ONLINE retailers which hope to build a solid business with repeat orders should cultivate customers beyond the urban centres.
Those who live in rural and more remote areas without easy access to a choice of major shops have much to gain from buying online. For generations, they have been stalwart supporters of mail order suppliers. The internet revolution, however, has now given the furthest-flung country dweller access to the same range of goods as those who live in cities and major towns.
Trade ought to be brisk. Instead, some retailers are imposing punitive delivery charges on Scots living beyond the central belt. In many cases these appear to have been calculated with little concept of geographical reality.
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There can be no rationale, for example, for adding a hefty extra charge for delivering to Kyleakin on Skye compared with Kyle of Lochalsh when they lie at either end of a bridge with no tolls. That is just one postcode anomaly among many discovered by Consumer Focus Scotland, while evidence gathered by Citizens Advice Scotland showed that more than 1m people were being "routinely ripped off" by unfair delivery charges. Yet some companies have a uniform rate for deliveries throughout Scotland, proving that while additional distance must involve extra costs for fuel and driver's time, it is possible for these to be absorbed so that individuals who live off the beaten track are not penalised unfairly.
In a few very remote places, the additional costs may be significant. This has led some companies to take the easy option and refuse to deliver at all to certain areas. That is no solution. Government ministers Fergus Ewing and Richard Lochhead are to be commended for meeting with pressure groups and some online retailers yesterday but this is a long-standing problem which should have been tackled before now. Transparency on costs is the first requirement but exploration of alternative methods of delivery is also overdue. Royal Mail was a welcome participant at the talks and its experience in delivering to every household in the land should be harnessed to enable the more reluctant online retailers to provide a service commensurate with the principle of offering their goods to all.
Many others are also let down by the gap between dispatch and delivery. Research by Consumer Focus Scotland found one in three people had difficulty in retrieving their parcels. This was because local collection points were too far away and had inconvenient opening hours.
Expecting people to travel some distance to pick up a delivery during working hours is a further example of failing to operate in the customer's interest. Companies that flout the basic principles of retailing must expect to lose sales.