/ Shopping, Technology

The high street hard sell – does it put you off?

Previously I’d have been annoyed if a sales adviser recommended a pink laptop just because the recipient was a girl. But when a shop assistant did just that in our latest investigation, I hardly raised an eyebrow.

I don’t expect decent advice from big high street chains any more, and would rather do my own research than rely on direction from assistants who inevitably have sales targets to hit.

Perhaps I’m overly suspicious – our latest round of undercover shopping revealed flashes of spot-on advice from high street electrical shops. But some was frankly awful.

What we wanted from high-street stores

Our undercover shoppers were hunting for a basic laptop and printer that would last for at least three years’ light use at university. Simple? You’d think so, but most of the big-name branches in our investigation tried to sell extras such as extended warranties, Microsoft Office packages and anti-virus software to bump up the final sale, while few independent stores did the same.

Comet even advised three of our shoppers to spend around £100 on a two-year warranty for an Asus laptop costing £300, even though Asus assures us that a two-year manufacturer guarantee is supplied as standard. Nice try, Comet.

What should we expect from target-driven staff?

There’s a definite sense that quantity – rather than quality – is the dominant philosophy driving sales in some big chains. But what can we really expect from assistants with targets to hit?

A cursory glance through vacancies at big chain stores indicates a level of performance-related pay. Comet advertises ‘performance-related bonuses in most business areas’, while PC World and Currys claim to have ‘an excellent bonus scheme related to customer service levels and individual performance’.

Even the John Lewis partnership programme requires all staff to take ‘personal responsibility’ for driving ‘success’.

On top of that, there’s increasing competition from online retailers with minimal overheads and staff, so what alternative to the hard sell can we expect if high street shops are to survive?

Listen to what your customers want

It’s unlikely that traditional electrical stores can compete with online retailers purely on price, unless they buy in such huge volumes that they’d need to push the same models for months at a time. But couldn’t they occupy a niche by offering expert advice and unrivalled customer service? These are two things the online arena can certainly lack.

Instead, only four out of the 60 shops in our investigation were rated ‘excellent’ for listening to what our shoppers actually needed, and many branches tried to sell the extras before they’d even recommended a suitable laptop.

So, why the short-term pursuit for the hard sell? And how does it affect our long-term view of the high street in general? Does anyone even expect impartial, tailored advice from the high street any more, or are we fuelling a culture of pushy sales by failing to see value in anything but the price?


When my daughter broke her laptop, I drove down to Southampton to help her buy a new one. We went into a shop knowing exactly which laptop we wanted (helps being a IT professional wiuth more years experience than I care to admit to). The manager come up to ask if I was ok , to which I said yes thanks this is the one we want to buy, but he then called an assistant over, who then proceeded to ask me about 900 things that I didn’t want to buy, and some of them more than once. With no thanks you being my reply to each and every question. OR don’t need, already got it etc etc. I don’t need to wonder why online shopping is becoming such on hit, no pushy sales people there. Oh yes and of course there was the you’ll need insurance won’t you. Er no, it’ll be covered on my house insurance. Sigh


I prefer to shop on the high street unless I am familiar with a product – in which case I usually buy online. Being able to look at goods often shows poor design, even if it is something as simple as a light-coloured matt surface that is likely to become grubby, or flimsy components.

I will politely decline help from sales assistants. If they persist or give information that is obviously wrong or misleading I will rapidly become less polite.

The only time I know I have been victim of a sales assistant was when I bought a PC as a Christmas gift. PC World sold me what they described as a ‘complete package’ including a big box of extras but there were no speakers. I ended up paying an extra £20 from another PC World store after Christmas.

Sales assistants or checkout operators pushing extended warranties seems to be a thing of the past, as far as I’m concerned. Many years ago, when Which? started campaigning about their poor value, I put a few shop staff in their place and suggested that they read the criticism in Which? magazine.


It’s not just limited to the high street – upgrading the wife’s phone yesterday, rang them for a pac code as the online upgrade was only offering a worse package.
The advisor was more concerned with telling me about “hidden charges” of other suppliers.

Like most things today, you cannot rely on any sales/official advice and have to do your own research.


I’ve not bought very much in high street shops for years simply because in my city virtually all the shops have gone bust and closed (even Argos has gone now) and we are left with only fly-by-night shops (mostly selling trash I’d never look at) and a few shops selling things that are of no interest to me anyway. The exceptions are John Lewis and Debenhams, but I’d regard both as absolutely last ditch attempts anyway as John Lewis staff are rude and give laughably inaccurate information about products (and have for over 20 years which is what put me off to start with). They’re also ridiculously over-priced (despite their now-worthless so called price promise). As for Debenhams, they are simply over-priced and have far too few items of any quality.

However, this isn’t a rant about bad shops, it’s about the hard sell, and I have to say that on recent occasions when I have gone in to town to look for something I have been exceedingly “wound up” by assistants trying to sell almost everything except what I actually want, and always at a potential excessive cost. In Curry’s I wanted a new ‘phone, they had the wrong price on the one I wanted, so I changed my mind when they corrected it (upwards) and then tried to sell me other models that were far inferior but equally priced, with warranties, extension cords, headsets and all sorts. I walked out buying nothing and am still keeping the old ‘phone going at present. Similarly John Lewis over a Food Mixer attachment (i walked out and bought on line).

I’m afraid now my (rather rude) response to “are you being served?” type questions is “No thanks, but as you’re being pushy I’ll not buy anything” and I walk out.

I’m not a huge fan of on line shopping really, but it’s infinitely better than being hassled and pestered.

Harry says:
20 March 2012

25 years ago, I was on business in Tokyo and took the opportunity to buy a camera there.

Canon in Tokyo operated its own showroom. You asked the attendant for a particular camera, with a particular lens and the combination would be assembled for you to test. They might have given advice too if requested, but spoke limited English and I already thought I knew what I wanted, just needed an opportunity to try it. And that is precisely what I got. No obligation to buy — and in fact I couldn’t buy the camera there if I wanted. It was a demonstration and test facility, pure and simple — and there were plenty of shops in nearby Akihabara to buy from, once you knew what you wanted. Which I promptly did, after getting prices from half a dozen different shops, finally settling on one where the staff competed against each other for price.

This was a selling model that obviously worked well for Canon and I’ve often wondered why manufacturers have not thought to try that here. With plenty of sales outlets like Amazon, and no-frills “sealed-box” shop sales, surely the way for a manufacturer to ensure people buy their product rather than a competitors is to make sure that potential customers get a chance to hands-on test the product in a place where earning a good commission in the least possible time is not the primary driving force.

As for relying on advice from somebody that’s earning a commission on sales, I really wonder whether this is practical. Imagine, you’re buying a laptop. Will the salesman say “If you’re going to be using it for more than half an hour a day, one of the most important features is a non-reflective screen. Sadly, all of ours are glossy, so I recommend you go and buy from XXXX who I notice has again started to sell some decent non-reflective screens”. Unlikely, I think.


My daughter went to Japan on a school trip a couple of years ago. Almost the first thing she said when she came back was Daddy, They certainly know how to treat a customer over there. There the customer is King. They need to be more like that over here.

Robert says:
21 March 2012

It is not just electronics. Every time I buy fuel at a local Shell garage, I am asked if I want their special promotion (usually chocolate bars or the like). At one supermarket they always ask if you need help packing. I quite like that except when you have 3 or 4 items and it is plainly unnecessary, and you know they are only asking you because they will get into trouble if they do not! Shoe shops are another pet hate – the sales assistants have to sell cleaning or other accessories like shoe horns with a certain percentage of their shoe sales or they lose bonus, so they try to sell you things you don’t want or need.
It reminds me of a work colleague, who in the early 80’s travelled for a major supplier of motoring related supplies selling to garages mostly on commission. Every month all the salesmen had a meeting where their previous month’s sales figures were displayed and the lowest performer got sacked! Now you know why some sales people are pushy!
The point is, don’t get angry or rude to the sales person who is acting under instructions and will be penalised if they don’t do what they are told. If it really irks you, ask to speak to the senior manager on site as he or she sets the job objectives for their employees, and does the training. Better still, with a chain store particularly, write to their head office. Any organisation with a modicum of common sense takes notice of customer complaints.

Paul Sendall says:
21 March 2012

I always research information about the product(s) I want to purchase. This means that I am armed and ready to deal with the sales staff pushing products on me.
Inevitably, I know more than the sales staff (thanks, Which?), and I have to admit that I have probably already made my short-list before going in-store.