Shoppers love to brag about their shopping experiences but I am not a shopper. I don’t mind buying for others on special occasions but shopping as an enjoyable pastime is not my thing. Shopping out of necessity is tolerable but I want to get in and get out with no messing about. Today, I went into a London shop that is really just a door front, albeit on the High Street, but still just a door front, with a catalogue…the largest distributor of consumer goods in the UK. Argos.
Argos reminds me of that five and dime store, that turned into a huge chain of catalogue showrooms, Service Merchandise. I remember going to them decades ago in New York before they went bust. I don’t remember why, but I remember being amazed by the constant flow of goods that seemed to miraculously appear on a regular basis. Today, however, I am at Argos because I need an alarm clock.
With boisterous kids at home, I didn’t think I would need an alarm clock but CSr gets up before the kids and the one he chose last weekend is defective. So off I go to a shop that I have managed to avoid for 14 years. Not because I have anything against Argos, but I know my limits and I am terrified of stepping into an abyss where I really am not trained or equipped. And my fears were not unfounded. I pick up a catalogue and there are 1800 pages and over 5,000 products that I have to get through to get what I came for.
I find myself forgetting what I came in for in the first place. Oh yeah, an alarm clock. THAT is it. No distractions and definitely nothing else…but hang on, F also needs a new lunchbox. The old one smells of putrid pear. Yet, I cannot find any lunchboxes in a catalogue of 5,000 items. There must be ONE in 5,000. Look again. I search under Kitchen and Laundry, Toys and Games, Sports and Leisure. I search pages 1,780 to 1,800 of the index under lunch, school, bag, storage. Nothing.
I finally find one page of children’s bags under Garden and Leisure. Really? Out of 20 items, only 2 are suitably tough enough for boys. Angry Birds it is. I type the 3 digit product code and 4 digit catalogue number into the desktop computer to see if it is available. It is. I pick up my aqua pencil and write down the same numbers on what looks like a bowling score card so I can pay for the item. Laptops and lead and I’m still in the shop.
I close the catalogue, keen to get out of the shop now, but its sheer weight causes the accordion mammoth beast to open up to the Hobby section. I cannot resist peeking at all of the swimming items. It is a glorious sunny day finally (although still a bit cold for June), and since I’m here and I do not want to ever come back, I might as well have a quick look. The kids can swim now but a flexible foam noodle and mini kickboard have caught my eye. I’ll take it. Where is my pencil.
I have now been in the shop for 45 minutes and I am aware that I need to get out. But I’m a bit stuck now. I need to exchange an item, or return it and buy a few things as well. I have entered some consumerist hybrid space of purchasing, returns and exchanges or all of the above. What is the protocol at Argos and which counter to approach?!
I walk up to Collection Point A, that happens to be next to Customer Returns and/or Exchanges and explain my dilemma. What relief. Argos has trained its people well. Agent A understands my dilemma and writes down the items that I want and then sends me to Customer Service. At Customer Service, another professional gets it and types my requests in the computer. It is all going swimmingly well until her phone rings. One of my items is ‘slightly different’ than the one I chose in the catalogue. Of 5,000 items in a book and 30,000 in cyberspace, my item can’t be THAT different can it?
The catalogue states that the noodle float’s ‘colours may vary’. That is fine. As long as it is not pink. F is in a HATE PINK phase. Customer Service Agent B is not busy at 10:30 this morning but she needs an answer now. Do I ‘still want the item’. Of course I still want the item, as long as it is NOT pink. She tells her caller ‘fine, send it’ and hangs up the phone. Customer Service Agent B does not seem to care so much about my shopping experience as much as Collection Point Agent A did.
The screens flash above and my order number will now take 6 minutes to arrive. After 1 ½ minutes, my number is called already, and I step 3 inches forward back to Collection Agent A at counter A. Two of the 3 items are here and I have to wait for that naughty noodle. As I stand there, I am enthralled by the conveyor belt bringing up the items from the underbelly of this entire operation. I envision tens, maybe hundreds of people down there running along the Victorian sewage system swapping goods and sending them up to Argos’ tiny shop fronts.
Here comes my item. I think. Really? Come on. It’s pink. BRIGHT pink. Collection Point Agent A stamps all items as received and processes me onward but Argos is not finished with me yet. I now have to go back to Customer Service Agent B to return my pink noodle.
When it is my turn, Customer Service Agent B acts like I have just arrived in the shop. She asks, ‘how can I help you’, and I wonder if the conveyor belt rotation noise must cause temporary amnesia at Argos. She is professional and courteous and calls down below to ask if there are any other colours, without my even asking. I was planning on just returning it. Sly fox or stealth saleswoman ? Who cares. I want to go now. As I wait, she says again, ‘ANY OTHER COLOUR’ to the mysterious sewage stewards below.
In a matter of seconds, another noodle appears and I am wondering if there is in fact an entire sea of storage beyond that wall. But wait… this one is purple. If there is any other colour that you can’t consider when your kid says I HATE PINK, it’s purple. But now I am not going home without a noodle. Except if it’s pink. And definitely not purple.
Customer Service Agent B is genuinely patient. Instead of just asking if I would like a store credit or card refund, she picks up the phone again. Remarkably, it is answered. There is no explanation, no catalogue number and no product information. Just a calm, clear request if there are any more colours, other than what has been plucked from pastel noodleland.
Again, in a matter of seconds, (seriously, where ARE they all coming from?!) here comes my item. At least I think it is mine, although it is possible that it is not. It is now 11:45 and I am entering the thick of Argos’ lunch rush hour. At least 10 people are now in the shop perusing the catalogues, looking through the countertop jewellery on display and scrutinizing ALL of the LAST OFFERS on display along the wall.
Customer Service Agent B removes my item from the belt herself as she now has a personal interest in getting rid of me. I have become the loss leader of product variation. She hands me the noodle and for a minute I notice her steely resolve quiver and I think she must feel sorry for me. I was expecting blue or green. It is not pink and it is not purple. It is red. RED, a slight variation of the pink. Customer Service Agent B asks if this is okay and we look at each other knowing that it really is NOT okay but we have had enough. I smile and say it is great. Just great. I pick up my alarm clock and red noodle and head home.
Firefly tonic – natural energy drink. No alarm clocks needed.
Wake Up – Peach and Green Tea. Wrap in a paperbag to hide pink label