The iPad 2 – the good, the bad and the backlight leakage

Posted by Chris Green on Thursday April 14 @ 12:20 pm

<b>Apple's iPad 2 offers many improvements over the original, including front and rear cameras, as well as a magnetic screen cover and magent-controlled sleep mode, similar to that found on RIM's BlackBerry devices.</b>

Some of you will know that on launch weekend I decided to splurge and buy an Apple iPad 2. Yes, I did indeed say buy – rather than get hold of a review unit.

There are several reasons for this. Firstly, I’ve had advance access to the iPad 2 in the form of units from the initial launch in the US, so have been able to review test the unit already. Secondly, off the back of that review testing, it quickly became clear that this was a piece of equipment I both wanted and needed to add to my computing kit.

I considered buying the original iPad on several occasions after its launch, but each time (including one time when I arrived in an Apple Store with money to spend on one), I decided against it. Usually, it came down to the fact that the original had no camera at all, let alone a front-facing camera for video conferencing – a ‘killer application’ for a device like the iPad.

Fortunately, with the iPad 2 Apple rectified this and added both a high resolution rear camera and a low-resolution front camera, bringing the iPad 2 into line with the iPhone and 4th generation iPod Touch.

But why buy one so early? Well, I have always been an early adopter (despite the early birthing pains that have to be endured when you buy anything from the first production run), but mostly, it comes down to the camera and integrated microphone. For me, the ability to use the iPad 2 for Skype calls and video conferencing is a massive help. Even though Skype has not released an iPad-native client, the iPhone/iPod Touch client makes full use of the iPad 2’s camera and mic, enabling both voice and video comms without the need for extra equipment or a headset. The results have been very good and I’m now regularly using it for Skype calls with colleagues in the US and with work clients.

I also opted for the 3G version of the iPad 2, which I have paired with a mobile broadband subscription from Three. Unlike other networks, Three provides a generous data cap, the network has been reliable and they don’t care what you use your allocation for, so VoIP calls, video streaming etc are all acceptable. Of course, when you use up your monthly 15Gb bandwidth allocation, you then start paying. Fortunately, I haven’t maxed it – yet!

Facetime is also very impressive, but there has been limited opportunity to use it, as even most of my iPhone 4-owning friends show little interest in Facetime as a communications option, preferring voice calls or SMS instead. It’s a pity as the audio and video quality that can be achieved with Facetime and a decent Wifi connection is remarkable given the basic front facing camera on the iPad 2, iPhone 4 and 4th generation iPod touch.

Beyond this, the device fits my needs and my lifestyle. There’s plenty of processing power under the bonnet, and it handles tasks such as email and web browsing very well (if you can live without Flash support). The lack of text messaging support on the 3G-enabled units (it was the same with the original iPad) is a big oversight, and hopefully Apple will rethink this and address in a forthcoming firmware update, but otherwise it excels as a communications tool (the official Twitter app for the iPad is a particular success).

However, for all the positive aspects of the device, there are some negatives.

For starters, I find the portrait/landscape automatic switching to be far too sensitive. Often it will switch orientation after the slightest angled movement, and then won’t switch back as easily. Automatic orientation switching is a good thing, but it needs to be less sensitive or at least be user adjustable.

Then there’s the backlight bleed. This is a defect that affects many, but not all, early iPad 2 units. I’ve already had mine replaced once (a week after the UK launch) and I’m going back to the Apple Store this weekend with a view to having the replacement replaced as well, as it’s worse than the original.

Backlight leaks around the edge of the screen creating a glowing flare effect around the edges. This is only visible on black backgrounds, so is unlikely to have any impact on everyday use, but is very noticeable when watching YouTube, BBC iPlayer or any other form of video that is not full-screen. My unit is afflicted by this all along the bottom edge and at both the left and right top corners. Tech news site Engadget has an excellent article and video illustrating the backlight leakage problem.

My view is that the bleed is a result of some sloppy assembly, no doubt prompted by the need to rush production and build up a stock of units for the initial launch phases. Unlike the original iPad, the iPad 2 display and glass front are glued in place, rather than clipped. I think that the backlight is leaking through the glue seal, either where the glue is thin or where there are gaps in the glue application. This is merely an assumption, but it would explain it. If correct, it is also something that can easily be fixed on the production line without requiring a major change to the design or assembly process.

Despite this small quality control glitch, the iPad 2 is still a must-have. Even if it does turn out to be a stopgap release (still not convinced it’s going to be replaced this year as some are claiming), it still represents a major step forward from the original iPad, and will still be a viable device for several years to come.

Virgin Mobile UK: A useless company staffed by incompetent liars!

Posted by Chris Green on Wednesday December 29 @ 9:24 pm

Today I decided to purchase a new BlackBerry as a secondary device, having decided that my HTC Desire is awful and no longer fit for purpose (In fact, I don’t think it was ever fit for purpose).

I decided to take out a new contract with Virgin Mobile (owned by cable company Virgin Media), as this company was offering a good deal on the BlackBerry Curve 8520 – free handset and only £12.26 a month for two years for unlimited BlackBerry service and a basic talk plan.

So, I called Virgin Mobile to place the order. What follows are the basic details of how this moronic company has managed to take a perfectly straightforward purchase of a new BlackBerry Curve 8520 on a new contract, with next day delivery, and turn it into a complete disaster and waste of my time in just sic hours.

On calling Virgin Mobile I had to deal with a foreign call centre, by the sounds of the person who handled my call it was in the Philippines. This is where it all started to go wrong. The call centre rep had a terrible grasp of English and didn’t really seem to know what they were doing. My credit check also took a prolonged period of time, though allegedly I did eventually pass it (and am good for three contracts apparently). I had to repeat everything multiple times, and had to ask for everything to be repeated due to the poor English skills of the sales rep. In addition, the rep was far more interested in trying to to up-sell the contract and sell insurance than actually log my details or answer any of my questions.

However, I was called back by the same rep two hours later to say that my order had not gone through the system (a very vague and unexplained statement) and that she was going home now so wouldn’t be able to deal with it any further? I requested an explanation as to exactly what to the problem was and why it was not being rectified. None was given. I was then told that if the phone didn’t come out on Thursday it would come out on January 5th and would this be OK. I said no, it most certainly would not! I then insisted on escalation and was eventually called back by another person (this time in the UK) at about 5.30pm.

This person claimed I had not been credit checked at all by the foreign call centre and that my bank details had not been logged on the system. In addition, she claimed that my order failed because my address was too long? She took my address and bank details again and promised to push the order through manually, and that she would call me back by 6pm to confirm whether the phone was ordered and would be delivered on Thursday. The call never came.

So, as I write this, it’s nearly 9pm in the evening, I’ve not received the promised callback to either tell me the phone is on its way or to confirm that Virgin Mobile can’t organise a booze-up in a brewery. I now have no idea if the phone is going to be delivered on Thursday, or ever, and the very rude woman I’ve just spoken to at customer service told me there was nothing about an order on my account, the department dealing with it is closed and that I’ll have to call back tomorrow. No help whatsoever and very rude in the process.

In short, Virgin Mobile is utter crap and your staff are a joke. You have repeatedly lied to me today, you have failed to complete a very simple order for an advertised product, you have taken sensitive data from me in the form of my bank details and debit card details and failed to use them in the way that was promised. You have failed in your duty of care regarding my personal data having lost said banking and payment details after the original sales call, resulting in me having to give them to you again. You then failed again to use that data in the stated way – as you failed to actually set up a direct debit or process my order. In addition to all of this you have, as a result of your incompetence, potentially run a completely unnecessary second credit check, an action that will affect my on-going credit rating.

I will be calling you on Thursday morning. However, it will most likely be to tell you to shove your BlackBerry. If this is how you treat new customers at the point of inception, I certainly don’t want to be dealing with your unpleasant, untrustworthy and utterly incompetent organisation for the next two years of a contract!

I also expect an apology!

UPDATE: I received a phone call from Virgin Mobile’s call centre at 11pm on Wednesday night. No apology was offered for calling me so late in the evening, no acknowledgement was made of the fact I was already in bed at that time (I did mention this on the call), in fact, the caller (a different Philippine call centre rep to the one who handled my original order call) had no concept of what time it was in the UK.

Anyway – the call centre rep still had no idea what was going on or why my order still had not been processed. All he offered to do was run the order again (and credit check me, again). Despite the time, he claimed they could still get the phone to me on Thursday, and when pointed out that no courier company was going to collect a handset from Virgin Mobile at past 11PM one night for next dat delivery, he chirped up with the following:

“Well if it doesn’t come on Thursday, maybe it will arrive in 2-3 days, but that will also be OK”.

No, it bloody well will not be OK!

Virgin Mobile (and with it Virgin Media). I’ve made a bold statement with the title of this post – I challenge you to prove me wrong. So far, you have only proved me to be absolutely right!

Sky Remote Code for the Toshiba 32KV500

Posted by Chris Green on Wednesday December 1 @ 1:26 pm

Like many others, I’ve just bought one of these rather good televisions from Best Buy, who were selling them at an exceptionally low price.

However, there is no information for it on Sky’s remote control codes section of its Active service, and even a call to Toshiba’s technical support resulted in incorrect information (a rather arrogant chap insisted that all Toshiba televisions use Sky remote code 1536).

Well, if that’s the case, please explain why the 32KV500 uses Sky Remote Code 065?

Yes, for all of you who have purchased Best Buy’s bargain Toshiba TV, the code you need to operate it with your Sky, Sky+ or Sky HD remote control is 065.



Posted by Chris Green on Thursday November 4 @ 1:04 pm

I’m pleased to report that I’m still here, and am on the mend.

The surgery seems to have gone well and I was discharged from hospital fairly soon after. I’m now back home recovering and building up the strength in my left arm and shoulder again.

The biggest drawback of the surgery is that I’m barred from driving for a couple of weeks. It’s a real pain in the neck (and shoulder) as without a car I’m pretty much trapped at home, public transport being awful in this part of London.

Off to hospital

Posted by Chris Green on Tuesday October 26 @ 9:17 pm

Tomorrow I’m off to hospital for surgery on my shoulder.

Many of you will know I’ve been having problems with my left shoulder for several years now, and have been experiencing increasing problems with reduced mobility in my left arm. It has got considerably worse in the last year, with a lump that has formed on my shoulder becoming significantly serious as to cause real discomfort and mobility problems.

Having put it off for far too long, I’ve finally taken action to get things fixed, and that means an operation to remove the lump and nail my shoulder back together. It’s not something I’m looking forward to, I hate hospitals and I hate being unwell. I also don’t like the idea of being knocked out for the opp – I’ve never been put under a general anaesthetic before (everything I’ve ever had done surgery-wise in the past has always been under a local, but there’s a number of reasons why that isn’t a viable option for me any more) and I’m not entirely comfortable with the loss of control that brings. Apart from a succession of sports injuries as a teenager (including several to my left shoulder), I’ve always been in reasonably good nick. If I was a used car, I’d command the higher end of the book price. But still, I don’t do ill well, and I really don’t do hospitals well, even seemingly nice ones like the shiny private one I’m off to for my opp.

But, it needs to be done – too many people are getting worried about me and its getting harder for me to ignore the fact that my shoulder needs fixing. I’m assured by my surgeon that there’s nothing to worry about, and he’s confident that I can be patched up and discharged from hospital same day. He’s also confident that I’ll make a full and quick recovery. I hope so, as I’m also not looking forward to not being able to drive for a while.

Like I said, I don’t do ill well…..

Radio and TV appearances: Windows Phone 7 launch

Posted by Chris Green on Sunday October 10 @ 12:34 pm
Windows Phone 7 press conference invite

Windows Phone 7 press conference invite

Tomorrow (Monday) marks the official launch of Microsoft’s Windows Phone 7 platform.

Windows Phone 7 is the latest iteration of Microsoft’s operating system for smartphones and PDAs. The new version marks a major departure from the traditional Windows Phone/Windows Mobile user interface, with a move to a larger finger-friendly interface that has been influenced significantly by Microsoft’s Zune MP3 player platform.

Microsoft needed to undertake a major overhaul of Windows Phone in the face of overwhelming device and software competition from Apple, RIM and Google. Only Nokia appears to be struggling worse than Microsoft to gain a footing in the smartphone market.

I’m doing a number of media appearances tomorrow to talk about the new phone platform and where it fits into a crowded and competitive smartphone market. You can see and hear me on the following stations and shows:

Monday October 11th 2010 – all times are BST
5.30am – Wake Up To Money (BBC Radio 5 Live)
6.15am – Today (BBC Radio 4)
6.50am – BBC Breakfast (BBC 1 TV)
7.30am – World Business Report (BBC World TV) – Not officially available in the UK, international viewers only

If you can, do take a look.

Orange launches HD Voice in the UK as mobile phone networks remember that phones are supposed to make good voice calls as well as surf the web

Posted by Chris Green on Saturday September 4 @ 11:39 am

Earlier in the week I was interviewed by Reuters for a piece they were planning to run on the launch of HD Voice by Orange. The interview is now live on the Reuters site and I’ve embedded the video above.

The launch of HD Voice is an important milestone for the mobile phone industry in the UK. It is the first significant effort we’ve seen to improve the audio quality of mobile phone voice calls since 1995, and following successful trials in Eastern Europe, we know that HD Voice is a viable and cost effective way of cleaning up voice over 3G.

However, there are some points to consider before you go rushing down to your local Orange shop to buy a new handset:

1) You need a HD Voice-enabled handset at both ends of the conversation in order to experience the service (in the same way you need an iPhone 4 or the new twin-camera iPod Touch at each end of a call to experience Facetime video calling).

2) The selection of HD Compatible handsets on sale is very small right now, and your iPhone or Android smartphone does not currently support the service.

3) Orange is the only network in the UK currently offering HD Voice. Even if you have a HD Voice-compatible handset on another network, you won’t get HD Voice calling as the network itself must also support the protocol at the base stations (it is only a software update that is required at the base stations, but it is still a costly and time consuming job to deploy it).

4) HD Voice will not solve the biggest problem associated with poor call quality – and that is bad signal. In metropolitan areas where signal coverage is good, you will likely have a good HD Voice experience. In areas with marginal coverage, such as in Hook, Hampshire where my office is, voice calls, even with HD Voice, will still suffer from drop outs, distortion and other clarity issues.

It is interesting to note that Orange was the first network in the UK to launch EFR, a technology that was designed to improve (albeit slightly) the quality of conventional 2G GSM calls. It did make a noticeable difference, but calls were still a long way off that of a good landline.

Speaking at Digital Surrey tonight

Posted by Chris Green on Thursday July 22 @ 8:38 am

I will be speaking tonight at the Digital Surrey group, talking about ‘The financial and ongoing value of web content’.

Digital Surrey is a networking group that grew out of the Farnham Tweetup. Since April 2010 the group has been meeting at Surrey University in Guildford and we’ve had a number of fantastic speakers covering everything from the Digital Economy Act to Social Media in the Enterprise. Now I’m stepping up to talk about how and why individuals and businesses need to do more to understand the cost and value of the content they place online.

I’ll post my slides and any other useful material here after the event. Stay tuned.

In memory of Guy Kewney

Posted by Chris Green on Thursday April 8 @ 10:28 am

Guy Kewney, one of the finest journalists I have ever had the honour of working with, passed away in the early hours of this morning after a long and brave battle with cancer.

Like so many people, I grew up reading Guy’s articles in magazines like Personal Computing World, Computing and PC Magazine. His work always oozed enthusiasm for good technology, delight at the good decisions of those charged with running the technology companies of the day, along with frustration at bad technology that could and should be better and annoyance at the silly decisions that held back progress. Through it all, Guy had a passion for technology, and for sharing insight, advice and guidance with the rest of us.

Tucked away inside that wise mind was an excited five-year old that wanted to escape and play with as much shiny stuff as possible and then share everything about it with the world (and usually break it – we never figured out how he managed to turn so much stuff into doorstops, but he always found a way). One of Guy’s greatest skills was being able to channel that sense of boyish wonder into clear, concise and informative articles that could appeal to everyone, without losing that sense of excitement and passion.

Over the last 20 years I’ve been fortunate enough to work with Guy in a number of guises. We worked together for many years at VNU – his desk used to be a few feet away from mine – and we would regularly share ideas, information, event invites and even review kit. Before that, Guy was one of the journalists who went out of his way to help me when I was a young and naive freelancer, trying to make some progress in the world of technology journalism.

Guy was one of the first people to offer me a helping hand, looking out for me at events, pointing me in the right direction and making sure I met the right people.

For many years Guy wrote for the publications and sections I’ve edited, such as Data Business, IT PRO, and the technology sections of Computing. As a commissioning editor, working with Guy was always fun, not because copy was late or anything (it never was), rather having conversations with him to flesh out a commission were as much fun as reading the finished article. He would always find a way to make a planned article even better, and his enthusiasm and passion never waned.

Press trips play an integral role in how we work and Guy and I went on more press trips together than either of us could remember. Nonetheless, there are several that will forever stand out.

At CeBIT, he would always keep an eye out for me and would make sure I didn’t get lost in the chaos. There were many trips with Microsoft, including the ‘fishing hats’ trip to Copenhagen for Microsoft’s IT Forum when the anecdotes and stories were flying to-and-fro for the entire trip. Not to mention trips that took us all over America and Europe in search of new technologies and new insights into computing. These were magical times, and sharing them with Guy made them all the more special.

Guy and I were on our last press trip together in Faro, Portugal at the end of 2008. It was a networking industry conference and we were able to enjoy the last of the summer sunshine before winter set in. I will always remember our last day, swapping notes and thoughts as we filed our last pieces of copy before settling down to a much needed beer and a chat as we relaxed before the flight home.

The encouragement and concern he showed for me in my early days remained twenty years later, when it was announced that I was leaving IT PRO. Guy was the first person to call me, not to ask about copy deadlines or his outstanding invoices, he just wanted to make sure I was OK.

It is one of many memories of Guy I will treasure forever.

Guy was a kind, caring and selfless person, and these qualities alone make him irreplaceable.

We miss you Guy. Thank you for everything.

How do you solve a problem like Ocado?

Posted by Chris Green on Wednesday March 24 @ 10:09 pm

For the last few months we’ve been experimenting with online grocery ordering with Ocado. We say experimenting as the whole saga has been far from a convenient, pain-free and polished service. Rather it’s been like using a buggy early beta release of a piece of software.

For those who do not use or know about Ocado, let me explain the origins. Ocado is an online grocery firm that resells the usual name brand items, along with its own small range of own-brand goods and a vast selection of own-brand goods from upmarket supermarket chain Waitrose. One of the original investors in Ocado was John Lewis, parent company of Waitrose (hence the link-up). The John Lewis stake in Ocado is now controlled by the John Lewis Pension Fund.

In our fairly short tenure as a customer we’ve had over a dozen deliveries. We’ve also had an unprecedented reoccurring problem with goods turning up damaged. We’ve even had an incident where fresh fruit arrived so mouldy, some items had already turned to mulch, plus a couple of incidents of bakery goods turning up completely stale and a few items that never turned up at all (but remained on the bill). Around £80 of food and non-food items have been compromised across our dozen-or-so deliveries to date. It’s a large amount of money to have to refund to one customer, and can’t be helping Ocado’s bottom line. It is also problematic as it undermines the main point of online grocery ordering – we buy online and have it delivered to our home so we don’t have to go to the store (for various reasons we rarely have time anymore). Yet with the high degree of damaged goods, we still end up regularly hitting a traditional supermarket to replace damaged, missing or otherwise compromised items.

We would like to add at this point that this blog post is in no way intended as an effort to solicit any form of additional compensation, free gift or inducement from Ocado. In each incident of damaged or otherwise unusable goods, Ocado’s customer service department has always responded quickly and courteously, and has always offered a sensible resolution to the problem at the time, be that a refund or replacement. However, the repeated problems suggest that our past feedback hasn’t filtered through from front-line customer services to the people who need to know (and who can make changes to solve potentially systemic quality and product damage issues).

Instead, this blog post is intended as an attempt to offer detailed, constructive business feedback to Ocado on what is and isn’t working in our individual experience so that improvements can be made and the good stuff continued. We are also doing this in public so that others can learn from our experiences and to stimulate sensible discussion about online grocery shopping in general. However, we would like to avoid a repeat of a recent incident on Ocado’s Facebook page, where we tried to offer up some honest and constructive feedback on a small issue and our post was immediately hijacked by a small group of ‘fans’ who seemed unable to cope with the idea that someone’s Ocado experience was less than perfect and proceeded to carry out the internet equivalent of a public stoning. While I am delighted to find that someone somewhere is receiving the Ocado experience I would dearly love myself, to blindly accuse others of lying about their own, lesser experience of the company is childish at best.

This post is a realistic account based on our personal experience alone. Your experience of Ocado may well differ, and may well be far better than our experience. In which case we envy you, and would dearly love to have your delivery driver or drivers cover our area. It does not mean our account is not an accurate one. Sadly, it is. But it can be made better! That is what we want to achieve here. Ocado, we hope you see this. Our first delivery from Ocado, and the driver who brought it was fantastic. It went rapidly downhill from there. We want the first-delivery Ocado experience back and we know Ocado can and wants to reproduce it. We are also happy to work with Ocado to try and find out what’s going wrong so it can be rectified.

We really like the Ocado philosophy and business model (and the food it sells), and really want the company to succeed. Ocado is a great example of British business innovation and it fulfils a clear need in the marketplace. When the process works, it works incredibly well (not to mention that it fits my lifestyle perfectly, when it works). What seems to be lacking, based on our personal experience, is consistency and reliability.

Supermarket home delivery is a booming business in the UK right now. The current crop of services started in the late 90s when frozen food retailer Iceland launched a pure delivery-only service (you still had to go to the shop and pick your own goods and go through the till, but a man in a van would then deliver the items to your home – great for people without a car); a bit like Ikea, but for food.

Others soon followed and the likes of Tesco, Asda and Sainsbury’s now all offer online ordering and home delivery of groceries for a nominal fee. Then there’s Ocado.

Founded in 2002 by a group of ex-Goldman Sachs bankers, Ocado set out to do things better, which meant doing some things differently. Being the first new supermarket to enter the crowded UK grocery market in a generation was never going to be an easy task, so the Ocado proposition had to be both compelling and eye-catching to attract customer interest, and it is.

Ocado is the only 100% internet-based grocery retailer in the UK. As such it differs significantly from the established bricks & mortar retailers in terms of how it goes from initial order to front door delivery.

The Tesco, Asda and Sainsbury online ordering and delivery services all work on the basis of your internet order being passed to your local store, where a staff member wanders the aisles selecting the items you requested from the shelves and choosing alternatives for items that are out of stock. These items are then packed in bags and crates before being handed off to a van driver for delivery to the customer’s home or other nominated address. On delivery, the customer can then opt to reject inappropriate or unwanted substitution items, damaged or poor quality goods.

There are obvious benefits to this approach. It retains the ‘local’ aspect of the interaction between retailer and customer. It also maintains a level of continuity and familiarity between delivery drivers and customers, building up trust and confidence in the service if deliveries are done well. For the retailer, it keeps costs down as they can leverage existing stock, supermarkets and in some cases staff, minimising cost exposure and allowing the service to operate on fairly low minimum spends and delivery charges while still making a profit or breaking even.

Ocado takes a very different and more centralised approach. Orders are placed online and are fulfilled from a single warehouse regardless of where the delivery address is (Note: Ocado does not yet have nationwide coverage, with coverage focussed largely on the South, South East, North West and Midlands, but still expanding).

Ocado has built a purpose-built, semi-automated picking and packing facility in Hatfield that can only be described as a work of complete genius. Plastic crates are filled with carrier bags (three bags fit into one crate), the crates are bar-coded and assigned to each order. The crates then zip around the warehouse on conveyor belts and slides in a manner not too dissimilar to how your luggage is routed around the bowels of an airport. Along the way the crates stop off at the various aisles where your chosen goods are located. Members of staff in each aisle pick the items you require off the shelf, pop them into the bags in the crates, log they’ve done it on the computer system and send the crate back on its journey.

The computer system provides suggestions to the pickers on alternative items if something is out of stock, helping to reduce the number of inappropriate or illogical substitution choices. Furthermore, by centralising the stock and the picking in one place, and not having to compete with in-person shoppers for the stock on the shelves, Ocado has a massive advantage over the established supermarkets – it can more accurately manage and report stock availability at the time the order is placed, taking into account when the order is scheduled for delivery.

Centralisation, paired with very effective customer relationship management (CRM), order processing and stock control systems means that the company knows exactly how much of an item it has in stock, its sell-by date, when the next delivery is due in, how many orders there are for that item and when they are due to be delivered. As well as having hard data on availability vs demand, the company can make pretty accurate predictions on future demand based on historical data and sales trends, allowing it to order quantities more accurately to service expected future demand, while minimising waste from items going out-of-date and unsold on the shelves. The approach also lends itself well to just-in-time ordering, meaning that Ocado doesn’t always have to stock and store goods in massive bulk, goods can stay at the supplier until they are actually needed on-site at Ocado’s Hatfield warehouse. There are also significant operational, purchasing and staffing economies of scale associated with the single central warehouse model.

Once all your items have been picked and packed, the crates reunite at the end of the process, where they are loaded onto a van and shipped off for delivery by one of Ocado’s army of delivery drivers, using a massive fleet of custom-built Mercedes-Benz refrigerated delivery vans, painted in an array of bright colours. Most even have names – my last order was delivered in a van called Laura Lemon, the order prior to that was delivered in a van called Kai Cabbage.

Last year (2009) Ocado enjoyed significant growth in customers, sales and turnover – including a bumper Christmas – and continued to expand its fleet of vans and drivers. It has also continued to expand its network of satellite distribution centres. In order to expand Ocado’s coverage area, but retain the single warehouse concept, Ocado has opened a number of satellite distribution points to enable it to reach into additional regions. Rather than load all its delivery vans at Hatfield before setting out around the country, orders destined for an area covered by one of these satellite distribution centres are picked and packed as normal in Hatfield, before being transferred en-masse via a large lorry to the satellite centre. There, the crates containing the shopping are transferred to the smaller delivery vans, which in turn deliver the goods to the customer’s home.

As a customer that appears to be served from one of these satellite depots, rather than direct from Hatfield, we think this is where the Ocado experience might be starting to break down.

Maybe it is the additional journey and transfer process that our shopping goes through (being moved by large lorry from Hatfield to White City, then being reloaded onto a small van) that is causing so much stuff to be damaged? Maybe it’s a mechanical problem within the Hatfield fulfilment centre? Or maybe it’s down to aggressive handling by the drivers or the original pickers and packers?

As a customer, ultimately we do not know where the problem is, and don’t really care, as the mechanics of Ocado’s process should be transparent to the customer. What we do care about is getting the problems worked out of the system so that we can obtain a reliable flow of undamaged deliveries from Ocado for a long time to come.

Issues such as rotten fruit and stale baked goods seem easier to determine. That problem stems either from the supplier, or that these perishable goods are not being stored properly in Hatfield. It is also possible that Ocado’s stock control processes are failing and these items are hanging around for too long. Storage problems seem more likely, but we are purely guessing as to exactly which of these is the actual cause.

Another area of concern is the delivery drivers. Again, it is hard to identify the root cause for what we are about to say (and would appreciate not going through another public stoning), but by-and-large the drivers that have delivered to our home, with the exception of our very first delivery, have been pretty awful. Maybe it is because the drivers are based at a satellite depot and thus don’t feel like part of the Ocado corporate family and don’t subscribe to the philosophy? Perhaps the satellite depot structure has created malaise leading to less oversight and monitoring, higher staff turnover, less training and less overall enforcement of standards and expectations of the delivery drivers?

We have had drivers that have man-handled goods, drivers who could not speak English, drivers that turned up at the wrong time without warning, drivers who refused to wait for a few seconds while we checked for broken fragile goods (really, we realise you have other deliveries to make, but there’s no need to rush a delivery like it’s a Formula 1 pit stop – no wonder things keep getting damaged), and drivers who continually refuse to take the old Ocado carrier bags away for recycling (a significant differentiator of the Ocado experience is its commitment to recycling the many carrier bags it uses to pack the shopping in).

Sure, the bags are bio-degradable so dumping them in the rubbish isn’t so bad, but when part of the Ocado delivery service (which can cost up to £6.49 for a single delivery) is to take away the Ocado bags from the previous delivery, it is frustrating when it doesn’t happen. Especially when you have made the effort to hand the bags to the driver and he still manages to put them down and leave without them. We are not the most eco-conscious people in the world, but try to do our bit and even we know it’s wasteful to dump something like a carrier bag into landfill when the grocery delivery service is supposed to reprocess and remanufacture them. Again, we don’t know why so many of the drivers we’ve had are reluctant to take the Ocado carrier bags away, but in our experience, many are.

To be clear, especially to the Facebook lunatics, we are referring only to the drivers that have delivered to our home. We cannot comment on drivers that have never delivered to us and do not wish to tar all Ocado drivers with the same brush. We would hope that the vast majority of Ocado drivers are like our first driver – polite, careful, considerate, helpful and most important, passionate about their job. The guy really cared about doing a good job and ensuring the customer was happy, taking extra time to talk new customers through every little detail. It is good customer service you seldom see anymore and it’s good to know it’s alive and well somewhere within Ocado. It is the sort of service that makes us want to be loyal customers, and perhaps it is the pursuit of that service again that has led us to be so patient and to persevere for so long with Ocado.

Alas, that perseverance may be coming to an end. Our delivery experiences have been a challenge, while the juvenile reaction to our Facebook feedback has sadly left us with a very negative view of Ocado – particularly given its failure to police its own Facebook page and its encouragement of the mob of immature individuals hurling abuse and unsubstantiated (and quite frankly criminal) accusations.

Also, we are currently trialling Ocado’s Delivery Pass deal. This is another excellent Ocado service innovation, whereby for a monthly subscription fee (or annual payment), you incur no individual delivery charges, regardless of when you opt for delivery. It also means you can order as little as £40 of goods (orders between £40 and £65 usually carry an additional delivery surcharge when paying for individual deliveries), which again suits our needs well as a weekly Ocado shop of around £45-£50 pretty much covers our grocery needs.

We began a one month free trial of Delivery Pass back at the beginning of March, and have had three deliveries in that time. So far, one delivery had nearly £20 of damaged and missing items (including a badly damaged frying pan), and the two most recent deliveries had no product problems at all (though on both occasions the driver left behind our carrier bags having been handed them). What is likely to be our final order of the trial is coming this Saturday, and it is this delivery that will determine whether we commit to the 12-month minimum Delivery Pass contract or walk away, perhaps completely, from Ocado.

The thing is we really want to continue as an Ocado customer and as a Delivery Pass subscriber. However, there is an obvious reluctance to commit to a 12-month minimum term if we are going to have to spend time every delivery logging claims for damaged goods, and paying £9.99 a month for the privilege of chasing down refunds and replacing damaged items. With all the problems we’ve had so far, and the fact that in four months we’ve only had two consecutive deliveries without damaged goods, our patience is wearing thin and we are starting to resign ourselves to the fact that we’ll have to trawl around a traditional supermarket – sadly not a Waitrose – again instead of having quality produce delivered to our door by Ocado.

So we say this in closing – Ocado, we are loyal and committed customers that want to support your business and spend money with you, so please don’t ignore our feedback and instead show us the same level of commitment we are showing you. Please sort it out; please retain us as a customer!

Full disclosure: Prior to becoming a journalist I worked in the grocery retail industry. I also advised WebVan, a dot com-era grocery delivery service in the US on media issues.

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