Tuesday 13 January 2009

The myth of the self-winding watch

There have been a couple of recent cases of elderly people dying under mountains of their own accumulated clutter. In one instance, it took police in Stockport two days to find a “shopaholic” 77-year-old who had been buried under an avalanche of full suitcases.

Anyone who has ever visited my house will understand why I always intone “There but for the grace of God ... ” after reading such stories. Not that I am a compulsive shopper, or anything like it. I just cannot bear throwing things away.

I find it particularly hard to be ruthless with unwanted or unsuitable gifts. It seems the height of ingratitude to dispatch them to the tip, and I am much too old to master e-bay. So I had a real problem when my fiancée bought me a new wristwatch for Christmas, and not just because it threatened to eliminate my only plausible excuse for failing to arrive at events I would rather miss.

It was a really beautiful watch. The very one I would have chosen for myself, but for the fact that some high-pressure saleswoman had persuaded her that an “automatic” mechanism is the latest thing.

These “self-winding” gizmos were actually popular back in my schooldays. They belonged to the boys who were always getting detention or being beaten for persistent lateness. They did not work then, and they do not work now. At least we had the excuse back in the 1960s that the battery-powered quartz watch had not been invented. Why manufacturers continue to turn out these useless articles is beyond me, unless it is a “saving the planet” fetish like the wind-up radio.

I spend most of my days writing and prefer to take my watch off and place it on the desk next to me, rather than have it clunking persistently on my keyboard. This obviously does not help. But I gave my present a fair trial by wearing it every day when I was doing other things. It never ran for more than a few hours before giving up, and lost time even while it was actually running.

Ordinarily I would just have muttered that it was lovely and buried it somewhere under my junk mountain. But my partner is made of sterner stuff and insisted we take it back and exchange it for something more suitable. So at the weekend we found ourselves in a major national jeweller explaining our predicament to a Saturday girl who looked like a cross between a hippopotamus and a halibut. We explained our predicament, and our desire to part-exchange the item for a rather more expensive battery-powered watch in their window display.

Off she went to consult the manager, returning to explain sadly that they could not take it back because it showed signs of having been worn. “Yes,” I patiently explained. “You have to wear it to know that it does not work.” She shook her head with what seemed like genuine regret, and explained that I just needed to charge it properly by moving around more, illustrating this with a recommended wrist action that seemed decidedly risqué.

We went and bought another watch elsewhere, and will never visit the original chain again. Since I began telling this story, I have met several other people who have encountered similar difficulties in returning unwanted or defective Christmas gifts. In these harsh times, retailers who have actually managed to make a sale are clearly prepared to go to unusual lengths not to hand the cash back. I would simply counsel those who hope to survive the recession that customer goodwill is their most important single asset for the long term.

Now, would anyone like to buy a beautiful self-winding watch? Would suit energetic conductor (orchestra not bus), cocktail barman, full-time semaphore signaller or serial road rager given to making obscene gestures.

Originally published in The Journal, Newcastle upon Tyne, minus the following important footnote:

This column refers to "a major national jeweller". In these harsh times for retailers and newspapers alike, I saw no reason to provoke a row between my fine employer and any actual or potential advertiser. However, for the record, the supremely awful customer service we suffered was at Ernest Jones. And, yes, I do know that we could and should have insisted on our rights to a full refund under Section 13 of the Sale of Goods Act, but my fiancée was so incensed by their attitude (and particularly by the fact that the manager remained skulking in a back room throughout and refused to come and speak to us, preferring to convey his messages via his moronic Saturday girl) that she preferred to "let it go" for fear of the damage that a further surge in her blood pressure might do to our unborn child.

And while we are on the subject, "Britain's worst courier company", cited in last week's column, is City Link. In my personal experience, that is. Emphasising that this is not necessarily the view of the Newcastle Journal etc etc.

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