Online Sales In Australia: You’ve Got To Get It Right First. Then The Customers Will Come.

There’s still a long way to go before online sales in Australia take off the way they have overseas if my experiences this week with Big W are any indication.

I quite like the idea of online ordering for certain goods. I’m not sure i’d want to do it for foodstuffs, or in great quantities for clothes (although I will buy T-Shirts online). I’ve purchased plenty of online DVDs and games, however. Online sales are, so the pundits say, the future of retailing both here in Australia and worldwide. Except that for a nation that’s so often lauded as being “early adopters” of new technology, we’re apparently lagging in the online sales game, no matter how many Kogans spring forth from the local market.
I got something of a first-hand lesson in the problems that crop up this week.
I’d spotted over at Lifehacker (disclaimer; my brother is the local editor, not that this has a single damn thing to do with the events of the week) that local retailer BigW was having a sale on iTunes cards — buy two, get one free. I needed some iTunes credit (while I’m currently spending a month exclusively with an Android phone over at Hydrapinion, I’m also still running an iPad), so this seemed like a great deal. A few simple clicks later and I’d handed over funds in return for cards.
I even got a confirmation email to say my cards were being shipped out to me. A little wasteful perhaps. All I really need are the relevant codes and nothing needs to be shipped, but perhaps those gifting credit might like the little plastic cards, I suppose, but whatever.
The price was the key thing here; in terms of convenience heading to an actual store and buying cards (and it wouldn’t have to be BigW, obviously) would be quicker, but more expensive. Within two days, the cards dropped into my mailbox. Later that evening (last night, as it happens), I grabbed the cards, headed to my Mac and went to redeem the first code.
Except that I couldn’t. iTunes spat the dummy at the first code. I checked carefully to make sure I’d entered it correctly, but all I could get up was a screen suggesting I enter both the code and the serial number of the card in question so that Apple could determine what was wrong. Cursing internally, I backed out to test the other cards, thinking that one card in every few would have to (in terms of probability and human error) be wonky.

I should get a congratulations message. Instead, this.
I should get a congratulations message. Instead, this.

Except they were all like that. Suddenly, my $150 worth of cards was worth exactly nothing. And I wasn’t left exactly happy. Especially as there’s no real way of working out whether the cards were bodgy, if I’d fallen victim to somebody else randomly generating the codes and getting lucky at my expense, or if BigW had stuffed up in some way.
So I hit the support lines. Apple first, because I’d had experience sitting in queues at actual BigW stores when people have had problems (usually with scratching the whole code off in a frenzy, something I’ve never managed to do) being shifted off to Apple. Not exactly what consumer protection laws state locally, that. To the best of my knowledge (I’m not a lawyer), your contract is with the merchant who sells you the goods, not their suppliers, and they should deal with such issues. Anyway…
One form filled out with Apple later, albeit with the wrong version of iTunes selected — it only went up to 10.2, and current iTunes is 10.3 — and I was told that I’d have to wait up to 24 hours for my problem to be resolved.
I then tweeted about this, and was told by one of my twitter followers (not a Big W employee, it should be noted)  that “often” BigW seems to “forget” to authorise cards it sends out.
Truly? That’s a really dumb mistake to make.
And I’m a stubborn consumer who doesn’t like being told to wait over issues that are, frankly speaking, not my fault at all. So I decided to flip the coin and head over to BigW’s site. Although I’m not hopeful based on their Web site terms of Returns (not that I want a return; I’d like them to work!). From their returns policy:
Sometimes it may be dangerous or may not be possible to assess the product in-store due to the nature of the product (for example if it is an electrical, software or technology item). In these circumstances, we will send the product to the manufacturer or their repair agent to determine the issue and its resolution.

Which to my ears sounds like “We’ll shift the problem over to Apple” in the waiting. There’s also an exclusions list at the bottom that specifies
Pre-paid vouchers (including Recharge cards, WISH Gift Cards, iTune music cards, prepaid MasterCard etc).
Although to be fair to BigW, I initially misread that and hit the roof; it is in fact associated with the section above it dealing with ‘change of mind’ returns. Fair enough, I suppose.
Anyway, I sent through an email to BigW online support and heard back… nothing. Not a sausage. I gave it some time today to check, and wait, and check the cards again, and… nothing.
So I called up. Ten minutes of painful jazz tootin’ hold music later, I spoke to a customer sales rep who (and I quote) said that “Yeah, this seems to be happening a lot today. I’ve had another call from another customer who had cards that wouldn’t work”.
The solution? I’ve emailed through the relevant serial numbers and details to BigW and again… I wait. Apparently it should all be fixed “within an hour”, which as I write this, gives it twenty minutes to start working. Again, no confirmation that I’ve sent an email through, no word from them at all.
Update: An hour’s passed. Guess what the state of those iTunes cards is?
Obviously in any system mistakes can happen. I’m concerned (and I’ve left a query hanging in my email to BigW) that they’re selling iTunes cards en masse without bothering to authorise them in the first place. I get why it’s a necessary step (they’d otherwise be amongst the easiest and most valuable things to steal from stores), but that just makes it all the more pressing that in selling online, where the goods can’t be held and you don’t have any kind of face to face dealings with an actual staff member that these kinds of steps are followed every single time.
Equally, it’s how you deal with those mistakes that’ll mark out an online merchant that’s worth dealing with. If you’re going to use email as a correspondence mechanism (and if you’re online and you’re not, leave the business NOW), the flow of information is vital. So far, all I’ve heard from Big W is a deafening silence.
Back to the phones…
So, I called through. Or at least I tried to. Every time I’d select option #2 from the phone menu (Big W Online) and then option #3 (not an order waiting q or a how to order q)… and then it’d ring about four times and then hang up.
I tried this around four times in quick succession. Same result every time. To make matters even more ‘fun’, it’s getting late on a Friday afternoon, and Monday is a public holiday. I either get this dealt with now, or it’s a further 72 hour wait before I can call again.
As an aside, it also occurred to me in this age of social networking that it might be worth pinging the @BigW account. Except again there it seems as though Big W has kind of got the idea of social networking in form, but not function. Two tweets, both more than a month old, do not a social networking account make.
Red rag to a bull time.
So I called through and rather deliberately chose options #2 (BigW Online) and then option #1, even though technically my goods had been delivered. This line had people who actually answered, and gave the same stock replies as the first chap I’d spoken to. I rather clearly stated this wasn’t enough, and asked to at least get confirmation that the email with the relevant codes that I’d sent through had, indeed, been received.
Apparently (after a long hold wait) they agreed this was so. The support line closes at 6pm. Let’s just say at this point I’m expecting to call back at around 5:30pm.
No, I’m wrong. At 4:55 I tried the first code.. and it worked. Which means they’ve finally actually done what they should have done in the first place. Still no actual contact to the customer, and the presence of a team specifically for activating iTunes cards suggests that it may be policy to send them out without activating them, so I think it’s safe to say that I won’t be doing a whole lot of online shopping with Big W in the near future.

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