Mystery shopper: Hemel Hempstead

PCR's mystery shopper goes undercover in Hemel Hempstead
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Known for its distinctive modular ‘magic’ roundabout, Hemel is one of the UK’s busiest New Towns – and the most populated location in Hertfordshire as of the 2001 census. But is it the right place to find a desktop, laptop or tablet for student use? Our Mystery Shopper finds out...

5/10 – MAPLIN 

Despite racks and racks of electricals and tech, I struggled to find a single desktop or laptop system in the neatly arranged outlet. I took a look at the offerings on display. Of the five products displayed, every single machine was a Prestigio tablet. The pricing range was as limited – only stretching from £100 to £159.

As I browsed the store one final time for laptop and desktop alternatives, a staff member approached and warmly offered his help, to find what I was looking for. I explained what I was looking for, and he admitted that while the store didn’t stock any such products, they were instead available to purchase online.

He then explained that the outlet did hold components and cases to be used in a custom-built desktop, if I was interested in building a machine for university.

With a mixed quality of customer service and a severely lacking selection of in-store products, Maplin needed to learn some lessons about selling to students.

9/10 – STAPLES 

Boxes, abandoned trollies and scattered office furniture dotted the entrance of this Staples store. Despite the initial warehouse-like appearance of the store, the computing section was easy to find – laptops, desktops and tablets directly ahead of the door.

Contrasting the chaotic arrangement of desks, the computers were excellently positioned, with productivity software, as well as essential accessories, prominently displayed nearby. I asked a member of staff at the tills whether he could help me find the right system. My helper was the epitome of customer service. He clearly explained the benefit of each tech specification and how it would benefit me.

Dismissing hybrid tablets as not overly suitable for the potential beer-spilling environments of university, he recommended Asus as a reliable brand, highlighting the X550 model – dead on my budget at £350. Staples provided the ideal buying experience for any tech-seeking student.

10/10 – CURRYS AND PC WORLD
Wooden counters, illuminated signs and rows of products greeted me to this ‘Store of the Future’. The clean and neat rows were arranged with a clear consideration of customers’ needs – cards to purchase Microsoft Office and McAfee Anti-Virus were smartly placed at the end of each counter, with accessories on nearby shelves.

A customer assistant soon approached me to kindly offer his help. Responding clearly to every question I asked with simple explanations of the benefits of attributes such as an i-series processor and extra RAM, the man recommended an HP model for £350. He added that a hybrid device may be useful for note-taking during lectures – showing his understanding of customer needs.

The man explained the deals and offers available, without giving the impression of a forced sale. With different deals for laptops, Currys and PC World presented a shopping experience that just couldn’t be argued with.

3/10 – SAINSBURY'S
Finding tablets in Sainsbury’s was a struggle. After some time wandering aisles stacked with televisions, I finally spotted a cardboard display I had almost certainly walked past already. The cardboard display was the entirety of the supermarket’s tablet offering: six products above a row of different cameras. There were iterations of Samsung’s Tab 3 tablet, beginning with the seven- inch 8GB model for £139, before increasing to the 16GB model for £199.


Two of the remaining tablets were budget models – one with a price tag of £130 and severely underpowered, while the other system was devoid of a price altogether. The remaining ‘tablet’ was in fact an e-reader: the £69 Nook Glowlight. Hardly the multi-function productivity device I had come seeking.

With the checkouts packed with customers, freely available customer assistants were as absent as student- suitable tech. It hardly mattered, nothing would have secured a sale from me.

9/10 – ARGOS

A bright and attractive stall emblazoned with the Windows logo greeted me in the Argos store. The display featured an Acer laptop for £300 and a Microsoft Surface 2 tablet for £359 – both reasonable student devices. Argos clearly understood the importance of offering an appealing deal to students, with Microsoft Office Home and Student subscription cards placed alongside.

The retailer’s distinctive catalogue continued the impressive assistance: the first page of the computing section explaining each machine specification, as well as providing support numbers for every vendor. With around 10 pages of laptops and accessories, it was hard to complain about lack of choice. I came across an Asus Vivobook including Office for £300.

Between its staff, catalogue and retail environment, Argos provided everything needed to find the right machine. Only one thing could have sped up the process – more products out on display.

SUMMARY

With another school year just around the corner, now is the ideal time for retailers to begin focusing their efforts on appealing to students. With a variety of tablets, desktops and laptops available for use as study systems, retailers can showcase their customer service and technical knowledge by highlighting the benefits of different form factors and specs for specific subjects and school years.

Currys and PC World, this month’s star store, clearly demonstrated the power of allowing users to get hands-on with machines – after all, comfort is key for those expecting to research and write essay after essay. However, Maplin and Sainsbury’s neglected to understand this, with cardboard displays and online-only offerings.

It was fantastic to see that nearly all of the stores I visited maximised their retail potential by positioning student essentials such as productivity software and anti-virus solutions. With the highest-scoring stores also highlighting their timely student deals and promotions, they set an example that all stores should start to follow. It was particularly interesting to see that, at least for students, laptops still remain the primary form factor of choice, with tablets failing to match up to the usability and performance aspects of a traditional computer.

While tablets are often proclaimed to be the harbinger of decline for traditional computing forms, it is reassuring to see that one of the strongest consumer demographics is still set to keep the PC alive. All retailers should learn a lesson and take solace from this month’s selection of stores. For students, it seems, nothing beats the traditional – physical outlets, standard form factors and a focus on customer experience over low-price online shopping.

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