The Joy of Christmas Shopping

Unless I have forgotten something, my Christmas shopping is done for this year. For the first year in ages the tide changed for me.  I did almost all my Christmas shopping out in the real world, and not online. However there was one thing I got from the web. I bought this for my brother because it is awesome: http://bit.ly/1ciymRW

For the rest of my shopping I got up early yesterday and headed to Brixton to buy some gifts. I think in total I spent about £18 more than I would have done had I done it online. In the end though I now have all my presents for people and I don’t have the anxiety of wondering when the presents are going to show up.

After a good walk around Brixton, I established that I was not going to get everything I wanted there. In particular I really wanted to get my Mum a Book called “S” by JJ Abrams.  My local independent book shop had sold out of this. So I began to worry that it might be a little hard to get my hands on. With some trepidation about what it might be like in town I hopped back on the number 3 bus and headed for the centre of London.

(If you are wondering as far as I know my Mum doesn’t read my blog, so the surprise is still intact, I think….)

“S” caught my attention, because it has been specifically designed to not transmit online.  The concept is that it is a library book that was being borrowed by to people. So there are two stories: the central text of the original book and a narrative formed by correspondence in the books margins between two people who are taking the book out of the library. There is also a letter that has been folded up and placed in amongst the pages. Although you can get a kindle copy, to buy this book digitally means that you miss out on all that theatre.

It wasn’t that long ago that Waterstones was sucking the life out of small independent book sellers. Now they are making little videos mocking Amazon (http://bit.ly/1kpow4V). To me that seems like they are worried about being put out of business themselves. They do seem to be in an awkward nowhere land between my local book shop Book Sellers Crow and the internet giant. But I would say they are really good for one thing.

I used to go to Waterstones to get my holiday reading. I would leave it to the last moment and charge into the nearest branch and often not find the obscurer non-fiction title I wanted. At some point I worked out that they could check on the system and find a branch in London that had it in stock. At which point I would get it reserved, and cycle over to that branch and pick it up.

Now I have a Kindle I don’t need that. Researching and selecting something to read while we are away has become a pleasant way of passing time in the departure lounge.  It is also hard to deny, the internet has made the high-street a much more pleasant place to shop. The first Waterstones I went into in search of a copy of “S” thought it had two copies of the book. I was able to get a member of staff running up and down the levels looking for it for me.

Once they worked out they didn’t have it they rang several other branches, where presumably someone else had to run up and down stairs to go and find it for me, that is service. In the 90’s when my shopping career started if you couldn’t find what you were looking for, you basically had to beg the shop staff for help, so you could give them your money. Now they can’t do enough to help. I love that. I wonder if we are finally seeing the light at the end of the tunnel. Are we now at last starting to see what shops and the web are for?

My personal feeling is that the web is great for shopping if you know exactly what you want. It is the most transactional place to shop. Almost always it is the best price. I didn’t buy “S” on line because I wanted to check it out first and make sure it was going to be a beautiful object (it is). I also knew that if I bought it on line, it arrived and it wasn’t what I thought it was going to be I would have an awful time getting it back to Amazon. Also when you buy on line you don’t always know who the carrier is. That can vastly affect your customer experience. UPS and Royal Mail seem to be the best. Other commonly used carries in the UK are totally rubbish.

Small local shops don’t carry a large amount of stock so they find it harder to cater to your whims if you want something a bit obscure. But for gift ideas, if you don’t know what to get someone then small shops are the best. The owners are like that friend with great taste in music. They have spent time researching and making great selections for you. You can get to know them and establish you trust their judgment. In Crystal Palace we have what I call “a Lovely Lady Shop”, South of the River. If ever we need a gift for a girl that is a great first port of call. We go there for their expertise.

Waterstones and chains like them work fantastically in big cities where they have several stores in close proximity. They are good because of the shear amount of stock they can hold in a manageable geographic space.  They are perfect if you use them that way.

If you know exactly what you want to buy, it isn’t perishable, you know what you are doing with it when it arrives and time is not a factor then yes you would be mad not to buy online.

The book is probably the best example of this process in action. I love my Kindle. It has put some of the world’s best literature at my fingertips for free. Booksellers do need to worry about the Kindle as it is going to take money from their tills. I will never again buy an out of copyright book from a shop because I want to read it, I will download it for free. But I don’t see how Kindle can kill the paper book. An e-reader file is not a gift. It’s not something you can hand someone and say thank you, I love you.

I once got a Kindle voucher in a card at the end of a TV job and I was really touched by that. It showed that they knew I loved reading and it was nice to get a little bonus that I had to spend on something fun. But vouchers are almost money so they work less well as gifts for people you are close to. You can’t give your wife £150 worth of Amazon vouchers at Christmas but if it meant something to them, you could spend £150 on a rare or beautiful book as an object.

The world has changed and it seems to me that the Christmas shop is now easier and more fun than it has ever been before. Please feel free to steel or share these gift ideas. And if you do have to leave the couch this year and brave the high-street, don’t worry. It is not as busy as it used to be, the service is better. If you eat before you start and wear comfy shoes then you might even enjoy it.