Coming Soon: Your Shopping Hell


With the high streets in trouble and shopping malls not always proving to be as exciting as we’d hoped, corporations are punting around for ways of making it interesting to shop again.

London’s vast King’s Cross Coal Drops project (ie. fancy mall) is in the press for the wrong reasons. This POPS (Privately Owned Public Space) has the most sophisticated facial recognition system in the world, but what happens to all the data they’re privately gathering? It can’t be going towards improving security. The place is guarded like Fort Knox already.

This is meant to be the future. Nicknamed ‘Retail Westeros’, it’s a high-end affair of shops containing a handful of tiny dresses and strappy shoes, lifestyle shops that don’t appear to be selling anything but have raw bars, beard wax and a few expensive household knick-knacks. This is the home of the £15 tea towel and the £15 cup of coffee. There’s hardly ever anyone here. Some friends from Dubai visited and loved it.

Now, at its apex, it has a gigantic flagship Samsung store. Having had my phone stolen, I ventured into it with a pal of mine, the self-described ‘fat, bearded, ginger’ Roger, who likes to laugh and hates pretension.

At the door we’re greeted by a tiny man whose name I think may be Rupesh. He’s preventing casual access to the store, blocking the way like a restaurant’s Maitre D. He smiles and talks, God how he talks, questioning us about what we’re here for. He’s wearing a dog tag around his neck that reads; ‘Rupesh. Yogi. Father. Good Listener.’ Roger tells him that for a good listener he has an awful lot of patter. He smiles and smiles and says he will take us to our own guru.

Now I have my guard up. I say I just want to look at a phone. ‘This,’ he says, waving a hand around the vast space, ‘is an experiential store, so let me find a guide to accompany you.’ I guess we look like tealeafs because he’s clearly not going to let us anywhere near the goods without a chaperone. He introduces us to three Generation Z types at an empty workbench, who look like Scientologists, smiling and nodding. One is chosen to attach himself to us.

The store has VR pods and walls screens the size of cinemas. It is a cathedral of minimal taste and natural finishes. There appear to be hardly any customers, but then I realise that’s because each one is attached to a guru, each being wafted around the retail experience in a manner that suggests they’re on a futuristic funfair ride.

I’ve made a huge mistake. I thought this was a shop but it’s ‘a creative and digital playground’.

Samsung staff are highly trained in banter. I had already checked out a phone in Fnac, the lovely ramshackle European chain, which has a concession there. I’d tried the latest Note phone and told the friendly salesman that I was really an Apple person. He cheerfully admitted that was a problem, because syncing everything wasn’t quite as simple as it’s been promised. Here though, in the Samsung mothership, the problem was ignored for there was a bigger problem.

‘Our recent launch has been such an incredibly huge success,’ says the next guru clinging to us like a rock-pool limpet, ‘that we’re only taking advance orders now.’ So the shop has nothing to actually sell, unless you want a TV. That doesn’t put a dent in anyone’s enthusiasm. Perhaps I should try out the VR pod, which is rather like the engineer’s chair from ‘Alien’.

No, because that’s a space covered by a different guru – God forbid we should be left to browse unattended for a second – we might run amuck and have an experiential breakdown. I spot the phones in the distance in what turns out to be a display lacking the experiential buzz, six phones tethered to a bench with metal cables, suggesting we’re actually in Dixons. Look out, the gurus are back! Three of them now, with Rupesh hovering in the background beaming wildly, as if he might be whipped if we leave without signing up for something. The gurus’ banter has taken a passive-aggressive turn as Roger pushes back about price and (un)availability.

Suddenly the Good Listener suggests that it’s a bad time to shop here because there’s a presentation going on somewhere else in the store and the hive mind can’t give us quite the full service retail experience we so clearly need. I suggest we come back another time, they agree with too much enthusiasm, and we flee to the nearest pub. The ‘experience’ was like being smothered to death with scented pillows, a gruesome mash-up of ‘Gattacca’, ‘Westworld’ and ‘Passengers’ with a touch of ‘Brazil’ thrown in.

It’s not the staff’s fault – they’re following scripts and doing exactly what is required of them – but this is London, not Guangzhou or San Fran, and this kind of suffocating false joy doesn’t play well.

I was teetering on the edge of buying a Samsung phone and mashing it into my all-Apple home set-up, but this not only put me off – it drove me back to Apple. I’ll wait for the next-gen phones. How bad can not having a phone for a couple of months be? Didn’t civilisation survive without them for almost 2,000 years? Because if this is the future of shopping, I’m in Dante’s fourth circle of hell at least.

28 comments on “Coming Soon: Your Shopping Hell”

  1. Peter Tromans says:

    It’s easier to go to Dixons-Currys-PCWorld-Carphone or whatever they call themselves these days.

  2. Martin Tolley says:

    Lucky you Mr F – at least you got someone to talk to you. My experience in Samsung Neverland in Milton Keynes also involved the bouncer but he didn’t get to me before I’d snuck past him and into the bowels of the store. I’d located a rack of covers for Mrs T’s new tablet and was unhooking one from the display when I was told I couldn’t do that myself, someone would have to do if for me and I had to wait at the far end of the store. Ever obedient (why?) I was positioned behind a line on the carpet ten feet away from a tableful of black-shirted teenagers and told one of them would fulfil my experience in a few moments. Feeling bold at this point I protested I didn’t want an experience, I just wanted to buy what was hanging on the wall – grave shaking of head and jazz hands followed and my position on the carpet was pointed out with emphatic pecking of the index finger. The blackshirts talked amongst themselves for a good five minutes, avoiding any attempt at eye contact. The bouncer assumed his correct position at the door way. A zen-like calm then descended. I left unhindered and with £30 still warm and safe in my back pocket. Amazon never lets you down…

  3. John Howard says:

    Wow, what a horrible experience. Thank you for trying it out for us so that I never have to go there myself. As for Samsung.. Bloody Hell. Imagine Arthur in there. Please….

  4. Ken Mann says:

    Went to Coal Drops when it opened. My wife and I concluded there was simply no reason for us ever to go there again.

  5. Roger says:

    I’ll keep using old tin cans with string connecting them.
    A friend who visited the London Apple Shop said they should give the Scientologists lessons in how to run a cult. This sounds even worse.

  6. Eliz Amber says:

    This is my worst nightmare: one of the reasons I prefer to shop online, where I don’t have to talk to a real person. I hate it when a continual series of salespeople are asking if I need any help. (Of course, when I find the thing I want, it’s always the item with no price on it, and then the salespeople disappear.)

    For the record, my Samsung went completely dead a few months ago, apparently a feature of their phones. I bought a Moto and I love it.

  7. snowy says:

    You stuck at four? [Avarice and Prodigality]

    I would have been straight into six. [Heresy, at least in their eyes]

    Moving rapidly back up to five. [Wrath]

    And leaving before it all gets a bit seven. [Violence]

    [There are more interesting phones around if one is prepared to go away from the common herd.

    Fairphone 3, well it’s Fairtrade Certified to be free of er… things that people who worry about things – er.. worry about. And it is user repairable/upgradable. [Ideal for cack-handed eco-warriors.]

    The phone that was proudly ‘Born in London’, WileyFox – ‘Died in London’ largely unmourned, because nobody ever heard about the thing.

    The Cosmo Communicator, [who picked that name?], is a dual screen phone with a real physical qwerty keyboard. A winner for those that really like typing.

    [Those that ever lusted after a Psion 5 might want to start dropping really heavy hints before December! Or wait until the Jan. sales when the price of the pervious model ‘Gemini’ should drop quite a bit.]

    None are ‘fruit-based’, the last plans to let you pick your own OS in a few months.]

  8. Roger says:

    I’d better add that I’m not the Roger featured above, though I strongly resemble him, in opinions at least.

  9. Cornelia Appleyard says:

    The last few times I ventured into Curry’s, despite having the items on display, they didn’t have them in stock, and volunteered to order them online for me. When asked why I couldn’t just do that myself, there was no reply. In fact, I went to Argos a couple of doors away, where the items weren’t on display, but were in stock, and cheaper.
    Anyone fancy a trip to King’s Cross dressed as Arthur and friends to see what happens?

  10. SimonB says:

    Sounds wonderful, must book some train tickets to come and experience the place soon. No, hang on, maybe I could just poke myself in the eyes instead.

    What a horrendous sounding place. I quite liked Coal Drops Yard as a concept and the overall architecture, but not my kind of shops.

  11. Brooke says:

    Blame the consultants e.g. Accenture, who produced research (using the term lightly) indicating consumers wanted more personalized experience and more concept stores. Enter then the marketing gurus. CFOs will figure out that this gobblety gook doesn’t translate into revenue; then see what happens.
    Re: Cornelia’s Curry experience, consultants recommended retailers take a facilitative approach–encouraging in-store customers to order on-line, because consumers are going to order online anyway!

    Unfortunately I live on other side of pond, but would love to dress up as Alma with her church ladies and go pray over Admin’s yogi, father and listener.

  12. Peter Tromans says:

    I like Sony phones because they seem to take brilliant photos. That’s a statement that would have made no sense to me a few years ago.

    Martin – very well done for resisting the black shirts.

  13. Roger Gray says:

    If anything it was worse than Chris has managed to convey. The fat ginger bloke p.s. I too REALLY want to see Arthur run amok in here. Just a few page short story would do the trick. The culture clash would be truly awe inspiring

  14. Ian Luck says:

    That sounds utterly appalling, Chris. It is exactly the sort of place that NEEDS to fail, and sit empty. My tolerance of shop staff interference is extremely low. Seeing the person by the door would have made me walk right past. The whole establishment seems to be made for ‘Sheep’, who can’t exist unless they all look the same, or those sort of people who go round in gangs of five or so, as they only have a fifth of a personality each. This is not the sort of shopping place for someone who, if shown a picture of a Hobby Horse, immediately thinks of (a) Padstow in Cornwall; (b) A small bird of prey; (c) The Dadaist movement, instead of simply a wooden horse head on a stick.
    Thank you for telling us about this hellhole, Chris. I shall seek it out, and avoid it like the plague.

  15. snowy says:



    [The team enters the store spaced 6 seconds apart, each one tackles a clone.]

    “Can I listen to music on this phone?”

    “Yes, all our models support music in any format”

    “OK, can you show me how?” *hands over 78 of Frankie Howard and Margaret Rutherford – ‘Nymphs and Shepherds’*

    “Will I be able to transfer my pictures onto this phone?”

    “Yes, we make that simple with the in-built app.”

    “Excellent” *pours out handbag absolutely stuffed with 35mm slides*

    “Is this model fully resistant to liquids?”

    “Have no fears about that, it is fully sealed and will suffer no harm whatsoever.”

    “Are you quite certain about that?”

    “Yes, it will be absolutely fine.”

    “OK, Chunky – if you quite sure – is this a demo unit?” *opens wax jar of hydroflouric acid*

    “My friend is bringing her phone over from the US could you answer a question for her? Hang-on I’ve got her on my phone – on that talking picture thing!”

    *And…. Cue Brooke & friends!* (didn’t want you to miss out)


    *All assembled join together in – ♪Teach me the Prophets smooth to shun♪*

  16. Ian Luck says:

    Snowy – you don’t, by any chance, read ‘The Chap’, do you? The above is textbook ‘Anarcho-Dandyist’ behaviour. 10/10.
    If you’re not familiar with this publication (which I love, by the way), one of their protests was to enter a branch (never, as the company claims, ‘A Restaurant’) of Muck Donalds. All were dressed in tweeds, flannels, polished shoes, and proper hats, and all demanded Devilled Kidneys. They protested against Muck Donalds’ awful fare in an eminently civil manner, until they were escorted from the premises. Perfect.

  17. Helen Martin says:

    Almost rolling on the floor laughing, Snowy. Still muttering Nymphs and Shepherds, especially the screechy ending!
    If it doesn’t have anything to sell how can it call itself a store? or a retail sales outlet? And if it provides an “experience” couldn’t they have opted for a positive one?
    Rule # umpty-ump The smaller the amount of goods on display the less likely you are to buy anything there. Go to the high street or its equivalent. Find a back street. Especially look for older sales personnel, otherwise known as clerks.
    Just think what the rental on those places must be. Any rational shop owner would be cramming the place with shelves and displays to encourage spending.

  18. Ben M says:

    Chris, you read the NY Times and I’m sure you’ll have read their article on being a late adopter to technology or going for last years model. it’s probably cheaper and would also protect you from a shopping experience created by people who must never go out shopping in the real world.

  19. Inken Purvis says:

    I’m a Brit who lives in the US (yep, I really signed up for the worst of both worlds). So I’m used to the harassment in stores that passes for customer service and the nauseating genuflection that passes for brand loyalty. I have literally run screaming from shops inside a mall (honestly, I really did)! I hate shopping now (and it used to be my reason for living) thanks to this crap. I haven’t been to Kings Cross since the Coal Drops opened and I never will (thank you Mr Fowler!) because it sounds just like my idea of hell.

  20. SteveB says:

    The first shopping mall I was in was in Woodbridge NJ. It was about 1980 I think and we didn’t have anything like that in the UK. i thought it was brilliant!

  21. Ian Luck says:

    In Kevin Smith’s brilliant movie, ‘Clerks’, a character says:
    “This job would be great, if it weren’t for the fuckin’ customers.” I think a lot of retail staff think that way, now.

  22. Rob C says:

    They closed the Samsung store in Stratford as the locals didn’t conform!

    Here in NL it’s worse, you take anything to an Apple Store to get fixed, they take it away for checks and tell you, without fail ‘we need to send it to the ‘Depot’ for repair, back in 2 weeks’ (The Depot is in Romania).
    The Dutch just shrug their shoulders and leave, the Brit, no,suffice it to say that they will bend the rules, but it takes 2.5 hrs of determined, icily polite, rejection of their kind offer, after reading the relevant AppleCare rules & regular!!!1’

  23. Ian Luck says:

    Rule #1 in what I like to refer to as ‘Poncy’ stores: if an item on display has no price, then the staff assume that you won’t be able to afford it. Should you make the mistake of asking, then they KNOW you can’t afford it.
    Keep them on their toes by moving items on display an infinitesamally small amount as you wander round the shop. And buy nothing.

  24. Brooke says:

    Snowy, what a great old thumpin Methodist hymn! Alma and friends would love it (except it’s not evangelical).

  25. Jan says:

    There’s obviously not a pound shop thereabouts so who’s interested?

  26. Anji Doyle says:

    My idea of hell…although it will probably never be oversubscribed, so when I have a few million knocking around in my bank account (ie. never) I will pay a visit to purchase a pair of overpriced strappy shoes and a dress as big as one of my pillowcases.

  27. Ian Luck says:

    Poundland NEEDS to open a branch in there. It would be full of people, day in, day out, whilst the various faux ‘Artisanal dreck’ shops remain empty, save the odd tourist and the occasional sheep.

  28. Wayne Mook says:

    I find in shops with helpful people the following helps. I say I’m looking, when asked for what I’m looking for I say I don’t know that’s why I’m looking.

    Also lots of questions, release the inner 5 year old. ‘What would you look for?’, ‘What’s that?’ and point, ‘No that thing on it?’ ‘Why is this button square?’ ‘Who designed this button?’ ‘It’s not a designer button?’ ‘Do you get a discount for ordinary buttons?’ And the continuous ‘Why?’

    Also take out a note book and start taking notes, and say ‘Could you say that again?’

    I actually enjoy browsing, can’t really do it on line, and I will buy something that takes my fancy, and then it’s in my hands there and then before it’s glamour can drift from my mind.

    When I worked a night shift, shopping in the wee small hours in some massive store had a surreal and comforting feel; there was an unspoken camaraderie between us night people, both shoppers and staff.


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