Since the Fifties and Sixties when it became a hub for surplus World War 2 radio and electronics equipment, London’s Tottenham Court Road has always been famous for its technology and electronic stores. With the stated aim of buying an entry-level laptop and a top of the range gaming desktop, I took on the role of a consumer and walked the length of the road. What follows is a summary of the service and advice I received at each shop I visited.
One thing that stood out early on was the extent to which many retailers had abandoned the desktop PC as a format. While far from being a consensus, the impression I got from the majority of shop staff was that it was no longer good business to sell desktop PCs at all.
Most shop assistants were friendly and willing to answer my questions. A small number did, however, border on rude as I asked what they seemed to consider to basic a question. Seeing as service is the silver bullet that High Street retail is supposed to wield over direct sellers such as Dell, I found this surprising.
But the chief problem was the discrepancy of advice I received. Some were telling me that desktops were the only way to go for gaming, while others were saying they practically no longer existed. The price I was told I would have to pay for a computer that would play the latest top spec games to the highest level also varied dramatically –the lowest at around £600, the highest between £3,000 and £6,000.
This was the same of entry-level laptops. While some told me they would perform every conceivable task perfectly well, conceding only that more expensive machines would do the jobs faster, others told me that the cheaper laptops would barely muster the processing power to launch Word. In some cases I was told very different things about an identical model.
While this may have simply been down to preference on behalf of the shop staff, it highlights the problem of presenting opinion as fact. The consumer has no reason to believe one shop over the other, and the swathes of conflicting information I received would ultimately leave them confused and if anything less likely to buy from any of them.
On the whole, Tottenham Court Road remains a great place to shop for PCs. However, for this to remain the case, its retailers need to put even more of a premium on customer service than they already do. Once it loses a customer to the internet or direct channel they’re unlikely to come back. It’s vital to demonstrate the unique benefits of expert advice to every potential customer.
A £429 Fujitsu Siemens was the cheapest laptop available. I was told that it had a slow speed and poor performance, and a 60 GB hard drive was of a very low capacity. It was not recommended for playing games of any kind, and I was told it was only competent at running office software. When I asked if I could look at the more expensive machines that would be able to run the latest games well, the shop assistant said they do not stock high-end machines of that type. He told me I would need to assemble my own desktop if I wanted to play new games well, which would cost me between £600 and £1,000 for the various components. He then advised me my best bet would be to go to Dell, as they have very good customer service.
Micro World 200
This shop was slightly more optimistic about what its cheapest laptop could do. Weighing in at 2.4 kg, I was told the £525 HP 5051 was a decent machine with good memory, a good processor, a DVD writer, wireless connectivity, an SD card slot and TV connection options. I was told its 60 GB hard drive was a decent amount of storage to have.
The member of staff offered me the laptop for £440 if I paid in cash right then. The shop did not stock any desktops at all, but apparently their top end £1,299 HP 9288 laptop would do everything a powerful desktop could.
Sony Centre Galleria
The cheapest laptop available was the £700 VGN-N11S/W. I was told that the machine would run some games, but graphic intensive titles such as Doom 3 would struggle as there was no dedicated graphics card. When asked what type of machine I would need to run games perfectly I was shown the £2,000 VGN AR 31-5 laptop. I asked if there was a desktop equivalent, but I was told the store did not sell desktop PCs at all anymore as there is simply no demand for them, and Sony does not even bother to produce monitors any more. According to the shop assistant people do not buy desktops whole now – the only people that do still want them buy all the components separately and get someone to put the machine together for them.
The member of staff explained to me the pricing scale of laptops via a rule of thumb which stated “the smaller the screen size the more expensive the machine.” When I double-checked, he confirmed that laptops with larger screens are generally cheaper. An IBM Lenovo 3000 at £399 was the cheapest laptop Samuel King had, and the shop assistant told me that for high-end gaming a £2,000 laptop would be just as good as any desktop. Other than portable systems, the store had only one media centre PC.
C & A Electronics
Without showing me specific models, I was told that the cheapest laptops here ranged from £500 to £600, while models at the high-end would cost me around £1,000. I asked about desktops and he said I could get a decent one for £600, though they do not stock any at all. This store told me that in order to run games the only thing I’d need to look at was the graphics card. He said they would order components in to put it together for me and that if I bought any laptop today they would give me a free case and mouse.
The shelves of GHS were populated with desktop cases, graphics cards and processors which highlighted a commitment to desktop PCs. The staff seemed irritated when I enquired as to what some of the more expensive computers could do that the cheaper ones can’t. I was told that a £450 desktop wouldn’t play any games, and that I could expect to pay £450 for a graphics card alone.
The desktop specialist’s irritation continued when I asked how much I should expect to pay for a computer that could play all the latest games. In response he asked me “how can I answer that unless I know what sort of gamer you are?” After reiterating my point he relented, stating that desktops are always much more powerful and better for gaming, and that I would need to spend £800 bare minimum to play any games. However, if I wanted to really get the most out of my games he could sell me a desktop for £5,000 to £6,000.
The divergence in opinion as to what budget laptops can actually do continued as I was told Gultronic’s £399 Toshiba L30-101 will run everything I throw at it. I double-checked he meant this, then pointed to the Toshiba G30 on the next shelf which sported a hefty £2,300 price tag and asked why would people buy that model if the much cheaper computers could do everything.
At this point I was told that I couldn’t expect a cheaper model to do everything that a more expensive machine could. Once he was reminded that he just said the budget model would be able to do everything without problems, he elaborated by saying that while this was true, the more expensive model had a better processor so it would do everything faster. Echoing what was becoming a familiar trend, Gultronics said it did not stock desktops as there was no longer a demand for them.
Ask had an impressive show floor which was very professional looking – rightly or wrongly this gave me more confidence in it than some of the other stores, however, the disparity in advice continued. The Toshiba L30-101 was shown to me as Ask’s cheapest laptop – the same model that Glutronics told me would run everything. No such endorsement came from Ask, who recommended I did not buy the identical laptop at the more expensive price of £479.95 as it would not be able to handle very much. No desktops were to be found at Ask either – I was told that selling them was no longer good business.
Just when it looked like everyone had forgotten about the desktop, PC World was much more positive. The laptop department shop assistant said its cheapest laptop, the £479 Compaq 504, would do little more than run Office, the internet and very basic games.
Once I said that many other stores had told me that more expensive laptops would run games just as well as desktops he told me this was not the case, and that laptops are not as powerful as desktops and if I was interested in playing games I should steer clear of laptops and invest in a desktop. Eager to get some balance I went to the desktop section. However, the 15 minutes I spent trying to find someone that could give me some more information went unrewarded.
When I asked about laptops I was told they did not have any in stock and that I should come back next month and turned away. I asked what type of laptops he would be getting and he gave me a leaflet and said it was best to look at that. The leaflet, incidentally, contained no laptop prices, but did show a particularly cheap custom desktop for £382.