It's not quite the Christmas present-buying yet, so before you start compiling your lists, I'd just like to say a word of caution about Frances Hilary
, the gardening accessories company.
I'm a fan of their products - I have their apron, which has a very useful split down the front which is great if you're bending down and lifting things. And I have their kneeling pad, which is very comfortable and comes in a nice discreet khaki.
I'm also keen to support small British companies who provide quality goods in the face of competition from huge conglomerates. So last spring, when my gardening bag began bursting at the seams, I thought I'd treat myself to one of theirs.
I went to the website, placed the order, and thought no more about it. That was on ... well, actually, it's so long ago, I have difficulty remembering. Luckily, the payment for the bag went through on the day I bought it, so I have a record that it was 31 July.
Anyway, a couple of weeks went by and nothing arrived. I emailed customer services: no reply. I waited a week and rang the number at the top of the website. I was told that head office dealt with internet orders. Could I have the number, I asked, and I could talk to them direct? "Sorry, no," was the answer, "we're not allowed to give it out."
At the end of August, I sent a slightly stroppy email to customer services. No reply.
I then rang the customer services number and was told that, yes, head office handled inquiries about orders. No, I couldn't have the number and, furthermore, everyone was on holiday. They'd be back in the first week of September.
The second week of September, I rang the customer services number again. It had been discontinued. I rang the Covent Garden branch. A very nice assistant said she'd investigate. She actually rang me back! To say that there had been a delay with the material for the bags which had resulted in a glitch in their manufacture. I would have one within two weeks.
Two weeks later, the bag had still not arrived. I waited until the end of September and rang again. The bag would be on its way in a couple of weeks, I was told.
Anyway, it's now November. Throughout this time, there has been nothing on the website to indicate that the bag is out of stock, or that there might be some delay in delivery.
Throughout all this time, no one from the company has voluntarily contacted me to tell me there was a problem with my order. They've been very polite and apologetic when I have rung, but you get to the stage where you don't want apologies. You just want YOUR STUFF!
I told Frances Hilary that I was writing about this on my blog because, as a journalist, I feel it's only fair to give them the right of reply. On the other hand, as a customer I felt I had every right to complain.
They came back to me and were deeply apologetic. They said they had indeed had great problems with the fabric supply but that was no excuse for the experience (or lack of it) I'd had. I think they're at that stage where business is taking off and they're about to expand but are still working out the logistics.