/ Shopping

Does online shopping miss the personal touch?

We’ve just published the results of our recent online shopping survey, which lists the best and worst online shops as rated by Which? members. Have you moved your shopping online, and if so, why?

The main reasons for shopping online, according to our survey respondents, are because it’s often cheaper than shopping in a bricks-and-mortar shop, it’s easier to compare prices and also find exactly what you’re looking for.

Looking at the shops that came top in the survey, I was struck by the fact that customer service and the ‘personal touch’ still seem to be of high importance in terms of how consumers view specific online shops.

Online shopping in many ways brings human interaction to a minimum, and consumer behaviour is of course undergoing big changes in this respect. Yet, some of the respondents’ comments suggest to me that certain long-held consumer values won’t change quite so easily.

The personal touch

On a basic level, I still like to think of a ‘real person’ packaging up the product I’ve ordered online, and it seems that many of our readers feel the same. Humanising an online shop is one of the ways that we develop a feeling of trust in it.

‘All of the items are beautifully wrapped, and they always include a free sample,’ a shopper said about Liz Earle, the cosmetics shop that topped our poll. And several others mentioned the card signed by the shop assistant that comes with all Liz Earle packages.

Fans of John Lewis, the shop that came second in our table, also waxed lyrical about the store’s customer service, showing that the company’s focus on customer satisfaction continues to garner huge loyalty, even in cyberspace.

Brave new world

Of course, at the end of the day, lower prices, convenience and good delivery services will likely win out over the human touch when it comes to where people choose to shop. And to a large extent, the changing shopping culture reflects this. As my colleague Ben Stevens discussed last year, online shopping has now gone beyond the laptop or home computer, with shopping on mobile devices becoming commonplace (and, according to eBay, will be the main way of shopping in just a few years’ time).

What’s more, technological advances such as image recognition – whereby shoppers can do visual searches by pointing their device at any object – are set to reduce even further the need to communicate with a fellow human being when shopping online and in an actual shop.

Never the twain shall meet?

So, the way that we shop is becoming more and more defined by technology. What’s interesting to me is to what extent many of us will still try to hold on to previous notions of shopping being based on some sort of person-to-person exchange, combining both old and new values.

I’m a firm believer in the need to support Britain’s dwindling independent shops, and actually the advancement of shopping technology could arguably help them, with many now able to reach a far wider audience then they otherwise might. M-commerce (shopping on your mobile) is one example of how the advancement of online shopping could potentially help to maintain some traditional values on the high street.

Is it naïve to think that old and new consumer values can co-exist? Do you feel that the new shopping technology compromises other values you have as a consumer?


I moved to on-line shopping years ago, no parking issues, no pushy sales staff and if I’m careful, cashback too.

Funnily enough, I just went to a well known retail store this evening. On seeing the item of my desire at a price that was more than i wanted to pay, I negotiated a thirty quid discount with the Manager. Can’t do that on line. [Incidentally the item was already twenty percent discounted].
I wouldn’t be able to do that online.

Last month I went to a well known electrical store, in an industrial park with plenty of free parking, and got £10 discount after pretending to take out an extended warranty, I said I just needed to check I had space at home, Went online to their website and got a 10% discount and by going thru a cash back site, am due another £10 sometime never. And didn’t need to take out an extended warranty. Went back to the store to see if they could match it and they couldn’t/wouldn’t.

If I know what I’m buying I will often buy online. If it is an unfamiliar product I will usually go to a shop if it is something that can be inspected. I like the large stores in retail parks with nearby parking because I often go out to the car and check prices online. I am happy to pay a bit extra at the shop because I can very easily get a replacement if there is a problem, unlike online purchases. I see the extra price as an insurance against the hassle. If the price is significant then I will order online. I have even done this while sitting in the car outside the shop.

par ailleurs says:
19 October 2012

I must admit to shopping online quite a lot (but never for groceries). There is one potential problem which I experienced once though. That is when something goes wrong just out of warranty as did my sat-nav. The online store was worse than useless, their main office/depot was 200 miles away and very unhelpful indeed. In the end I cut my losses and bought a new one from a local shop who were a pleasure to do business with and the price was only very slightly higher. So far it’s been fine and I have the knowlege that should anything happen I can drive there quickly, speak to a friendly human being and be reassured that they won’t want to get a bad local reputation with poor customer service.

Online shopping is generally quick, convenient and often cheaper.. However if the item does not fit through your letter box, more than often delivery of the item is the biggest failure and problem with ordering online…. In fact deliveries placed through online companies, be it a phone upgrade or new purchase have led me to cancelling contracts and orders, simply because companies do no deliver when they say they will – I cannot stand waiting in all day waiting for a delivery that fails to arrive – often with no notice, no updates, no excuses and no apology… If the opposite occurs when I am not in for a scheduled delivery I am (perhaps rightly) penalised usually with a charge etc… But no compensation when the company fails to deliver….

For branded goods – electrical, computer, photographic – and so on I shop around online (google the product usually) to get the best price / warranty. Going around the local shops to check the best price is too hit and miss time consuming. But this does need background information, and I do use Which? for that. However some of the on-line suppliers are small businesses – enterprising and moving with the times. It shows how worthwhile it is when you see how much prices vary – recently £100 off a Miele dishwasher, £10 off windscreen wipers including delivery, dvds; how could you search so easily for out-of-print books – a set of encyclopaedias for £12 (abebooks reseller). Should I support independent shops? If they are competitive, yes, and if they offer a special service, yes – but not on principle – they are in business to make a profit out of me. What I do think is they should be treated fairly by councils and not driven out of business by a greedy council tax. Food – no, I would not buy online.

The point you make is good but I think local independent suppliers do deserve my custom and support even when they are a bit dearer. It’s a price I am willing to pay to keep our high streets healthy and stop the multiples and on-line giants becoming too powerful. I think you’ll find that the business rates [the National Non-Domestic Rate] are set by the government and merely collected by the local council. The rate is applied to the property valuation which is also determined by a government agency. Some councils do not even get to keep all the business rates they collect as there is an equalisation scheme to benefit less-prosperous areas at the expense of the wealthier places [like Westminster].

For me, it was my local council that is killing the high streets. Many years ago, they turned all the nearby side streets into pay and display, so I now don’t bother driving to within walking distance as I’d have to pay. So I choose to use out of town with free parking or online.