On-line shopping V the high street

Despite working in an on-line media environment, I’ve never really trusted the Internet when it comes to shopping. As the mother and stepmother of four teenagers and two tweenies, I recognise this is a failing on my part and definitely not a cool attitude to buying. Why go out in the cold and wet, pay exorbitant parking fees, and stand toe-to-toe and elbow-to-elbow with crowds only to end up foot-sore and grumpy?

You might well ask, especially if you’re under 30. The answer is, once you’ve put something in your basket, stood in a queue and paid for it, you know it’s bought. You can tick it off your to-do list, your gift list or your shopping list, delete it from your Blackberry or your mental checklist. If the purchase is for you, perhaps a little black dress for all those pre-Christmas, pre-New Year parties, it’s sorted. You know it fits, you know what it will go with, you can buy matching shoes, boots, hair clips, stockings or whatever takes your fancy to make it an outfit rather than just a pipe-dream. Dammit, you can even leave the shop wearing it if you like it that much. Barring a mugging on your way back to the car park, it’s yours to put in your wardrobe or to give to your lucky friend or relative if it’s a present.

Contrast this with the on-line shopping experience. If all goes well, you surf suppliers on the net, find your chosen item, bundle it up with other purchases so that you only pay one lot of P&P, then make a coffee, sit back and relax while other people run around a warehouse, get in their vans and bring your gifts and purchases to your house. That, of course, is only the theory. The reality goes something like this in my experience.

  • You surf the net, find what you want, order it, pay the P&P charge, sit at your desk hoping the item is in stock and awaiting a confirmation e-mail.
  • You receive the confirmation e-mail and start tracking your parcel, wondering if it’s safe to go out for a walk with the dog. You ensure one person in the household is on door duty, just in case.
  • Your parcel doesn’t arrive on the appointed date.
  • You start to wonder where it can be, you ask your friendly postal worker (they’re still friendly around here) – he or she hasn’t seen hide nor hair of it.
  • You send an e-mail to customer service.
  • They send a standard e-mail back confirming they’ve despatched your goods and telling you to check with your postal worker.
  • You start wondering if you’ve been out when a delivery was due and make a mental check-back to establish no, you haven’t been, and though you may have visited the loo at an inopportune moment, you know the dog would have thrown herself against the door the moment the post was delivered or the bell was rung.
  • You search outbuildings, speak to neighbours (if you have any, we don’t), and tape a message to your gate with very clear instructions about what you’re waiting for.
  • You send another e-mail to customer services to ask when can you expect your parcel. They tell you to check your garage, check with your neighbours and ask if you’re sure you’ve been in 24/7.
  • They tell you they can’t find your house. You tell them to put your postcode into Google maps.
  • This e-mail table-tennis continues for several days…

Add a few inches of snow into the equation and you have the perfect excuse for customer care not to take your enquiries seriously.

“It’s the weather,” they cry, fobbing off your disappointed teenagers. “Give it another 24/36/48/60 hours.” The teenagers’ faces drop a hundred miles, yet trusting beings that they are, they resolve to go out to a party in a borrowed dress/tell their friends that their present has been delayed/ make the best of their disappointment and believe the line that is being spun, so build their hopes up again for the next party/occasion/purchase.

By contrast, we 40-somethings start hopping up and down when something doesn’t arrive and we’ve exhausted our reserves of politeness. We start looking on-line for a telephone number to talk to a real person. None of this “standard reply” nonsense for us. Except that’s the trouble. There is no telephone number. Only an e-mail address – this is modern technology in action. Why say in one minute what will take three text messages/e-mails to establish? IE “My parcel isn’t here” and “We’re too busy to care.”

Top of the delivery pops? The good old Royal Mail, whose postal workers trudged through snow and searched their vans to placate a near-weeping teenage girl the day of a VIP (Very Important Party); and to the CityLink Amazon delivery driver who arrived on the doorstep wet, cold and snowed on, but was still cheery enough to wish us a Happy Christmas as he dropped off the last of the on-line purchases.

Chief culprits for giving negative experiences this year are Next and Asos. Though Next’s final apology was accompanied by a £20 gift voucher – the shoes, dress and waistcoat ordered for the tweenies for our wedding simply failed to turn up – they couldn’t even deliver the right order to their own shop a few days later adding exasperation to pre-wedding nerves and the need for yet another shopping trip. Even last week, two months after the order was placed, I was still having to insist I didn’t owe them any money for goods undelivered.

As for Asos, my 17-year-old daughter’s experiences with them would have driven another teenager to tantrums. Let’s just say, it’s now 13 days and counting since she ordered that special dress and it’s just appeared in their post-Christmas sale, £10 cheaper than the price she paid. It’s in the post, they’ve just told me. I’ll keep you posted on its progress, which is more than you’ll get from Asos.

*Update December 30th – With the power of Twitter and the help of Red mag editor Sam, and blogger LibertyLndnGirl, the dress arrived at lunchtime today, 15 days after the order was placed. My daughter looks fab in it and seems unfazed by her experience. Good job as her grandmother had bought her an Asos gift voucher for Christmas.

**Update December 31st – The same dress has been delivered again today – You have to see the funny side!

Dan Snow – hot property

Dan Snow

I was asked to interview Dan Snow and finally caught up with him between flights (his, not mine) for a lightning chat. Here’s how it turned out…

Though Dan Snow’s rise to television presenter celebrity status seems to have been meteoric, his pedigree for the job couldn’t be finer. Here he reveals he might well have pursued a Royal Navy career. Interview by Sandra Fraser (Kessell).

Dan Snow is rushing between airport terminals. He’s flown overnight from Canada, it’s Monday morning and he is in the process of catching another plane to Malta. In true jet-setting style he’s conducting this interview in-between. Behind his familiar voice is the noise of tannoy announcements and baggage trolleys and he sounds a little tired as he negotiates other travellers but he’s a seasoned campaigner and used to pushing himself beyond his limits.

The son of journalists Peter Snow and Ann MacMillan, he’s often announced as The Historian Dan Snow, along with the biographical detail that he’s a 6ft 6in Oxford Blue rower. He admits his interest in rowing and sailing could have seen him end up in a number of other careers, had life taken a different turn. Dan grew up in London, the perfect base for his parents’ careers, and living by the River Thames made it natural that water pleasures should beckon. He learned both to row and to sail while still a schoolboy.

“I got into sailing because I had a family who sailed – Mum and Dad sailed,” he says, walking between terminals, as bleeps and announcements go off in the background. Like so many keen sailors, he started with Optimists and Wayfarers, honing his skills as he went along.

“Sailing teaches you patience. It teaches you to think in a certain way – how to use the elements efficiently – you can’t will the boat to go faster – all good life lessons. It teaches you self-reliance,” he says. “And sailing with a crew teaches you great teamwork.”

Dan went to school at St Paul’s, which offered rowing on its curriculum.  He was encouraged by teachers to use his long arms and legs – efficient levers – to good effect, though he jokes it was because he wasn’t much use at other sports. He joined the Sea Cadets around the age of 12 as an extra-curricular activity.

Young Dan would hop on his bike and cycle to meetings, or parades, as they are more formally known.

“I loved the discipline and learning things about the water – well all sorts of things really – hostage situations, first aid – on a Friday night in Putney. I like to think I learned a huge amount. You have your limits stretched by the Sea Cadets,” he says.

“I could have ended up in the Navy, it’s funny how life goes,” he says.

From St Paul’s, Dan went on to Oxford University, where he studied Modern History and became a member of the Oxford rowing squad, earning a Blue for rowing in the Cambridge-Oxford boat race three years running. He also became the boat club President, though his crew lost in a year he has described as both his best and his worst. His break into television came when the BBC asked if he and his father, best remembered for his Newsnight presentations on election nights, but also a serious journalist of long-standing and distinction, would make a programme together. Though Snow Senior was initially reluctant, the programme was made and Snow Junior’s career path was set.

Combining Dan’s twin interests of history and water pursuits is his idea of double pleasure and he has plenty of ideas up his sleeve if programme-makers have budgets to pursue them. He has already made many programmes about seafaring and ships, including the sinking of the Ark Royal in 1941, the history of the Spanish Armada and a soon-to-be-screened series about the D-Day landings. There have been times during his programme-making career, he reveals, when his Sea Cadet training has come in handy.

“You join the Sea Cadets and you push your own limits. You discover things about yourself. It opens up options and whether you go on to command an air craft carrier or anything else you can use those lessons,” says Dan, recalling trip to St Kilda in stormy weather.

“We were on a little rig heading to St Kilda, going towards the Hebrides, when a big Atlantic storm blew up,” he says. “I remember thinking, this is just like being in the Sea Cadets!”

He loves his job and enjoys being busy, taking all the tiring travelling in his stride.

“No two days are the same,” he says, “I’m off to Malta today and the next day I might be in a library.”

It’s a description that could have matched his seafaring career, had he pursued one.

“I could definitely have gone into the Royal Navy proper or the Marines,” says Dan. “I often look back and wonder what life would have been like.”

He recently joined the crew of the TS Royalist and put his skills to the test once more, posting Tweets on the social networking site, Twitter. In fact, his followers will see many of his posts revolve around his water adventures, and he mentions Trafalgar, HMS Caroline and rowing a boat down the Thames, retracing Nelson’s young footsteps.

Dan Snow’s passport may have him down as an historian, but while young men may grow out the Sea Cadets, you can’t take the Sea Cadets out of the grown man.

Dan appears regularly on The BBC programme, The One Show and has a Twitter page. http://twitter.com/thehistoryGuy

His latest book DEATH OR VICTORY: The Battle of Quebec and the Birth of Empire is published by HarperPress, price £25.

Dan’s BBC2 programme Empire of the Seas is being screened in November.

What’s in a name?

I’ve kind of grown used to the name Sandra Fraser, I’ve had it for more than 20 years, so when my long-term partner proposed marriage and asked me to take his surname instead of my ex-husband’s I admit, I wrestled a little with the idea. It’s a name I share with my children, for one thing, and a name by which I’ve become known professionally. But as he pointed out, it’s not my maiden name and he’d like us to share a surname as well as our life together. So here I am, four days after my wedding, trying to get used to it and hoping I’m not confusing my small following.

In this day of internet, mail redirection and websites, I’m hoping that whoever goes searching for me will find me as easily under the letter K as they did under F.

If you click here you’ll get taken to my old blog. Nothing else has changed, I still smell as sweet…