Loneliness of long-distance shopping

Rather like kicking a man when he's down, it has become all too easy to have a pop at B2C e-commerce. But beyond the present...

Rather like kicking a man when he's down, it has become all too easy to have a pop at B2C e-commerce. But beyond the present climate of failed business plans, we expect the winds of progress to blow away the clouds and reveal a new dawn for the dotcoms.

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Whatever the weather, the consumer orientated e-commerce sites will have to learn the truisms of customer service before winning the hearts of the UK public. I say this because of a recent experience I had as a B2C customer. My story is as follows.

I bought a laptop online last year and it was very nice, sleek and convenient. For two months, we were happy together. Then it stopped working. The hard drive gave up and, after I reported the fault, my troubles started.

What followed was a nightmare of call centre assistants, cheesy on-hold musak and unhelpful advice. It became apparent I would have to send my new friend back to the nearest repair centre.

I was given two options - drive 70 miles to hand it in or pay £80 to have it picked up. All this when my laptop was still under guarantee and had given up through no fault of mine. (All this from a company who claims it invented the word "e-business"!)

For the sake of a minor saving and the "convenience" of home delivery, I could have bought the computer down the road and taken it back if there was a problem. Instead, I was stressed, annoyed and no nearer to having my problem solved - the loneliness of the long distance shopper.

I felt compelled to use my sway as an IT journalist, promising damaging headlines if my problem wasn't solved. Hey presto! My laptop was picked up! My position as a Computer Weekly writer must have panicked someone because this put in motion three customer care calls!

I was transformed from isolated punter to customer number one! But all I wanted was my laptop back so I could continue working.

It was then sent back and didn't work again. Two months passed before I was back to my former glory.

My point is that buying books, flights and CDs online is easy - there is little room for anything to go wrong. For more sophisticated products, dealing with returns and repairs has to be thought out. I will think twice before buying anything more than a music album online - Blondie's Hanging on the Telephone springs to mind.

Compared with the US, we haven't seen the new economy's results in Europe. According to Newsweek, European productivity rose by 0.5% during the 1990s, a third of the US rate.

One theory is that Europe is suffering from the "David delay", named after Oxford economist Paul David who says breakthrough technologies take decades to speed up economic growth. The argument runs that companies go through a transition as they adopt new technology, hiding the fact that they are getting more efficient.

Since the IT boom originated in Silicon Valley and recently took hold in the US, it will take longer to reach us here in the UK. David says that on this side of the pond,we will see productivity surge in four or five years' time.

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