The Emperor's New Clothes (06/01/13)

Too busy to get to the high street? Then go online. As long as you never, ever go out

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Online shopping – it's the busy person's lifeline, isn't it? Any time, day or night, there at your fingertips is a whole world of retail, millions of pages of new things, searchable, discounted and yours for a few clicks. It's shopping you can do in your bathrobe. Just try doing that in Toys R Us. There's no travel, car parking, crowds to wriggle through, heavy purchases making the plastic bag handles cut into your hands, rush, queuing or hassle. What could possibly go wrong?

Quite a lot, it turns out. What you have done – the part of the transaction confirmed by that reassuring "confirmation of order" email in your inbox – is the easy electronic bit. Now comes the hard, practical part: getting your buy moved from a warehouse on some windswept industrial park near Droitwich or Warrington to a depot in your vague vicinity, and then delivered to you – the busy person with the full-time job and active social life, remember – at a time when you're at home. And this, in terms of what delivery companies define as normal working hours, is not much of the time. And success, of course, still depends on the deliverers having the correct address for you, and having been given the water filter you paid for, as opposed to the hairdryer ordered by a woman with the same name and similar-sounding road in another town in your county.

Thank God, then, for shops. They have products you can examine, touch and appraise. You can see – as you cannot online – why one apparently similar product is cheaper than another. (It's made entirely of plastic.) And, having made your choice, you can take it away with you. If shops were invented tomorrow, the person who came up with them would be hailed as a genius.

And they have one more asset: shop assistants, possibly the most unfairly maligned workers in Britain. One example: week before Christmas, I went into a well-known chain of women's shops to buy a dress for my wife. I had the undivided attention of two assistants who held various possibilities against themselves so I could make my choice. And they found a nice box for it. You don't get that sort of service online.

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