[Just in case you were wondering if this was a compunerdy peeve
coming up: it isn't. It applies equally well to washing machines,
stereos, and anything remotely expensive that you might want to buy
in a shop.]
It's summer, and last week I rashly decided to buy myself a new
home computer. So, one morning I phoned up a couple of mail order
outlets and got myself a price quote for the gadget in question: a
powerbook 145B, which has only just arrived on these shored. Come
lunchtime I left the office and caught the bus into Watford with
my savings account book in one pocket. Goal: to procure a cheque
that would cover the cost of one computer, from whichever outlet
seemed like the best deal.
Now I was on my way to the Building Society when I passed the local
branch of Dixons. Dixons, for the hemispherically challenged, is a
notorious British chain of electrical goods shops. They will try to sell
you anything from a power-assisted toothbrush to a laser printer, as
long as you don't expect the salesdroids to know what they're talking
about, and don't mind having repairs carried out by a firm of
contractors whose scheduling system is hosted on a Babbage engine where
the gears have rusted. Nevertheless, Dixons sell powerbooks ... so I
felt compelled to go inside and laugh at their price tags.
Silly me. They had a price match offer in force; if anyone else can
beat our prices, we'll match them. ``Do you stock the powerbook
145b?'' I asked the salesdroid. ``No, but we can order one,'' he said,
drooling slightly. ``And we'll match any price!'' I quoted him the
price from MacWarehouse, excluding delivery, and he cringed: it was
fifty quid below their own, with VAT on top. (At the current rate of
exchange, make that US$ 100 or so.) ``Deal,'' say I. ``Delivery in 4
to 7 days,'' says he.
Now you might wonder why I decided to deal with this notorious haven
of nincompoops. There is, however, an explanation. This shop lies ten
minutes' walk from my front door. MacWarehouse is ghod-knows-where. If
you've ever been bounced around their switchboard you could be
forgiven for thinking that they shunt their outlying offices into some
weird polydimensional hyperspace, just to keep them from getting
in the way (or getting anything done, for that matter). Moreover, this
branch of Dixons had a slightly less clueless-than-usual salesdroid
who (a) actually seemed interested in computers, and (b) was far more
helpful than usual, and (c) was willing to take responsibility for
getting the machine to its customer come hell or high water. This is a
rare combination and, I decided, needed encouraging. So it was that I
plonked down a Building Society cheque for an eye-watering fraction of
my life savings.
Two days later I received a phone call from the salesdrone. He sounded
incredibly apologetic, to the point where I wondered just what kind of
mesmeric grip I exerted over him: as if he expected me to send a rude
letter to the board of directors, or maybe despatch a hitter or two to
install air conditioning in his anatomy. ``I'm terribly sorry, sir.
It's absolutely dreadful. I've complained to head office in writing,
but there's nothing they can do about it. I'm at my wit's end ...''
It took a few minutes to get the story out of him, but it was worth
it. It transpired that I had written Dixons a cheque for the agreed
sum, the price of the computer as per their catalogue, less a
manager's discount to match the MacWarehouse price. An order had been
despatched to Apple for one such computer to be delivered. This order
required authentication from Dixon's head office before it could be
processed. Unfortunately, the insanely kludged excuse for an
accounting system at H.O. barfed over the price. It transpired that
manager's discounts could only be given on items that are in stock, at
the time of sale. An item that needed to be ordered must be ordered at
full price, or not at all. They could of course give me a cash refund
from the till when I collected the computer, but in the meantime,
would I mind posting them a cheque for #58.17p so that their pathetic
excuse for a corporate order processing system could stagger along
for another week?
In the end greed triumphed over pride and I wrote them the cheque. I
fully expect the cheque to come back in the form of used notes when I
collect the new laptop (hopefully later this week). If it doesn't,
stand by for wholesale slaughter and retail murder. That a corporation
with several hundred branches and a death grip on the electronics
retail market in this country should be using such an inflexible and
bletcherously brain-dead control system would boggle the imagination,
were it not for the fact that this is Great Britain, and the dead hand
of the British management system pervades all our corporations like a
particularly irritating species of dry rot. Even the salesdroids,
despite going out of their way to be helpful -- normally a massive
!Peeve -- are unable to work the system, which should tell you how bad
things are. Normally, systems that grind and clank along the rusty
path of derailment can be expedited by the application of the right
type of lubricant -- but not the dreaded Dixons order control system.
And there's one final irony. What kind of operating system does the
Dixons software abomination run under?
Answer below ...
The same one I'm (a) writing this posting under, and (b) work on for a
living, which is (c) indirectly paying for my laptop. Yep, it's SCO
Charlie Stross ... char...@scol.sco.com ... cha...@antipope.demon.co.uk
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