'It's on the website.' How the internet made retail staff ignorant

This is the story of one woman, two retailers, and a complete disregard for human-to-human interaction.
Written by Chris Matyszczyk, Contributing Writer

Will they let you buy anything?

David-Prado, Getty Images/iStockphoto

The internet makes everything easier, doesn't it?

It's always on, always available, and always helpful.

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What, though, has it done to the actual humans still employed by businesses, especially those in retail?

I only ask because I've heard again from my long-time friend Edith.

You might remember her a few weeks ago I was told by an Apple store saleswoman that the only people who should buy an iPad Pro are graphic designers.

Edith is of advanced years and traditional stances. She's posh, but not (too) snooty. She has several homes and floats around with her husband in retired bliss.

This bliss is dented, however, when she encounters what she feels is modern ignorance. One of the main sources of this, she believes, is the web.

She told me of a trip to fancy luggage retailer Rimowa. She went to its store in the posh London area of Bond Street in order to choose a suitcase.

"I chose the case and went to pay. Oh no, they didn't take credit cards. Indeed they didn't take cards of any kind. No, no, you had to go away and do it all on the net. The thing had to be ordered, you paid and then 'popped in' to pick it up," she told me.

Well, I suppose that's one way to do business. Still, the insistence on web-only doesn't exactly make the retail experience seamless.

It got worse. She said: "I pointed out that 'popping' was not really possible as I live over a hundred miles away, have animals, and have to plan journeys to London. Shoulders were shrugged in indifference. They added helpfully that if a case were not collected it was sent back within 48 hours."

A spokeswoman for Rimowa told me: "We believe that the client has misunderstood something, as no member of our team has experienced any such situation with a client in our store."

Edith, because she enjoys understated charm, says she managed to find one salesperson in the store who agreed to keep the case for a week. Why she actually went ahead with the purchase, given this nonsense, I'm not sure.

This wasn't, however, the end of her web-based troubles.

She and her husband had been invited to a wedding. She called a hotel to ask whether there were rooms available for the night in question.

The conversation, she says, went like this:

"They told me, 'Oh, no, it's all on our website.'

'Can you tell me whether the room is available?' 

'No, it's on the website.'

'Well, can you at least tell me how much it is?'

'Don't know. It's on the site.'"

Somehow, this complete devolution to all things digital seems to have caused at least some retailers to numb their staff into a stupor.

Why make an effort to offer service, or even information, when it's all on the website?

Yet, when you try to do business on so many websites and actually have a question, see how long it takes you to get an answer.

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"It was that 'don't know' that really got me," Edith told me. "We've now got to the point, apparently, where the humans in charge don't know anything. The machines do. Really, not even to know how much you are charging for a service you are trying to sell seems to be to be beyond barking."

That would be barking as in barking mad. (Edith is English, in case you hadn't guessed.)

Perhaps you'll conclude that Edith is simply a little too stuck in her ways. Why couldn't she just book online like everyone else does? Hasn't she heard of Amazon?

She, though, says that there are two million people in the UK who don't have the internet and don't want it, so she suggested something different to the hotel.

"I proposed sending a letter. Woo-hoo, that produced a long silence," she said. "'A letter?' 'Yes, with details of my request and payment.' This was very reluctantly conceded. I plan sealing wax."

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In both cases, the retailers could have simply offered plain old customer service. Instead, they chose to treat Edith as if she was a relic from a peculiar age in which human-to-human interaction was expected to be fruitful.

I tried explaining to Edith that the world was now a better place. Google, Facebook, Amazon, and the rest had repeatedly told us so.

"Pish," she replied.

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