Category Archives: Shopping

The Joy of Jumble

Car Boot SaleI’ve always taken disproportionate pleasure in getting a good deal. It’s the one part of my Malaysian heritage I’ve not been in a hurry to reject – my Dad trained me to ask for discounts, and I always get that satisfaction of finding something cheaper elsewhere. In some regards, comparison web-shopping was made for me.

But surpassing the wildest dreams of eBay and comparison shopping sites – which after all have to cope with the burden of P&P – is the joy of the jumble and car boot sale. We stopped by a car boot sale on the way back from the coast a couple of weekends ago and picked up over 20 items of clothing for Emily at the grand total cost of £7.50. Similar purchases in shops would have cost us hundreds, and even occasional eBay purchases, with the aforementioned P&P would probably have stacked up to over £100. Fantastico.

In addition to the ludicrous deals, there’s some enjoyment to be had in seeing other peoples curios on display. I’ve always been comfortably materialistic – in the sense that I enjoy stuff rather than assign all value to it – so find it gives great insight into what other people take pleasure in to wander around these jumble sales.

Sadly this weekend’s car boot expedition was called off on account of rain, but there are a couple of more opportunities before the weather turns properly sour and the season ends…

Independent vs authorized car dealer

We finally got around to buying our new (second hand) car. It took a while as the specific model we were looking for was relatively rare second hand and we were waiting for one with sensible mileage to turn up at a dealership within easy driving range of us.

Was astonished, in the process, to discover the difference an ‘official’ second hand dealer made. The car we were looking at – a relatively recent (automatic transmission, hence rarity) Golf – had dropped a disproportionately small amount from its ‘as new’ price as far as I could tell. I paused to be astonished at the second-hand value of VWs.

The moment one of our target cars turned up at an independent dealer, a further 10% off the original retail price vanished – for a car with lower mileage than the ones I’d been looking at. I’m avoiding ‘official’ dealers like the plague in the future, although with our current car portfolio we won’t be buying anything for a long while, unless we happen to win the lottery…

Choosing a bike

trek-t10-2009-hybrid-bikeWe got Amanda a new bike recently, a surprisingly hard thing to choose. Sites like Which? don’t make bike recommendations because the models change too quickly and there’s so much subjective in the assessment of a bike. And retailers aren’t as helpful as you’d like them to be as every retailer stocks a massively different selection due to exclusivity deals with some of the major manufacturers.

One thing did immediately become apparent; other than the retailer made ‘generics’, bikes are expensive. When I asked my colleague @geowgeow about one brand of affordable retailer-manufactured own-brand bike, his one word review was "crap." They fact that all bikes seem to use fundamentally the same components (Shimano gears, etc) makes it almost impossible to tell them apart on paper; you either have to mystically ‘know’ or you have to be able to tell by looking and feeling it. Which I obviously can’t do.

In the end, we went for a well-customer-reviewed Trek hybrid to match the one my family got me a few years back, and which I knew from experience of Trek was likely to be decent – and it is!

Interestingly Trek  will only deliver via their resellers (and not direct to consumer), so the store has an opportunity to tune, tweak and assemble the bike for you and guarantee a certain quality of experience.  Of course, the fact you then have to take a wheel off to get it in the car doesn’t help you when you get home, so it took an amount of fiddling to stop the wheels rubbing against the mudguards…

One-track, fifth-gear mind

Chief Propellerhead When we bought our family car just before Emily was born, Amanda pretty much just gave in under the persistent and tedious weight of my talking about it. Every car we saw on the street was pointed out, analysed, I’d read a review and considered or dismissed it as a possibility. When we eventually went to buy the car, we pretty much got the first car on my list – and the first car we test drove – as Amanda was confident that was the best strategy to get me to finally shut up. It worked – when you’ve taken that decision and sunk the cash into it you really don’t want to be considering what might have been.Now that we’re thinking of replacing Horse, the aging but reliable Skoda Fabia, the old obsession beast is rearing its head again. I’m trying to be more restrained, but if there’s anyone that does want to yammer on about fuel-efficiency, boot capacity, 0-60 speeds, resale value, performance etc., please let me know as you’ll provide me with a valuable outlet!

Interaction with brands on Twitter

Twitter logoI’ve tweeted at a few brands recently to satisfy my blog-curiosity about one thing or the other. @amazonuk to ask about packaging,  @mini to point out that its website wasn’t working properly in Chrome, @duracelluk to ask about its AA battery charger, @qwertee_com to let them know about my t-shirt review (and give them an opportunity to defend the quality of the cotton) and possibly one or two other media programmes (the Apprentice, Game of Thrones et al).

Now I know that the media programmes will be inundated with mentions, and perhaps even Amazon might get more tweets than it could cope with, but Mini was the only company to get back to me. The theory of having a direct connection to a business is a good one but it seems that not everyone is coping as well with providing an outlet to direct interaction as you’d hope.

I think brands should stick a disclaimer up there if the account isn’t monitored, or if people don’t intend to respond. It’s only fair to set expectations…. You can understand why even slightly arbitrary studies like this one come to the conclusions that they do… Or maybe it’s that – as a mere customer and a PageRank 2 blog writer – I don’t merit their attention…

Looking at low emissions cars

Volkswagen Golf BlueMotion

Hybrids have a bad rep. They’re inexplicably shaped like dinosaur eggs – closer to a Jetsons view of what a modern car should look like than any actual designers, one would assume – famed for sluggish performance, plagued by technology issues and challenged on their supply chain eco-credentials – after all, if the components have travelled the world seven times over to allow the car to be assembled in the first place, then how much difference to the environment does the ‘hybrid’ make?

This review sums it up:

Eco-friendly cars are often grim, hair-shirted things that you suffer as penance for your emissions, even though they pump out less CO2 than their standard brethren.

Which is why I think its fantastic – although depressingly late to market – that there’s a new wave of environmentally friendly cars rolling off production lines around the world – whether its ‘Greenline’ (Skoda), ‘Bluemotion’ (VW) or ‘EfficientDynamics’ (BMW), the (German, anyway) manufacturers have cottoned onto this eco-friendly thing and are rapidly revising their product line. Since 2007 or so these cars have been entering the market and whilst – in the used car market at least – they still command a premium over their standard rivals, they do provide a number of key benefits thanks to a number of cool bits of technology.

The benefits:

  1. Ludicrous mileage – over 80 MPG in some cases, which will top out older hybrids
  2. Tax-free, mostly, thanks to low emissions
  3. Some of the cars have even lower emissions than many hybrids
  4. (Relatively) normal handling – the car’s body mass index hasn’t been skewed by a heavy battery pack

The tech that gives it this awesome mileage:

  1. Stop/start tech. The engine switches off when the car rolls to a halt (say at a traffic light). For urban driving, this makes a big difference.
  2. Regenerative braking. The kinetic energy lost when the car brakes is captured, generally in the car battery, for later use.
  3. Sill extensions & other aerodynamic tweaks – help seal the car and reduce drag
  4. Engine refinements – high torque diesel, usually
  5. Gear shift indicators – to help you drive more ecofficiently

I’m looking for a possible replacement for Horse (our ageing 68 BHP Skoda Fabia) and am very tempted by one of these cars – specifically the Golf in the above review – but they cost much money. Anyone have any advice?

T-shirt mash-ups, @Qwertee_com review

800px-Wide-Main-Image_RoyalI discovered Qwertee the other day – new, limited edition t-shirt designs daily. The Doctor Who / Winnie the Pooh mash-up got me to spring for an impulse buy and the t-shirt turned up a few days ago.

It’s not bad. I mean, it’s not fruit of the loom grade cotton, and I’m not sure how it’ll hold up to the washing machine, but the print looks great and the t-shirt is both comfortable and fits well – although slightly large  for its size .

I can’t figure out a way to subscribe via RSS to the daily site updates, though, which seems a tactical error. Am I missing something, nice people at Qwertee?

Other designs of note – Malvin and Hobbes, Jumping Jack Flash, Jedi to the Future, Muttley Crew, Sesame Street Fighter and another Firefly favourite – Leaf on the wind.

If it holds up to the laundry I’m likely to become a regular customer…

Experimenting with Waitrose online

Waitrose van | Brand nameWe tried out Waitrose online, on some prompting from friends. The free delivery is great… but the online e-commerce system feels a few years behind Ocado and even No automated lists, limited personalisation and slow load times make the experience slightly agonising, even in a very fast browser (Chrome, obv). There also seems to be a significantly smaller product range than you’d find on Ocado.

It’s not without its positive features: the shopping basket is very good, as is the offer browser and product information screens. It’s just the actual process of shopping that is a bit too slow and fiddly.

I’m hoping that Waitrose can keep me posted of developments to the site as the Ocado delivery charges are steep and I’m not sure Amanda is sufficiently convinced of the virtues of online grocery shopping to agree to a scheduled commitment (which comps delivery on Ocado).

What do other people think? In store, online, and who with? This is all part of my bid to escape the supermarket lottery of life, which has us stuck with local Tesco stores…

Amazon packaging – the environment is overrated

Amazon packaging with tiny productStraight up – let me tell you – I love Amazon Prime. I’ve been a customer for years and the convenience that £50 a year or so gives you is phenomenal – next day delivery on EVERYTHING they sell themselves. Amazing.

And often I’ve been impressed at the ‘limited wrapping’ options available on some products – where they’ll tape a USB key to the inside of an envelope or something before they post it to you. Great stuff there, guys.

But something went wrong this weekend. I ordered a ‘food umbrella’ – one of those things you put over the fruit bowl when the weather gets warmer to keep the flies out. At £2.25, it was not an expensive purchase, and as a folded up piece of lace doily, essentially, it wasn’t heavy or bulky.

So I was a little surprised at the box (pictured). Not sure what in Amazon’s P&P system went wrong there but  we were couriered a box that you could probably have squeezed about 100 of the umbrellas into – in which sat a single, solitary, lonely food umbrella.

D’oh! I’m suddenly curious as to whether this was an automated error or if someone actually went to the time and trouble to package that in there. I think I’ll ask Amazon UK on Twitter and will keep you posted! I’ve also submitted the picture via Amazon’s packaging feedback website – hopefully help make the service that little bit better!

The supermarket lottery of life

OcadoWe’re trying a different online grocery service – Ocado. After years of using and finding that it had by far the best online experience of all the online grocery stores (I’ve tried Sainsbury, Iceland and Ocado in years gone by), a friend who worked for John Lewis’ consistent evangelism and a couple of vouchers, coupled with a persistent desire for us to eat healthy, provided the push we needed to give it a another go. Over the years they have revamped their website and their delivery service is superb – slick and seamless where Tesco’s is clunky and fiddly. One example of this is that they bring the groceries in bags which they collect on their next delivery, ensuring they can walk straight to your kitchen and not faff around with trays or pallets and you’re still empowered to be moderately eco-friendly as far as the bags are concerned. Also one-hour booking slots, etc.

It struck me that online delivery services free you from the supermarket lottery of life. Whilst proximity to good groceries was an important factor in us choosing our home, we weren’t specific about the grocer, and as it happens we’re in a Tesco catchment area – the nearest Waitrose is 15 miles away, Morrisons and Sainsbury’s about twice the distance of the local Tesco. This means you get accustomed to a certain level of mediocrity from your shopping after a while, and you get constrained by the choices Tesco imposes on you. One massive bonus of the village we’re in is we have two local butchers, so at least for meat we have some extra choice… and of course our garden will hopefully soon provide some veg.

That said, the delivery charges on Ocado are steep and we’re not sure yet if we’re going to set up a recurring shop (which gives you free delivery) as there is a certain joy and satisfaction in actually going to a shop and getting inspiration for meals that way. OK, it’s not Rick Stein wandering through the markets of a Mediterranean town, but it’s less sterile than hitting a virtual checkout…