Monday, December 15, 2008

Excellent Service from Lush

Shopping in the UK can be a miserable experience. Overpriced goods, often out of stock, lack of choice, and terrible customer service abound.

Some stores are exceptions. The exceptions that prove the rule, if you like.

At the weekend I was getting some gifts in Cambridge. Melanie likes goods from Lush, so putting together a selection box is in order.

Now I'm a complete dunce in a shop. Especially a cosmetics shop. No sense of smell, they've reorganised the shop so I don't know where anything is.

So there I am looking perplexed in a packed shop, when a friendly assistant asks if I need some help. She shows me where the first item on my list is, then helpfully offers to carry the basket as I'm struggling with all my other bags and the shopping list, and we fill the basket up. They do a gift wrapping service and, as I was a bit short of time, one of the other assistants wrapped my goods there and then.

All in all, excellent service - perfectly helpful while unobtrusive, with a smile - leading to a happy and satisfied customer who will no doubt be back.

Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Economic pointlessness

Would you trust these people to run the country?

So the chancellor announced a cut in VAT from 17.5% to 15%. Supposedly to kickstart the economy, but it's obviously a pointless wast of time and effort.

It's going to have no real effect: shops in the UK don't advertise an untaxed sticker price and then add tax at the till. So the sticker price - which is largely rounded to a convenient looking number such as 99p - will largely be unchanged, so consumers won't benefit.

It's going to be a nightmare to implement. Businesses are going to have to redo all their finances. And in the unlikely event they reprice, that's going to require effort they won't want to do.

Consumers aren't going to notice any difference, so this isn't going to lead to an increase in consumer confidence.

Not only that, but attempting to reduce prices at a point when inflation is already falling isn't exactly gong to stabilise matters. And then there's the 2.5% increase to kick everyone in the teeth at the end of 2009.

And the counter to this is an increase in taxes on income. So everyone sees the money in their pocket going down (again) and simply responds by cutting back on spending.

So, these changes will at best be completely pointless, and are likely to seriously harm the economy.

It's clear that what should have been done is to reduce taxes on income. In addition to the direct stimulus to the economy, people actually get a positive feeling from having more cash in their pockets.

Friday, September 19, 2008

On yer bike

I'm very pleased that I've managed to cycle to work every day this week. The weather has been pretty good (although it can be a bit chilly in the mornings) and now Hannah's at secondary school there's no need to ferry anyone to school in the car, so I've been taking advantage of it.

Even today, when the cold that's been hovering around me for the last couple of days descended in earnest.

Remember the Sinclair C5? I saw one of those heading the other way one morning this week. Now that's a blast from the past.

Monday, September 01, 2008

Useless shops

It's not just markets that are useless. Shops are going the same way.

The local supermarket has gone steadily down hill over the last few years. (It's only a few minutes walk, so is the obvious choice for most of our shopping.) There are two obvious things that have happened:
  • The choice has shrunk dramatically
  • Many of our favourites can no longer be found

Suppliers don't help out. The 'new improved' recipes they offer taste simply awful. They can't resist destroying a winning formula.

The same is true on the High Street. I decided to go into Cambridge after my Birthday to go round the shops and treat myself - and came home empty handed. The choice was dismal, and the couple of nice items of clothing I found weren't available in my size.

There are all these worries about the economy going into recession, but stores aren't helping themselves by not selling goods consumers want and not having stocks of what they do.

Sunday, August 31, 2008

Mixed Markets

I remember when car boot sales were interesting places to visit. There were always bargains to be had - and the sellers benefited by getting some cash for stuff they would otherwise throw away.

It's been some years, though, since I've been to a car boot sale that has had anything useful. They now seem to be dominated by repeat sellers hawking the same old tired tat, or "professionals" looking to make a profit.

On holiday in Rome, we went to a Sunday Market. Another dead loss - some sellers doing a good job of selling to locals, but also significant numbers of stall purely aimed at ripping off gullible tourists.

Back in the UK, we went to a bank holiday Monday market. And that was even worse. Absolutely nothing of interest, lots of rip-off merchants selling substandard goods at excessive prices (by which I mean significantly more than you can get fully guaranteed on the high street).

It's not all doom and gloom. We went down to London for the afternoon, and went round Camden Markets. And while there is a bit of trash, and you see the same items on multiple stalls, it's got a lot more character, and feels a lot more wholesome. While I didn't come away with anything, I quite enjoyed it.

Roasted in Rome

After our trip to Wales, with the girls back from camp, we headed off to Rome for a short week.

It was dry (we just had one sharp shower) and pretty warm. I'm not overly keen on hot climates - but at least it's better weather than some of the apathetic stuff we have here in the UK that passes for summer!

Rome wasn't quite what I expected. I don't think we saw any of the modern city. What did impress me was the sheer size and extent of what's left of ancient Rome: some of these buildings are huge and were obviously built to last. And it's not just the odd bit of wall, there's acres and acres of buildings.

The Vatican and the Sistine Chapel were a huge disappointment. We queued for hours (continually pestered by tour guides promising us that they could get us in without waiting), and it's largely a tourist machine. The Sistine Chapel was particularly disappointing - OK, it's a decent bit of painting, but it's overrated. And we're all crammed in like sardines into the chapel, with security guards yelling Silence every few seconds, and shouting at and hassling people who ignored the prominent 'no photography' signs.

There was some really interesting stuff in the Vatican museum, that you get pushed past as the throng pushes you through the sausage machine to the Sistine Chapel. I was fascinated by the Gallery of Maps in particular. But generally the whole day was a bit of a washout.

It was late afternoon when we left the Vatican, and we decided to eat locally before heading back to the hotel. And then what I found interesting is that for every block away from the main tourist route, the prices fell basically linearly. So we walked a couple of blocks and ended up in an excellent local restaurant with excellent service and had an excellent meal - a lot less frantic and a lot less expensive than a similar place a couple of streets away. (This pattern was repeated all over Rome - just go down a side street and you'll get a better meal for less.)

We also went to a local water park. And even though it wasn't all that sunny, and I took care to keep in the shade as much as possible, I still got sunburnt.

Wet in Wales

The girls were off to guide camp, so after a couple of decent restaurant meals, we headed off to Wales for a few days.

We stayed at a fabulous self catering place - The Gwalia - not far from Ruthin. It's tucked away now narrow single-track roads, but it's a great place to relax and unwind once you've got there.

We didn't just sit back, though.

One afternoon we went Quad Biking. Just tore around a muddy field on a quad bike for an hour.

Then a couple of mornings White Water Rafting and Gorge Walking. I'm probably getting a bit old for this lark - or, rather, my gammy knees and bad arm are, despite my mental willingness.

Then on the last morning Melanie went off to have a pamper session at a local hotel and spa while I had a ride on the Llangollen Railway.

Sunday, May 25, 2008

Avoiding the private car

We went to the Cambridge Beer Festival yesterday. The nature of the event meant that driving was out of the question, so we had to take the bus.

It's not particularly inconvenient. We can walk round the corner to catch the bus, and it's only a couple of minutes. The bus route is moderately direct, and it's not much further to walk at the other end. Furthermore, the service is frequent - a bus every 10 minutes.

So should have been easy; but in practice travelling in Cambridge by bus is hard work and has often been problematic.

While there's supposed to be a bus every 10 minutes, in reality you wait more in hope than expectation. This case was no different - no bus at 20 to; no bus at 10 to; a bus finally appears at 5 minutes to.

Then we get to the railway station and the bus stops. Everybody has to get off and get on a different bus because this one goes no further.

A bit further on, we get into Cambridge and the bus stops. This time we have to wait 5 minutes for a new driver to take over.

All in all, the journey (it's about 3 miles in a straight line) takes about an hour.

What's more, the total cost - certainly for a family - significantly exceeds that of driving and parking a car.

Is it any wonder that we're having trouble enticing drivers away from their cars?

Tuesday, May 20, 2008

Poor timing

I've just received my tax disc (vehicle license, for those unaccustomed to the terminology).

I paid for it online, which is good. As I did earlier in the year for my TV license.

However, both the tax disc and the TV license have one flaw. They send you the reminder letter about a month before it's due, but you can only pay from the 15th, so you get the reminder about 2 weeks before you can take action on it. Which means that there's a real danger of filing the reminder away meaning to act on it and then completely forgetting about it.

50 quid a tank

Ouch. The price of petrol continues to rise. Filling up over the weekend cost me 50 quid (that's about 100 dollars to our transatlantic brethren).

But with finer weather I'm cycling to work when I can, which helps both my finances and my fitness.

Wednesday, April 30, 2008

Versatile tickets

Or not.

Came to pay for a car park ticket today, and the machine insists that it has to be inserted with the magnetic stripe on top and to the right.

What gives? It's trivially easy to make the thing read it whatever way you put it in, and pretty well any machine does that. But not these brand new ones, it would appear.

Sunday, April 20, 2008

Britain's got Talent?

I wouldn't normally watch this, but other family members had it on.

Generally, though, the show proves that its title is false. And the few examples of real talent amongst the talentless rubbish that came forth serve to emphasise the point.

Wednesday, January 02, 2008

Half a bottle?

Why is it that almost all bottles of wine are the same size?

Do I always want to drink exactly the same amount?

Often, we find it would be nice to just have a pleasant glass of wine with a meal, maybe two. It's not that often that we feel like finishing off a whole bottle between us in one sitting.

I reckon the suppliers are missing a trick here - it would be great to be able to get half-litre or half-bottles of wine. Especially decent wines - many of the smaller bottles available are of the more basic varieties and the choice is very limited.