rather than foreign-owned supermarkets. I buy electricity and gas from a UK-based company.

Obviously Amazon and other companies based in other companies do provide jobs for many people based in the UK, but our country could benefit more if we buy from companies based in the UK.

I share those views, Wavechange, although my main reasons for avoiding Amazon whenever practical are its failure to supervise its Marketplace and its poor record on selling unsafe electrical products. I would feel better towards the company if it restructured itself so it could not offshore its tax liabilities.

Amazon has clearly been stung by criticism of its personnel policies as it has been taking out full-page advertisements boasting of its record in staff training and development. When it can show an Investor in People accreditation badge I might be better disposed towards the company.

Yes, there’s a lot that we can criticise Amazon for, John. Most large companies tend to attract justified criticism, for example Microsoft, Apple, Google and even Tesco – which is a relatively small company but the largest supermarket in the UK. Whirlpool and the VW Group have behaved appallingly but their size has helped them survive criticism.

Ian – I fear we are derailing your Convo. I am wary about buying from small companies that I have never heard of, though take the risk for smaller purchases. It’s interesting what you say about Asda. We have an Asda next to the local Tesco but knowing that Asda is part of the foreign-owned Walmart empire I don’t use it. I’m happy to us Richer Sounds and Screwfix. The latter is part of the multinational Kingfisher group but at least it is based in the UK.

I agree we need competition and when buying online I am not keen to deal with a company that I have not heard of in case I have a problem with my purchase. Buying from Amazon is unlikely to promote competition.

I acknowledge that Amazon has a good reputation for prompt delivery and dealing with returns, so maybe that should be the the top priority for any organisation hoping to compete with them.

I’ve been an Amazon Prime subscriber for a number of years now, and have had less than 1% problems with ordering and delivery. If there has been a problem with an item, a call back request to Amazon results in a very prompt response. This sometimes results in a replacement, sometimes a keep/dispose of the item – like a split bag of dog food – and we’ll replace for free, or a full refund.

The only issue has been with an Amazon Marketplace trader who failed to deliver some mouse traps.

However, the main convenience for me is having Amazon deliver most items within 24 hours, not just to my home, but wherever I might be working in the country. If I’ve left a toothbrush, charger cable or my mouse at home (not connected with those mouse traps), I can use my smartphone and the missing item is delivered by early afternoon next day to a nearby Amazon locker.

Whilst I do look to place orders with smaller unknown retailers, I did end up nearly losing £120 to a bankrupt clothing company – fortunately Santander were able to recover this sum using chargeback – or chasing emails and phone calls for dispatch and delivery, when goods are supposed to be in stock according to their website.

I’m lucky, I have seldom had problems with deliveries and returning faulty items ordered online, from Amazon including Amazon.de, from Ikea, John Lewis, etc, but, yes, if I can go to the shop and buy directly I prefer it.

Slightly related, with all the money it makes (by not paying the taxes it should and by underpaying its employees), I wish Amazon would cover admin costs and P&P (but after paying tax and paying its employees properly) if charity shops decided to put their DVDs and books on Amazon.

Thanks for the convo, Ian.