Finding Advice Online

I am a big believer in word of mouth and personal referrals, but I recently realised that more and more, I depend upon online testimonials from strangers when looking to purchase a product or service. For example, in the absence of a referral from a friend, several good online reviews from people on TripAdvisor can convince me to book one hotel over another. However, well-organised sites like TripAdvisor don’t exist for every type of product or service. In these cases, one is left combing search results for some kind of coherent positive or negative comment about the product or company you are searching for.

Aside from TripAdvisor-type sites, I have found personal blogs provide the highest quality results for fair information. I wrote about this initially in 2005, in a feature article for Broken Pencil magazine, wherein I describe how I was able to enjoy the best pizza in Montreal by reading and trusting a review by a local food blogger*. Five years later, personal reviews by bloggers are still helping me find relevant information, though I rarely provide this kind of information myself — until now. Having experienced some extreme highs and lows in terms of product expectations and customer service over the past year or so, I have created this very short list of UK-based companies that provoked extreme positive or negative reactions:

Two thumbs up:
Graze: Graze is a UK-wide healthy snack delivery service. The product itself is excellent, and there’s a fantastic selection. Using their website to plan deliveries and select food preferences was very easy — fun, even. Customer service is truly impressive, with polite and helpful responses that arrive quickly. On the rare occasion that a box failed to arrive or some food wasn’t quite right, customer service never quibbled, and always supplied a replacement product without complaint. I wish every online shopping experience was like Graze.

Schuh eBay Store: This gem of a shop stands out in the sea of shopping possibilities on eBay. The high street Schuh shops are fine, but the eBay shop is used to clear last remaining pairs, end of line items, and shoes with minor damage, and you can pick up some amazing deals. Their customer service is quick to respond, fair, and friendly. They are also fair about shipping costs, and will let you group your purchases (to a limit) for one flat shipping fee.

Two thumbs down:
Dolphin Movers: We used this firm for an international move this year. Every aspect of our experience with the company was poor (bad communication, inaccurate briefing to their subcontractors, et cetera). The rock-bottom low point was trying to get a refund on the rental of some equipment that we paid for upfront, but was cancelled well before it was to be used. It took dozens of emails, numerous phone calls, and several months to get a refund. It was a very clear case, and they never disputed that we were entitled to the refund, but kept stalling us for a totally unreasonable amount of time. It was infuriating and wasted a substantial amount of my time. (If you are looking for a good international mover, try Allied Pickfords, who I had a very good experience with on another move.)

Parcelmonkey: I used this service to ship an important document, which needed to be at its destination to meet a deadline. Despite being warned at the start of the process that I absolutely needed access to a printer to complete the booking, I was never issued a shipping label. I also never received a working tracking number, and sending support tickets to customer service was useless. Despite the fact that the status of the order still says “pending” in my account, I found out through other means that the document was in fact picked up, though I’m uncertain if it arrived in time for the deadline. Utterly shambolic.

* The best pizza in Montreal, if you really must know, is at Amelio’s.

Postscript: An article just out in the New York Times also highlights the perils of online shopping, especially when any review (even a negative one) can push a company up in search engine rankings.


Apparently, today, a bunch of people in the UK slept in one hour because of a bug in the iPhone alarm clock app

I would just like you to ponder the wider ramifications of this for a second. According to the news today, a glitch in the iPhone alarm clock software caused a significant portion of the UK workforce to sleep in by an hour this morning, making people late for work, generally confused, et cetera.

I am reminded of the moment at PICNIC this year when Soenke Zehle said he was astonished to watch Steve Jobs announce that people are now able to print from their iPads — and receive a standing ovation for this.

We are happy with so little. We depend on these devices so much. What will the next news story look like?

Art & Culture Asides

How Not To Make A Difference

Rosa Parks - someone who made a real difference.

I recently attended a course at “The School of Life“, in London, UK. This course was called “How To Make A Difference”. It cost £30 and featured wine, sandwiches, and cake along with a couple of hours of lecturing and group activity. It unfortunately taught me nothing new, and in fact made me feel ashamed to be there: what kind of privileged middle-class jerk was I, attending a class on how to make a difference, when I know full well what to do? When I know full well what those who are not in my elevated position have to do just to carve out a tiny bit of space for themselves?

It didn’t help that the examples of the “changemakers” in this “class” (oh yeah, I am using quotes very recklessly and lazily!) presented were 98% white males, negating long and powerful histories of activism around the world by, uh, everyone else.

I pointed out this terrible omission to the teacher, and so my duty to “The School of Life” is done.

Instead of writing angry screeds to Alain de Botton (heavily involved in the establishment of said “school”), or overly angry screeds here (I could go into much further detail), I decided I’ll write something cursory here about my experience, as a kind of word to the wise to my friends and associates, and hold my own event here in Amsterdam, on How To Make A Real Difference. (Hat tip to Alex for putting this idea in my head).

Stay tuned for details on this event.

10/06/2010 update: Alain de Botton himself has been in touch to discuss my concerns in depth. Kudos to Alain and the School for being very attentive to my feedback.


Narcissism Evolved (or devolved)

Image removed at Melissa Whitworth's request

1994-2009: In a recent article on the Telegraph, Melissa Whitworth describes the phenomenon of “phototherapy”: “For many women who are not ill, phototherapy is a chance to step away from the humdrum monotony of everyday life. … it’s a chance for many women “to have a pin-up moment away from their busy schedules, the screaming kids, work, household duties and family”.” Ms. Whitworth underwent some phototherapy herself (see results above), enjoying a “pin-up moment” that she deemed “brave and shocking”. Well, let’s see…

From the GlamourShots Facebook group.

1990: “After years of success in special events photography, Candid Color Systems® introduced a new company targeting the female portrait market called Glamour Shots®. Knowing that women liked to be pampered, Counts’ brainchild filled a niche in the formal photography business by offering a complete session to its customers which included a personalized consultation, makeover, hairstyling, wardrobe changes from a vast clothing stock in the store, a fun photography session and what is considered a first for this industry, the customers could actually view their proofs on a video monitor right after their session and order their pictures instantaneously.”

1890: Oscar Wilde published “The Picture of Dorian Gray”. The novel describes how the beautiful Dorian sells his soul, so that a portrait of him will grow old but his own beauty will not fade. “”How sad it is! I shall grow old, and horrid, and dreadful. But this picture will remain always young. It will never be older than this particular day of June. . . . If it was only the other way! If it was I who were to be always young, and the picture that were to grow old! For this–for this–I would give everything! Yes, there is nothing in the whole world I would not give!””