Formerly known as Verulamiam during the Roman Empire, St Albans has had an impressive history since, with figures such as Stephen Hawking, Benny Hill and Stanley Kubrick all hailing from the well-cultured city. But how will our Mystery Shopper fare while looking for a graphics card under £200 from the city’s selection of indies...?
MR COMPUTER 8/10
I arrived five minutes early, and waited for the store to open.
Half an hour passed with no sign of life behind the shuttered windows, and I walked off, thinking the shop might have closed for good.
Returning an hour later, I noticed that the shop had opened, and so popped in.
An animated man surrounded by neat shelves greeted me. I explained what I was after, and he swung his monitor around to face me.
“Let’s take a look, shall we?” he said, loading up the websites of several well-known distributors.
He began asking me about my computer, and clearly knew his stuff.
His enthusiasm did have some drawbacks – he stopped asking questions and started making assumptions about what I was after.
Largely, though, his warm nature and desire to help couldn’t be faulted. He’s just lucky that, given my initial abandonment, he was given a second chance to impress.
COMPUTER CHEAP 3/10
Initially struggling to find Computer Cheap, I eventually spotted a small branded sticker on a glass case inside the window of a building titled ‘Albans Office Space,’ which occupied the space marked on Computer Cheap’s online map.
I entered and asked the receptionist where I could find the store.
“What are you after?” she asked.
I explained that I wanted to look at a selection of graphics cards.
“Oh, if you don’t know which product you want, you’ll have to look online. We don’t hold any stock here.”
A quick check of Computer Cheap’s website shows that it has a host of products available, and several glowing customer reviews – however, I left disappointed that the website had led me to believe that the shop was worth visiting, and confused as to why a retailer with no physical stock or storefront would tell people to visit.
Enheartened by professional looking displays and neat, colourful signs, I made my way into the glass-fronted store.
Inside was as impressive – rows of TV screens dotted around the floor and neatly-hung racks of cables behind a black-shirted customer assistant.
He didn’t greet me, but as I traversed the store I was welcomed by another staff member.
I asked where I could find the store’s computing section, aware that its website features an array of laptops, desktops, tablets and other PC products.
“I’m sorry, we don’t have any computer products here,” he said, suggesting that I try Maplin in Watford.
I was surprised that given the size of the shop, no space was provided to computing products of any sort beyond a few cables.
While the service and presentation sparked the hope that I might find what I was looking for, my overall experience was a letdown.
COMPUTER WIZARD 8/10
I set the doorbell buzzing as I entered the realm of the Computer Wizard.
Moving into the shop, I took a look at the neat racks of components and enthusiast tech products.
Having taken a while to examine the products, I suddenly realised that no one had come to greet me.
The sound of chatting rose as I approached the counter, which was absent of a bell.
As I was about to call around the corner of the staff area, a young man emerged.
“Can I help?” he asked.
I explained that I was after a graphics card for under £200, but needed help.
He immediately asked me what the spec of my PC was, writing down each detail. He then asked what I would be using the card for.
He took my contact details and said that they would take a look and get in touch.
The impression that they didn’t wish to waste my time was admirable – they just need a little more magic in their customer interaction.
For a location previously renowned for its importance to the electronics industry, my trip to St Albans was pretty disappointing overall – and revealed a sorry trend among tech retailers.
Many of the shops I attempted to visit had recently closed down to focus on their online presence, and several that still existed gave the impression that online sales were favourable to face-to-face transactions – with little or no products available on their shelves.
Even the stores that offered some hope of finding a graphics card had to resort to searching online through trade sites or offering to call me back so that they could look themselves.
While the service was helpful and demonstrated largely solid knowledge of what to look for in a card – with important details such as SLI, CrossFire, video memory, power supply and vendor preference questioned – the physical presence of suitable products in the shops was still massively underwhelming.
As PC gaming continues to rise in popularity, it was surprising to see such a lack of focus in computer stores on gaming components.
Though no store could be expected to keep every card in stock, a few popular low, mid and high-end options on shelves could have secured a sale from me – or at least given me some idea of what to look for.
Instead, I was left completely empty-handed.
Among the numerous computer retailers that had already abandoned the High Street for online, none of the remaining stores offered me any reason to return – instead, I could have easily done exactly as they did and looked online for a card myself.
It may be a sign of the times, but if brick and mortar retailers such as these can’t provide as common a component as a mid-range graphics card for gaming, it doesn’t paint a positive picture for the future of the independent retailer.