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First off, apologies for the awful pun on the title. All the good puns had been taken already.
Play.com (henceforth just “Play”) is one of the best-established shopping sites now operating in the UK. It sells CDs, DVDs, Audiobooks, Computer games, Mobile ringtones and even boys’ toys (a.k.a. ‘Gadgets’) at extremely competitive prices and with the added bonus of free, generally rapid delivery to all UK addresses. This really is the site that any self-respecting DVD-aholic should have bookmarked and the first to turn to for new releases. The site largely grew out of its DVD sales and expanded into the other markets. Personally speaking I have no experience of buying gadgets, ringtones or audiobooks from the site so this review will focus on the main consumer durables that it sells.
..:: RANGE ::.. The stock range in terms of CDs, games and DVDs is impressive. All major new releases will be stocked and a vast collection of sometimes obscure titles is also held. This is not to say that other sites, notably Amazon.co.uk, will not have a wider range, but unless your tastes are exceptionally leftfield you can be 99.9% sure that what you want will be carried. All items will be very competitively priced indeed, particularly when free delivery is taken into account, though not always the cheapest available. Many items are available more cheaply from CD-Wow.com, for example, but Play’s excellent site layout and customer services are big attractions, and there is almost always a large range of special offers to tempt you. Where else can you buy complete Box Sets of the popular series ‘Friends’ on DVD for just 17.99?
In terms of stock, Play is generally good although very popular titles will sell out quickly. Stock is usually restored with speed and efficiency. Of the sections I purchase from, I find the games section the weakest. The focus is on the major consoles and whilst there are all the main PC game releases this wouldn’t be my first choice of site as the selection is usually more limited.
I would query how wise it is for Play to branch into markets such as gadgets since it clearly does not have the range of somewhere like Gadgetshop or indeed the reputation. It might be unwise to try to do too much, which could explain the absence of traditional books. However an attempt to keep up with technology is evident in the stocking of mobile games.
..:: EASE OF PURCHASE ::.. Buying products is simple – navigating through the site is sensible and speedy (more below) and whilst you are required to create an account, which some will find annoying, the process is straightforward and once an account has been created you will receive email notification of when goods are dispatched and be able to review your order history with ease. Creating an account is important if you ever need to speak to the customer service people. A slight quibble is that you cannot store multiple delivery addresses on one account – you have to manually change the address each time if need be (i.e. if the delivery address differs from the billing address) and there’s no automated lookup feature for addresses either. For most people this won’t be a problem as they will only need one delivery address. It’s not possible, though, to specify different delivery addresses for different parts of one order, and you must be careful as orders will be sent to the address attached to your account at the time of despatch rather than the time of order.
Once an item is added to your shopping basket – a little problem is the fact that the “Buy” buttons are actually quite small on-screen – it’s easy to review and change your order without even having to visit a distinct screen to do so. This is a neat touch that makes shopping as easy as possible. Even internet shopping virgins cannot go wrong. Ordering is quick and the process takes a matter of seconds even at peak periods.
..:: SITE LAYOUT AND NAVIGATION ::.. The main site page is exceptionally clear. I find sites like Amazon almost a little overbearing, but Play’s site is well laid-out and easy to read. The main sections are presented as tabs across the top of the screen with links down each side of the page to the latest special offers and bargains, of which there are many. The font is clear and the page looks uncluttered despite containing a wealth of information. New releases form the main part of each section with links to upcoming titles, top sellers, bargains and different genres all neatly laid out. Clicking on a product will bring up a screen with extensive details and often a mini-review, though there is no scope for consumer reviews. Links to other titles featuring the actors or artists are provided and to related offers – for example, a click on Will Young’s current album provides links to his DVD, first album and a list of Brit nominated artists’ work. Pages are generally quite fast to load even on a dial-up connection. A search box provides a quick method to get what you want though you must search within a particular category of product – you can’t find all CDs and DVDs by Coldplay at once, for example and this can be annoying. Links on the main page take you swiftly to your account details and order history, though there are odd slips from time to time, such as the site logo in the corner at times not taking you back to the main page. On the whole, though, this has to be one of the best thought out layouts for any shopping site of this ilk I have come across – compared to Amazon or CD-Wow, the two most obvious competitors, it is much less fussy and faster to load.
..:: DELIVERY AND RETURNS ::.. Aside from the problem with delivery addresses noted earlier, the usual quoted delivery time is 3 – 5 working days once in stock and by and large this is adhered to. Free delivery can never be argued with and items arrive securely packaged and I’ve never suffered a broken jewel case or cracked disc in orders stretching back over two years. Indeed, until recently I had never had a single delivery problem but two failures in recent weeks have left me wondering whether the site’s growing popularity is starting to catch it out. I have found the returns policy of the site to be one of its weakest aspects, though it has many good qualities too. The first problem I had concerned a box-set DVD which contained 6 discs. The item that arrived was a completely unrelated Playstation 2 game.
A call to customer services – whose number is easy to locate on the site – was answered almost immediately and I’ve never been stuck in a queue (calls are at local rates). Returns are sent to them via recorded delivery but you must include your own covering note explaining why the item is being returned. Once they receive it they are supposed to send a replacement to you automatically but on both occasions when I have had to return an item it has taken a phone call from me to them to initiate a replacement being sent out, in the first case at least 2 weeks after the item was delivered back to them. Once this was sorted the return was handled efficiently and the postage refunded, but clearly there’s some problem when the process doesn’t appear to happen automatically. I should stress though that mistakes in delivery have been rare – I’ve ordered well over 60 items from Play and only two have afforded any problems at all.
..:: OVERALL ::.. Play is a fantastic site in so many respects – price, delivery, range, navigation, ease of use – that awarding any less than maximum marks would be wrong. I just hope that they don’t take on too much and expand too far and let customer service and accuracy pay the price in the future.