How a missing salmon ruined my Christmas

I don't expect anyone to weep, but there is something dispiritingly British about the whole business
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The Independent Online

The cookery writer Nigel Slater, whose memoir Toast was one of the treats of 2003, predicts that mail-order food will increase in popularity in 2004. He also anticipates a big year for all-day brasseries, fine wines by the glass and designer chocolates, but it was the mail-order thing that caught my eye, because at Christmas we had a Bad Experience.

With hordes of friends and relatives to feed last week and this, we placed an order of well over £300 with the London-based mail-order company Forman & Field, the most expensive single item a £54.95 package of wild smoked salmon.

This was to be our starter for 10, no conferring, on Christmas Day. The consignment was due to arrive on 23 December, and indeed did, but without the salmon. My wife duly made a panicky phone call to Forman & Field, to be told that the salmon had accidentally been left behind in the warehouse, and could not now be delivered before Christmas. The woman at the other end was apologetic. "We will offer you a full refund," she added, although rather as if she was proposing to do us a favour.

On Christmas Eve we put out an all-points bulletin for wild smoked salmon, but it's a delicacy you search for in vain in rural Herefordshire, unless you hook it, wrestle with it and smoke it yourself. We made do with pheasant paté.

Yesterday we contacted Forman & Field again. I spoke to the dispatch manager, who conceded that for a company built on its reputation for smoked salmon, it had been an "embarrassing and stupid" mistake. By way of compensation, he offered either a refund, or a 20 per cent discount on the salmon, or a 20 per cent discount on a future order.

I replied that there would be no future order, that we had been badly let down by "Britain's oldest and leading salmon smokery", and that I thought they should refund the £54.95 and send the salmon anyway. "I don't think that level of compensation is appropriate," he said. By now, the embarrassing and stupid mistake had become "a simple packing error". When I informed him that I might write about the episode, he accused me of bullying him.

So, in a lemon pistachio nutshell, that's our festive story. With disasters all around the world, it needs a sense of perspective. I don't expect anyone to weep for our diminished Christmas table. Yet it strikes me that there is something dispiritingly British about the whole business.

Last year we spent what to us was a small fortune with Forman & Field. We did the same this year. We would have done so next year and the year after that, too, had they been prepared to recover our goodwill, priced only £54.95. After all, the company's produce, if it arrives, is excellent. The wild smoked salmon that didn't arrive, however, has paradoxically left a thoroughly nasty taste in the mouth. As has the realisation that the restoration of goodwill is dependent on us, not them. To get our 20 per cent discount, we have to give them more of our money.

When I lived in the United States, I found that companies that failed to fulfil their obligations were prepared to go to almost any lengths to repair the relationship with their customers. Doubtless that's partly because America is absurdly litigious, and that malfunctioning companies are terrified of a threatening letter from Grabbitt, Baggitt and Leggitt of Akron, Ohio, but it's also partly because theirs is a service culture and ours is not. To make a justified complaint about poor service to a self-respecting American, is to administer a sharp slap in the chops. There, the customer is almost always right. Here, the customer is all too often a pain in the behind.

So, mail-order companies need to be less British and more American about the way they operate. They need to understand that when people order over the internet, in particular, they are not surrendering their right to attentive, personal service. Because with our orders comes our trust, and they lose our trust at their economic peril.

I have a friend who recently ordered a book through the internet shopping emporium Amazon. They sent the wrong book. He alerted them to the mistake.

They promptly sent the right book, and told him to keep the other one. Thus was an error converted into good business practice. He cheerfully continues to use Amazon, and has spread the word that their cock-ups can yield the odd free book.

Mail-order food, being perishable, is especially in need of good business practices, of which prompt and reliable dispatch is the very least we should expect. Above all at Christmas. I don't expect Forman & Field get it wrong very often. But when they do they should, like Amazon in my friend's case, make proper reparations. It's not generosity, though heaven knows they owe us some; it's good sense.