Online shopping is a core economic activity of most UK households now. From a report in The Register:
"The OFT [Office of Fair Trading] said last year that the UK online shopping market is worth £21.4bn a year and that 20 million people shopped online in 2006, a third of them spending over £1,000."
However, all is not rosy. The same report showed that nearly a third of retail websites surveyed are breaking laws designed to protect shoppers. In addition to these problems, there are legal and ethical grey areas - one of which, delivery charges, is a particular one for residents of the Outer Hebrides.
The issue of delivery charges for goods bought from the mainland comes up increasingly. The Comhairle (see point 23) and our MSP have been taking correspondance from constituents on this issue, and myself and others have blogged about it before. The wide variation in delivery charges was highlighted during the recent cowl purchasing saga, the (happy) end result of which I blogged and filmed previously.
Basically, I required a new chimney cowl. The start was to consider purchasing it locally. I don't buy by telephone, as it usually takes an insane amount of time, you're relying getting someone at the right time on the other end, and you can't see the product. A trip to the nearest shops that may potentially sell cowls (in Benbecula) would take several hours there and back, with a significant risk of not getting the cowl I wanted; alas, these shops didn't have a website that I could find.
I then looked online for mainland shops that sell cowls, and found lots. However, I ended up looking at 38 different online shops before I found the right combination of cowl, acceptable price and - especially - acceptable delivery charge and conditions. It's these delivery aspects that are of interest.
A selection of online shops examined
Stoves Are Us. They had delivery information for their fireplaces (but not their cowls) which consists of:
"We normally charge a £95 contribution towards delivery costs of fireplaces and mantels to Scotland, but look out for Great Deals where fireplaces and mantels are delivered free to Scottish addresses. Delivery of online stove and fire orders over £100 and stove glass orders is free to UK mainland addresses."
So, for some orders Berwick residents get free delivery but Gretna ones don't? I couldn't get delivery charges on their cowls, as they wanted me to register and enter lots of personal information before providing this. No thanks.
Chimney Products Direct charge a tenner delivery for orders under £150 - but to the UK mainland only. There is a fill-in form to contact them "for a quote if delivery or shipping beyond mainland UK". It broke when I tried it. Several other online shops also requested getting in touch for delivery quotes beyond mainland UK. Some took several days to respond; others still haven't responded.
Loftshop were another. They had a good range of cowls, and said "FREE next day delivery in Mainland UK!", but you had to contact them if they were not "able to answer all of your questions". I can't really be doing with this; an online shop should just take one session, not several sessions spread out over a week with lots of email writing and waiting.
Flue Factory. Hmmm. These people really take the biscuit regarding customers who live this side of Fort William. Their definition of "Mainland UK" seems to really mean "The main island of the UK, but in the middle of the night someone floated off the Scottish Highlands in one direction and Grampian in another":
So essentially it's free from their depot to Fort William, but then up to 5p short of 50 pounds for the last stretch after that. Aye, right.
Hotline chimneys have a complicated set of instructions on their page "Delivery explained", to which residents of Northern Scotland (where does that start?) and Islands are directed:
"All Orders of more than £200 Excluding VAT include UK mainland delivery, under this amount + £8.00 ex vat.
Important Note. Unfortunately we are unable to ship chimney liners, flue systems or vermiculite offshore at the prices below, the charge for these items to the bottom 5 locations below is £45 + vat (any value order), just choose Bulk items offshore at checkout. All orders above £600 net to the destinations below are shipped free (Except for those mentioned above).
...Scottish Islands: £20 (Charge exc VAT up to £200 net) £36 (Charge exc VAT up to £600 net)"
Fluestore.com have a blanket charge of £49.95 for Scottish Offshore, whereas they charge £19.95 delivery for orders under £150 to the UK mainland, and free delivery for mainland orders over £150. In their favour, this website has a simple to use delivery charge calculator, where you put in your postcode and it comes up with the price.
Fluesystem.com have a banner claiming they are the "UK's Leading Online Supplier" of Stove and Chimney Products. As they are "leading", and technically I live in the UK, I had hopes of reasonable charges and delivery mechanisms. No such luck; I had to get quite far into the process of online shopping to find out the cost of delivery:
32 pounds + VAT = £37.60 for delivery. Basically, the delivery costs nearly twice as much as the product! The only delivery option offered is via TNT Express. From the many experiences of myself and other residents (a) TNT express takes longer than is usually stated, as other carriers are involved in a delivery chain, and (b) an item put in the post or sent by ParcelForce will take less time to be delivered. Upshot - with the only option offered by this company, you pay more to wait longer for it to be delivered.
The chosen cowl
In the end I purchased the Junior Aluminium Cowl (bolt version) from the online shop of Chimney Cowl Products. Their website seemed to imply a standard delivery rate for everywhere, but wasn't clear on delivery to the Outer Hebrides, saying:
"We ship both UK Mainland and International Orders, within 2 to 3 Working Days from receipt of payment being approved, based upon the Carriage terms agreed to at the time of Order placement."
So I emailed them, and was surprised to get a quick reply - and on a Sunday:
"Hi John; we have a standard delivery charge of £11.68 and free on sales order over £200."
Aha! A fair postage cost, and a quick reply. So, I placed the order online, which was a smooth and quick process. Here's the bill at the online checkout part:
(Note that the total cost was cheaper than several other companies charged for delivery alone.)
Less than two days later, the cowl turns up in the post. The box has an additional label on it ("APC overnight: a perfect choice"), so it seems that part of the journey was done by courier, with the remainder via the royal mail.
All parts intact, well packaged, and shiny and new.
- Some delivery companies in the Highlands and Islands charge reasonable rates. For example, Woodys Express charge from £7.50 to take items up to 25kg on their daily runs between Inverness and Stornoway. DR Macleod is another with reasonable rates. This is why an increasing number of Outer Hebrides residents buy goods online, but have them delivered to the depot of one of these companies in Inverness or Glasgow, for onward delivery to their home, as it works out cheaper overall. So companies that claim it costs a small fortune to have one of their items delivered to the Outer Hebrides either have got an unusually bad delivery contract, or are not being strictly truthful.
- Why don't more online shops use the postal delivery service? As shown in the order placed, it can be done successfully, quickly and cheaply. From a wider socio-economic perspective, it also has the side benefit of making the postal network delivery system more profitable and sustainable.
- If a company is so lazy or sloppy at geography that they can't get basic concepts such as "UK mainland" correct, it doesn't instil confidence that they can manage the processing of an order and delivery correctly.
- Are excessive delivery charges illegal? If a company charges a large premium for delivery to somewhere north of Wigan, but some of that is being pocketed by them as extra profit as opposed to extra delivery costs, then does that fall foul of either the Trade Descriptions Act 1968, the Consumer Protection (Distance Selling) Regulations 2000, or some other legislation?
- Absurdly complicated instructions and clauses about delivery charges on a business website are off-putting. Online shopping is supposed to be quick and easy. Fluestore.com show the best solution to finding out the delivery charge, with a little box in which you put in your postcode and up pops up the cost.
- ...though the ultimate best solution is a "one fixed price for the UK" charge. Companies such as Boots do it - their policy, which covers "the UK (including the Isle of Man and The Scottish Islands) and Northern Ireland." is:
"Free deliveries are currently available if you spend over £40 in a single transaction and you request a standard delivery. However, if your order includes a heavy, bulky or over-sized item(s) (which will be indicated in the shop and checkout), the free delivery service is not available and all items included in that order will incur a £4.95 delivery charge."
So if Boots can do it - as well as chimney cowl products - why can't other online shops that sell chimney cowls...?