Impersonal service

Zoë Sharp

They say the best recommendation is word of mouth—a personal tip from someone you know and whose judgement you trust. But increasingly these days we find ourselves connecting with people in a less personal way as more and more of us take to shopping online.

Global economies are tanking as the rich get richer and the rest of us have to cope as best we can. It all boils down to the price of everything without taking the cost into account. We buy online because they don’t have high street overheads and it’s invariably cheaper, and because the high street is losing out on sales it becomes a sad collection of boarded-up windows, charity shops and bargain basements. Personal service seems to be a thing of the past. Soon we won’t have to speak to another real human being during our daily lives at all.

After all, we can order just about anything including our groceries over the internet. Our books, our music, buy insurance, search for a house. And if we do choose to go out we withdraw money from the cashpoint machine without going into a bank. If we do venture inside we’re being encouraged to use the automated deposit slots instead of waiting for a cashier window to become free.

We drive to the petrol station and pay at the pump instead of needing to go inside the kiosk and interact with the person behind the till. And even if we do they’re behind a reinforced glass screen. One supermarket chain near me will only let you pay at the pump and has no attendants at all.

Speaking of supermarkets there seem to be fewer tills open and more self-service lanes so even if we do decide to shop in person for our vegetables there’s no need to interact with an actual person in order to do so.

I wonder if the standard of salesmanship is partly to blame. The last time I tried shopping for electronics in a bricks-and-mortar store the sales staff could only tell me what was written on the side of the box rather than offering any informed opinions of their own. As I learned to read some years ago it seemed a bit pointless to pay a premium for the privilege of having someone else do it for me.

And when I go into a bookstore I love the insights and enthusiasms of the staff. Sadly, most UK independent bookstores I’ve been into offer no contact with the customers other than a bored, “Thanks,” as I open the door to leave empty-handed and if questioned they know less about the books than I do.

I will always pay extra for good service and solid expertise but not for lacklustre indifference, so I’ve gradually switched to doing more and more of my purchasing online too. The rest of Britain is very much the same. In fact, we in the UK are switching our allegiance online at one of the highest rates in the world. In 2010 we made 13.5% of all our purchases over the internet. By 2016 this is predicted to be 23%.

A survey reported on the BBC Business News last year suggested that while only 25% of us would give up sex for a year to maintain our internet connection instead, 65% would give up alcohol, 76% chocolate and 78% would forego coffee.

So, what do YOU buy online that until recently you would have gone out for to a real store. And why have you made the swap? Would anything make you go back to reality shopping for those items rather than virtual? Is there anything you would NEVER see yourself buying online? And finally, what would YOU give up to keep hold of your internet connection or are you sometimes glad to be without it?

This week’s Word of the Week is floccinaucinihilipilification, meaning the categorizing of something that is useless or trivial.

10 thoughts on “Impersonal service

  1. Dana King

    I try to buy locally when I can, but I have many of the same issues you noted. When I need anything for my computer, the closest store is full of people eager to help me who don't know a lot more than I do, if that, so I drive over 20 miles to a store I trust. I also try to buy from local businesses more than chains when possible.

    The only bookstore I know my town–or those surrounding–is a small chain that handles the books "everyone" wants, which means they have very little for me. There is an excellent mystery bookstore on the other side of Chesapeake Bay (75 miles each way), so when I need a book, I go to Amazon. I'm not crazy about it (aside from not being local I have issues with some of their business practices), but they're who have the books.

  2. Sarah W

    Not too long ago, I would have claimed that I never bought clothes online, but I've recently ordered things I tried on in a Real(TM) store for size, but hated the colors available. I also replaced a pair of shoes I loved but my local store had stopped carrying. But I DID know my size — otherwise, I wouldn't have done it.

    I don't know if there's anything I wouldn't buy online, as long as I knew exactly what I would be receiving. But I'm still hesitant about paying bills online–for some reason, I'd rather read my credit card number aloud over the phone. Because I feel safer that way . . . um.

    I've given up a lot already to ENJOY my Internet connection. . . but I'm giving it up for a family trip in a few months. They seem to think of it as an intervention of some sort. Can't imagine why. We'll see how it goes.

    (I'm so putting floccinaucinihilipilification on my CV, Zoë — it's the perfect way to describe half my job)

  3. Richard Maguire

    Hi Zoe. You paint a depressing – but true – picture of how impersonal the routine of our daily lives has become. Soon enough we'll be interacting with robots. What a dispiriting thought.

    In the Alpine village where I live we've got two stores. A bakery and a vegetable shop that also sells garden shrubs and snow shovels. Sure, you pay a bit more than in a supermarket. But I always leave those little stores feeling upbeat, because I've had a real, unhurried, conversation with the owners. And usually picked up on the latest village gossip.

    For everything else, though, it's drive to the big supermarkets a few miles away. Or buy online. All of my books I buy online, except for when I'm in Munich and can visit a bookstore. And that's a great feeling. Turning actual pages instead of looking at photos of books on a flat screen. I'm surprised though by how quickly I've taken to the Kindle. Instant delivery. One of them recently was a Charlie Fox book. I've read several in the series, but not the first, KILLING INSTINCT. I was turning virtual pages as my blood pressure hit the roof. Thanks for a great read.

  4. Reine

    Hi Zoë,

    The major way I connect to the world is through my use of the computer and it's compatible devices. I don't know how I would get on without them, and my respect for pre-millennium people with disabilities has increased immeasurably. I know that without my computer and other electronic devices my world would be very small.

    Still, I would rather get out and get around a neighborhood that had stores and activities that I could take part in. It was a mistake for us to move to our current home. We had no idea how isolating it could be to live in a community near a large city. We looked to the city as a nearby resource. But without transportation you might as well be anywhere else in the world. The next part of my life plan involves moving back home to the city where I can get out and about. I am sure, however, that I will not stop buying online. Making choices is much easier online. Stores are often crowded or difficult to negotiate with a powered wheelchair, unfortunately and especially, bookstores.

    Shopping via paratransit out here in the desert, is very time-consuming with each trip taking up to two hours one way.– for the transportation, alone. That translates to picking a spot that has the most available. Usually that place is a large shopping center. I have found them to be no more user-friendly, or even less user-friendly, then the Internet.

    A city with good wheelchair-accessible public transportation is much preferable. If I were living back in Boston, for example, I would be able to do everything I used to do before I needed to use a wheelchair. I would also have more contact with people I enjoy being with. If I were to live in a neighborhood the physical size of the one we live in now, I would have lots to do around the neighborhood, without ever having to access transportation. But when I wanted to, I could. I could get on the train, cross the river, go to an art show or museum, and return home. I could do all that within a couple of hours, the amount of time it often takes me now — just to get home — from a trip to a store two miles away.

    I guess I'm saying I love both. I need both. I think that human contact outside our homes and offices is reshaping and will be different in the future. All our common institutions are reforming and reshaping as society as a whole is. I'm not sure how it will work, but I suspect we will be gathering for the best things we do together. The rest we will do online.

  5. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Dana
    These days transporting larger items can be an issue for me if I shop in person as I have a two-seater that doesn’t have the most generous boot space. So if it’s something bulky I’d need to get it delivered. And a 150-mile round trip at today’s fuel prices makes you think twice about travelling that far as well, doesn’t it?

    I do use my local food stores as much as I can, particularly my local butcher—and after the scandals that have been rocking the UK recently about contaminated horse meat turning up in a huge selection of supermarket ready-meals I’m very glad I do.

  6. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Sarah
    Clothes are one thing I never buy online as I find fit and size varies wildly so I always like to try stuff on first. Having said that I just bought a hat online. Does that count?

    I do use internet banking I confess and find it extremely handy considering my nearest bank branch is a 60-mile round trip away. And most credit-card companies seem to be doing away with paper statements if they can possibly get away with it.

    Good luck with your vacation away from the T’interweb, and glad you liked this week’s Word of the Week!

  7. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Richard
    It is becoming a sad world if we let it, but so often surly service does not inspire me to want to interact with real people. Am I becoming a recluse. I do love using the local shops like the butcher I already mentioned, and the staff in my local Co-op store are usually chatty and friendly. I look on the slightly increased cost as being cheaper than the fuel to get to the nearest gigastore.

    I’m delighted you enjoyed KILLER INSTINCT, and thank you for giving it a try on your Kindle, although it is now available in trade paperback version as well after a few years of being out of print. I’ve made some of my happiest discoveries of new authors browsing in a bookstore and having a cover image or a title catch my eye. Can’t do that so easily on the internet.

  8. Zoë Sharp

    Hi Reine
    Thank you for such an illuminating response. As you point out, choosing to be solitary is not the same thing at all as feeling isolated, and living anywhere that makes it difficult to get to events and facilities becomes very isolating very quickly. I don’t like pushy crowds so at very busy times of year I’d prefer to shop online than go hand-to-hand with the hordes, but I love to wander and browse, too, and although it’s wonderful to interact with friends online, there’s no substitute for sitting down with them in person. As you so eloquently put it: “I suspect we will be gathering for the best things we do together.” Love that.

    And as I write this I am listening to a very wild wind pummelling the stonework of the house. We’re forecast some ridiculous amount of snow overnight and with this wind it will drift like crazy. Tomorrow I’m supposed to be going out. Maybe a day on the internet might be called for …

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