/ 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.

Though I am strongly opposed to hard sell techniques and will put a salesperson in their place if they misrepresent products, I would like to say something in defence of high street shops. There seems to be an expectation that they can offer expert advice on the products they sell. That might be possible with a smaller shop selling a small range of products (e.g. a computer shop) but not with a large electrical retailer with thousands of products on the shelf.

I recall that Which? criticised DIY shops for not offering good safety advice on certain products, which I believe is an unfair criticism. Whether it is a washing machine, a hi-fi or a chainsaw, if you want advice you need to use a specialist and be prepared to pay for their services. If a high street shop is able to provide good advice then that is a bonus. All you can reasonably expect is honesty. Let’s give the salespeople some respect – unless they try hard sell techniques, of course.

I had quite a good experience in the Apple store this morning, as I had some time to kill and thought I would take a look at the new iPad 3. The sales assistant immediately advised me they were in short supply, but then took me through all the options and answered all my questions, spending nearly 1/2 hour with me. At no point did they try to sell me an iPad 2 or any other goods in the store, or add me to a waiting list for the iPad 3.

Barry Gregory says:
23 March 2012

I went into a branch of Comet to buy a television. From the start I was bombarded by background music. This is in a store that is retailing high-fi, television and other audio equipment. How are you able to assess the audio quality of an item when you are subjected to the background audio ‘wallpaper’?. When I complained to the manager I was told he couldn’t turn it off as it was against company policy.
Needless to say, I told him what he could do with his company policy…and left.

Matt says:
19 July 2012

Sounds like you’re a real swell guy…..

I go online for 95% of my technological needs, including spare parts. And the reasons are clear: Pricing and service.

However, I do visit retail shops to compare and try out equipment in person, and also to find out the answers to my questions. Unfortunately, I rarely receive service in these major technical retail stores, if I do they have no idea what they are talking about or/and they are utterly patronising. Gender bias on the service side is evident, since male customer arriving after me receives service first or actually receives service, while I am still waiting for it and waiving my arms around for nothing.

It really seems that my money is no good in these retails stores, since they cannot be bothered to serve me in polite manner providing technical information required. I certainly vote with my feet, and buy online, since at the moment I feel shunned by the stores.

What annoys me intensely is that when I am simply browsing every ten seconds I am bombarded with ‘can I help you sirs’, yet when I actually do require assistance and advice not one of the so-and-so’s are to be found. Recently our local Halfords had special offers on SatNavs, never felt the need for one even when I was truckdriving, Atlas and A-Z were fine for me, but Halfords had some bargains, at least I think they were bargains as nobody came near and I’d departed by this time, so yah-boo-sucks to Halfords, another sale you missed.

I agree with those who say that you should research the products that you wish to buy before you make any steps to purchase it from someone.

When considering purchases you should be thinking about what you want to do with it now and in the years ahead. A £300 laptop would be considered obsolescent already because it lacks the speed, connections and power that is needed for many applications and you should therefore not bother with any extended warranties. Most IT equipment will be obsolescent before it breaks down as software manufacturers increase their power requirements and so again you should ignore the case for an extended warranty. I have only bought one extended warranty on an electrical product and that proved a waste of money because it failed after the warranty had expired.

If I was going shopping in Comet, Currys or PC World I would make sure I knew the price of the item(s) that I wanted to buy and only buy them from there if they were cheaper or I needed them urgently. Otherwise I normally buy what I want from a specialist shop or online.

Derek Price says:
26 March 2012

My son gave me lift to the local PC World store, as I was interested in purchasingn a lap top, nothing too extreme just a basic machine, In the store I saw a lenovo at a reasonable price with ample hd space and a reasonable ram, When the salesman asked if he could help me I said I would take the lenovo, This seemed to surprise him he pointed out that it was only a basic computer, I told him that was what I wanted, he went away to get one but came back empty handed, My son remarked that they did not have one, The salesman remarked that they did, So I said where is it then, He then tried to talk me into buying a more expensive one, at this point I informed him that I had owned various computers for the past 15 years and would be quite happy with the lenovo specification, reluctantly he brought one back, and then tried his hardest to sell me extended warranty, anti-virus protection and extra software even though my son told him he was wasting his time. And he was and did.

Don’t buy consumer electronics and stereo equipment from chain stores, the staff usually know precious little about the products – it’s not rocket science – go to an independent!

Another problem is the bloat of junk programs put on YOUR laptop or PC that YOU didn’t ask for,
eating up hard drive space that YOU paid for. I bought a Lenovo G560e laptop, great machine, once all the rubbish is cleaned off it along with 2GB, yes that’s TWO gigabytes of hard drive space on “The Sims” game pre-installed!…er thanks but no thanks. I cleaned it with something called “pcdecrapifier”.

When you get a computer home, It’s handicapped before you even get it out of the box and switch on, as even brand new PCs often come with LOTS of pre-installed software, known in the industry as “Craplets” that can cause that new machine to come to a crawl. Not to mention all of the annoying pop-ups and morass of startups in your task bar next to the clock. Others may have a PC that’s a couple years old and we’re the ones that installed that junk! It happens to the best of us. We try programs over time and forget to remove them.

Doug says:
4 April 2012

Product Knowledge Specialisation

What is really lacking in the electrical shops is the blatant lack of knowledge, in a set field.

I work in a small supermarket chain, with some 20,000 products. If a customer asks me a question, I can answer it based on experience I have gained working in the supermarket environment, though I can give more of an explanation in my personal specialised areas of the shop. However, if I don’t know the answer, I can ask the appropriate member of staff in the shop, or say I don’t know and will find out and contact them by phone. Most important I don’t lie.

Whilst shopping in Currys, PC World etc, I do ask them questions they probably wouldn’t know the answer to, just to see what happens. Mostly I get a lie, occasionally a, ‘I don’t know’, but never a, ‘I will find out and call you’. It’s just poor customer service.

Then the up-sell. I think we are all accustomed to say no thank you when asked, would you like insurance etc. But what really annoys me is, what these companies manage to sell to people who don’t have a clue.

Once in PC World, I was waiting to be served, and this poor little old lady had got the full attention of the sales staff. She was being sold operating system insurance, it made my blood boil. She asked do I really need it, to which the answer was a resounding YES. At this point I had to say something, and pointed out it was a complete waste of money, she was very grateful. The same cannot be said for member of staff.

I know sales staff have to sell these almost worthless products, but it still isn’t right. Sometimes verging on the hard sell, to people who don’t know any better.

Independents are always a far more educational way to shop, yes you may still get a bit of insurance selling at the end. But you will get the most important thing of all. Good customer service and excellent product knowledge.

Andrew says:
11 April 2012

The advantages of browsing through PC World are offset by some of the inane replies to simple questions. I went to buy a compact digital camera – I asked for a demo of the one I thought was a good bet and was told that this wasn’t possible as there was no power supply to the display. When I asked if I could return it if I just didn’t like a feature I was told no. I wasn’t sure if that was actually correct. Like other correspondents, while I can spot incorrect answers on electronics issues, many older people can’t and I fear that they are taken advantage of in such stores.

P.S. PC World was almost deserted for a Saturday afternoon. Maybe the message is getting out there.

Ted Whitwam says:
27 April 2012

I am a partner working in a branch of John Lewis and I was very disappointed with the results we achieved in your recent survey purchasing a laptop to be taken to university. Our aim is to listen to the customers requirements and make recommendations based on their needs. This will include asking questions about software requirements and additional hardware that may be required to fulfil these needs.
I do feel that your shopping criteria was badly judged and that ” a person going to university for three years with only light use of their laptop: is not a criteria that is real.
A laptop at university is in use for 12 hours a day 7 days a week.
Quite often it is a work station,TV,Music centre, social media hub & games console and a basic laptop under £300 would be a cause of endless frustration to the student as its processing power is simply not good enough to cope with the demands.
I personally feel that the following would be a much better proposition for a student
An entertainment laptop around the £400 mark PLUS a back up facility.
Additional items that may be considered are “office software” Virus protection”, “carry bag”.
As you suggested some of these items may be available free of charge but the items we suggest have all received Which best buy awards in the past.
The thorny subject of extended warranties is also investigated but not pushed and we start from the position of giving 2 year warranty with all computers. Our 3 year extension costs around £130 but does cover accidental damage for the whole 3 year period. This is very much a personal decision as to the value of this.
In technical support team they do see many student laptops with liquid damage and damage due to items being dropped and this may lead some people to take out this extension
Our aim is to try and ensure that the customer leaves with the correct items to meet their needs.
These views are own personal ones as I have a daughter who is currently at university and a son who has been in the past. I am in the fortunate position to pass on my unbiased knowledge of what the 21 century student requires.

Mike says:
4 June 2012

I have just got back from PC World where I bought a PC for my daughter’s birthday. I have built and maintained PC’s for the last 15 years, both in my job and personal life. I know the difference between a Celeron and an i3 processor. Know if 4GB of RAM is ample or if I need more, I know what SATA, PATA, SCSI, IDE, PCI, USB and HDMI are. I found a PC she liked the look of and one which my bank would like too. So I said to a sales person “can we have that PC please?” He said “ok what is it going to be used for?” (None of your business)
“Well just Facebook, Wiki, Office etc.”
“Ok so you’ll need Office then?”
“Err no I already have it.”
“Ok but you need a copy for every computer.”
“No I dont I have a 5 user license and its fine.”
“Ok well what about Norton, you need Norton AV.”
“No I have Nod32, muti user license.”
“What is Nod32, never heard of it, Norton is the best in the business.”
“No it isnt, its bloatware which tries to take over the computer and is completely useless.”
“Ok well what about…”
“Listen pal, I want that PC, that monitor, those speakers and thats all, thank you.”
“But what about if it gets damaged have you thought about…”

At this point I just wandered off, found another sales person and said “excuse me, I am trying to buy that PC, just that PC, with that monitor, those speakers and thats it, your colleague seems to have misheard me and seems to think I would like to buy half of PC world. Can you sell me what I have asked for, bearing in mind PC world was the last place I thought I would be buying a PC in. There is a computer shop over the water in Liverpool that will sell me the same machine for £200 less, only my laziness and a headache is stopping me going there but anger does amazing things to desire so if you want to try and sell me things I dont need I will say good-day and be gone.”

2 minutes later I was loading the car.

I lift me Arfur Daley titfer in admiration, what it is to deal with these people from a position of power, sell me what I want or else!
Chapeau again Mike, that’s hats off in French!

PS Can you build me a computer where I don’t have the feeling of being ripped off?

John says:
5 June 2012

Dixons Retail (PC World and Currys) just refuse to move with the times. The middle and upper management are stuck with old sales models and services that no longer work. Most people buying computers or TVs today are savvy enough to know they don’t need Norton, Office, extortionate support packages, premium cables, mobile broadband contracts, etc, etc.

Dixons Retail claim to be focused on customer service, but at the same time they pressure and bully their staff through store managers, to force customers to buy “attachments” they don’t want or need. The whole sales model is a joke, relying completely on targeted “extras” to make profits. As shown in the comment above, the customer is TOLD what they need, not asked.

The sales advisors jobs are on the line if they don’t sell enough of the “targeted” products and services with the highest margins. So, even if an advisor wants to help customers get what they need, they are forced to hard-sell the targeted stuff and dismiss what the customer really wants. The advisors don’t care a less about the computer or TV you want, because it’s only the “extras” they get rated on and paid commission. Such a stupid way to run a company.

If Dixons Retail gave their staff an incentive to actually help customers with what they want, then the company might have a better reputation. The staff should be rated and rewarded on selling anything that the “customer” wants, NOT the products and services Dixons Retail want the customer to buy. When entering their pin number at the POS, a customer could rate the sales advisor’s assistance from 1-9, and this could be used for a reward system. This would result in more profits for the store, because more people would come back and more accessories would be bought from the store.

Sadly, history has shown how short-sighted the management of Dixons Retail is. They just stick with the hard-sell of the same old products and services that nobody wants. They just change the name when it’s still the same thing (eg. Coverplan/ PC Performance/ Whatever Happens/ Know How)

Any staff who genuinely help customers find what they need soon lose their jobs, due to poor performance in selling what Dixons Retail want customers to buy. However, staff who repeatedly hit the targets are given bonuses. So, the stores are left filled with staff who are hard-selling and have no interest in what customers really want.