It is one of the most revered locations in England and a cultural hub for UK talent, with Oscar Wilde, Lewis Carroll, Radiohead and T.E. Lawrence all hailing from ‘the city of dreaming spires’. But will Oxford’s impressive legacy be matched by its retailers’ selection of speakers? Our Mystery Shopper – on a budget of £80 – finds out…
Quickly spotting the ‘Sound and Vision’ section inside the freezing cold store, I headed across to take a look.
A staff member in the aisle stood to one side to let me by, but didn’t offer his help.
On the shelves, offerings were limited to DJ equipment and Bluetooth speakers.
I eventually came across PC speakers on the other side of the store, close to the gaming accessories. The products were sorted on helpful colour-coded shelves depending on their price, and ranged from 2.0 £7 sets to a more advanced 5.1 surround sound setup for £70.
Having been ignored by more staff, I asked for help.
The man who had previously ignored me offered assistance, and fired into unexpected animation, asking what I was looking for.
I replied that the speakers were for general use, and he explained in detail the benefits of different audio systems, as well as their power requirements.
While initially unhelpful, the man was friendly and certainly knew his stuff.
Trotting towards the audio section, a passing staff member greeted me with a smile, but didn’t offer help.
Despite rows of speaker docks and surround sound systems, I failed to find any computer speakers at all. I headed towards the gaming accessories aisle and discovered speakers arranged on unmarked shelves.
While the row markings left a lot to be desired, the shelf edges were helpful, assigning each products a star rating, making the power of each easy to identify.
All of the sets present were 2.0 or 2.1, with a single 5.1 system. The selection was broad, from a £7 pair to the £100 Herman Soundsticks III.
A young man approached and offered his help. I said what I was looking for, and the helper pointed at the Logitech Z506 set.
“I have these, they’re really good,” he said bluntly.
Despite my attempts to ask about other systems, he kept returning to the Logitech set. Maybe if he’d considered what I wanted, he might have secured a sale.
RICHER SOUNDS 9/10
I entered the homely little hardware store and was immediately greeted by a stately bearded man, with a lively ‘hello’ and a smile.
He offered his assistance, and I said that I was looking for a set of PC speakers for general use.
He indicated the Edifier PrismaBT speakers as a suitable fit, thanks to their 2.1 sound, wireless connectivity and £85 price tag – which was also eligible for the store’s ‘Price Beat’ promise.
Throughout our conversation, the man clearly explained the benefits of each set of speakers and the importance of each part of the hardware.
The advice never sounded pretentious, nor did it feel as if the man was pushing me to increase my spending.
As I left, he thanked me for my time, shook my hand and wished me a good day.
While the range of speakers under my budget wasn’t as prominently featured as other products, the service and atmosphere made my trip to Richer Sounds an absolute dream.
While there was a wide selection of tech products on show around the walls of Argos, no speakers were available to be be seen or tested.
Flicking through the traditional Argos catalogue, there was a fair range of computer speakers sprawled across a double-page spread, with prices climbing from under £10 up to £200 for the Harman Bluetooth Soundsticks system.
At £80, the Logitech 5.1 506 was bang on my budget – but as a 5.1 set it didn’t mention whether multiple audio outputs would be needed from my computer – a common problem with 5.1 systems – so I went to ask for further information at the customer service desk.
The staff member admitted that she didn’t particularly know about speakers, but offered to bring the box out so I could take a look at the technical requirements for myself.
Given the situation, it was helpful, but there would’ve been better ways to answer a simple question.
SEVENOAKS SOUND AND VISION 8/10
Entering the audio hardware store, I wondered whether its high-end range would stretch low enough for my £80 budget.
The service reflected the premium products available; a smartly-dressed man immediately greeted me with a smile and kindly offered his help.
I explained what I was after, and admitted that my price target might limit my choices inside the store.
My helper replied that unfortunately I was right, as their closest suitable systems started at a couple of hundred pounds.
The speakers available were arranged neatly on shelves, and included high quality 2.1, surround sound and soundbar systems, clearly labelled with their specifications and price.
The man’s demeanour was incredibly polite, and it was clear that he was very knowledgeable about the proper use and selection of audio hardware – it’s just a shame that their products didn’t stretch low enough to accommodate my needs.
Unsurprisingly, Oxford’s up-market reputation also expands to its selection of audio hardware stores, with several of the retailers lacking a sufficient range close to or under my generous £80 budget.
Despite this, the customer service and product knowledge displayed in nearly all of the outlets I visited was exemplary – and easily persuaded me that a slightly higher spend would be worth the fantastic pre and post-sales support offered – particularly by the specialist audio shops.
The stores also provided a strong demonstration of the benefits of visiting a physical brick and mortar location, with efficient and confident service an easy way to seal a deal with customers – and fend off the temptation of online retailers.
Inside the non-specialist technology retail stores, I often struggled to find speaker sets suitable for use with a computer alongside the other audio products – instead they were relegated to unmarked or ‘Gaming’ sections.
It must be considered that home cinema and computer speakers might not target the same consumers, but removing the systems from the ‘Audio’ location is likely to cause confusion – and could even lose sales.
Overall, though, Oxford lived up to its impeccable reputation. Despite a slight lack of stock and some confusion over product placement in the non-specialist electricals stores, my experience shopping in the cultured city proved that, as ever, service is king.