I’ve always considered myself an advocate for shopping locally, for supporting local businesses where I can. So when our washing machine broke down recently, we decided to purchase one from Beacon Electrical Kingsbridge, a local Devon based electrical and appliances retailer which I believed would offer a more personal service. I’m sad to say though, my instincts to support the local high street on this occasion were proven entirely wrong.

One evening, after just 5 weeks of use, the new Hotpoint washing machine we had purchased from Beacon Electrical became incredibly noisy, making I expect much the same noise were I washing a bag of old spanners. So the following day I called Beacon Electrical in Kingsbridge. I admit anticipating some empathy for the problem, and perhaps even a certain amount of embarrassment that a new appliance they had supplied had gone so wrong after just a few short weeks. Therefore I was taken aback by the Branch Manager’s approach to the call, as the moment I mentioned our machine had an issue his tone changed to one of exasperation I felt, aggression even. There was certainly no sharing in our disappointment of the new machine breaking down so soon, certainly no empathy for us having a problem, indeed he made me feel like we were the problem by the tone he adopted.

It got worse when I went on to enquire if it would involve having the machine replaced. Like many people I guess, I don’t like to take things back, I just don’t enjoy confrontations or complaints, and so I admit I’m not well versed in my consumer rights. The manager at Beacon Electrical I felt went on the attack at this enquiry, insisting as the machine was just outside of 30 days olds, that we were not entitled to a replacement machine. I have to admit his manner of speaking to me during this part of the conversation, probably made up my mind that we should indeed insist on a new machine rather than a repair.

So after the call to Beacon Electrical I checked into this, and according to the person with whom I spoke at Citizens Advice, what Beacon had advised wasn’t true, indeed in the first six months they stated that you can decide if you would like a repair or a replacement. However, if you agree to have a repair, you then can’t change your mind. If you are misled into thinking you are not entitled to a replacement and accept a repair, then the opportunity for a replacement is lost, even if you were misled.

Citizens Advice went on to suggest my best course of action from here would be to send an email to them, stating that I’m exercising my rights under the Consumer Rights Act and that I request a replacement. This is what I therefore did, to their manager at their head office in Plymouth though, since their manager in Kingsbridge had been so off from the outset on the phone.

The first email I received in reply was actually the receipt of purchase intended for a Mr K Tawadrous of Harrow. Them sending me the private correspondence intended for another customer didn’t do anything to instil any confidence in them at this point, it was a bizarre thing to do. So I wrote again, and in the end spoke to a manager in the Plymouth store who went on to backup the decision of the Kingsbridge branch management, and stated Citizens Advice didn’t know the law on this matter. I felt this was a strange position to take since Trading Standards now direct you to Citizens Advice for consumer advice, and so I might be wrong but I’m guessing they have a good idea on consumer law. An article on the Which? website in which they state ‘You can choose whether you want the goods to be repaired or replaced’ (click here to view) also seems to backup the advice from Citizens Advice.

Luckily for us when I called Hotpoint directly myself, they entirely understood a new machine shouldn’t have a drum fail, as had their engineer when he visited, and they agreed to just arrange to have the machine exchanged.

Regardless of the law, even if Beacon Electrical are allowed to choose between repair or replacement, why not in such circumstances just make the effort, keep the customer happy and just replace it and send the other back to the manufacturer? Putting the issue of a repair or replacement to one side, why not just be nice to a customer who is having a problem? In the end that’s what has upset me as a customer, the machine is replaced, the problem has gone, but I’m still boiling mad when I think of how I was spoken to by the manager at Beacon Electrical in Kingsbridge. I’m sure it’s not hard for him to understand the frustration a customer might feel after buying a new washing machine, only for it to break down after 5 weeks. For me the most job satisfaction in retail would come from turning an unhappy customer into a happy one, and increasing word-of-mouth recommendations by giving good service, building relationships and being nice to people. Any retailer can be friendly and helpful when selling you something, but it’s when something goes wrong that they can actually get a chance to demonstrate their true customer service levels, it could be seen as an opportunity even.

In terms of shopping locally I’m still an advocate for it, I’ve had some great experiences in the past, but obviously that would exclude my shopping at Beacon Electrical in Kingsbridge again. The last time I think I had an issue like this was some twenty years ago with a Roberts alarm clock, bought from another local electrical store called Garnetts Electrical in Settle. There couldn’t be a bigger contrast however, Garnetts proved themselves a company that value their customers and gave amazing service, and so I still talk about how they dealt with it to this day.

Supporting local businesses as I do, I really take no pleasure in writing this publicly viewable, negative blog post about one of them. I normally feel feedback that is kept private is more helpful to everyone concerned, but in this case, after my experience of the management of Beacon Electrical in both Plymouth and Kingsbridge, and after reading some other customer reviews, I can’t help but wonder if the company as a whole has a culture of poor customer service. So in writing this, I hope it might serve to save some of the many older, more vulnerable people living locally in the South Hams area, from the same kind of experience with Beacon Electrical in Kingsbridge. I imagine some people might be quite shaken, were they spoken to in the same way that I was initially by the manager at Kingsbridge.

My concluding thought is this. That in a world of online shopping, expensive town centre parking, and giant out of town national retailers, that things have changed for local independent shops. The only unique selling point that local retails have, is to offer customers a highly personal service and build valued face-to-face personal relationships. Embracing that could mean they still have a place, but if they don’t then I really don’t see what they have to offer anymore, especially now CXM (Customer Experience Management) is so important to large retailers.