NEW SITE REVIEW: Richard Halstead, Virgin Wines
Virgin Wines' Richard Halstead believes Red Letter Days has much improved the usability of its site, but feels let down by not being able to book online
I have a soft spot for the people at Red Letter Days. Thanks to them, I got to race a JCB Digger in the Kent mud on a stag do. Mad experience, inexpensive (£40 a head) and totally compelling - even if the top speed of the hulking yellow monsters was 20mph.
While the experiences the company sells as gifts or corporate incentives are always top notch, the purchasing process hasn't always been so hot.
I remember wrestling with the old site last Christmas, only to give up and join the call centre queue.
The company's revamped offering adopts the clean and unfussy design that seems to be emerging as an industry standard for commerce sites: lots of white space, discreet use of colour - red, unsurprisingly - and idiot-proof navigation.
The proof of any e-commerce site is in the transaction, and Red Letter Days doesn't disappoint. The five-step process is straightforward, and the postcode checker wasn't put off by my odd South London address.
The bad news, as with many site relaunches, is that the metaphorical champagne has been smashed against the bow before the ship is complete.
Customers can buy vouchers through the site, but can't yet book experiences.
An annoying number of links, particularly those on the 11th Hour Deals page, go precisely nowhere. I quite fancied DJ-ing at Ministry of Sound on 8 November, but there's no visible way I can act on that impulse: relief for music lovers, perhaps, but annoyance for me.
The phone number hasn't even been included as part of the site template on every page. A lot of die-hard internet advocates might wrinkle their nose at this, but to me it's obvious: a lot of people use the internet for information gathering, but some still prefer to transact by phone. Just accept it.
Trawling around web sites offering some most unusual gifts, it's safe to say that no one in 21st century Britain can now ask: "What do you get a person who has everything?" You just need a huge wad of cash and internet access.
More than a whiff of testosterone accompanies many of these sites, driven by the maleness of the target audience. But this may be changing.
You can visit the stunning RMS Titanic in a deep-ocean submersible two miles under the ocean, and see the White Star Line china still sitting in cupboards, from $36,000 (£23,099) a person, thanks to Deep Ocean Expeditions (www.deepoceanexpeditions.com). And no, it doesn't have an online transaction facility.
Back in the realms of the affordable, there are gadget-related sites such as Memorise- This (www.memorisethis.com) and Boys Stuff (www.boysstuff.co.uk), where you can actually buy an orgasmatron - don't ask.
Buyagift (www.buyagift.co.uk), meanwhile, is a healthy attempt to serve the same market as Red Letter Days. Despite its Day-Glo front page, Buyagift seems effective. My interest in the Aerobatic Freestyle with instructor Alan Cassidy was channelled into a slick checkout process. All the links work, too.
Surpriseyourwoman.com is a half-decent stab at catering for female consumers.
But it lacks the imagination of Red Letter Days, and the underwear and perfume on a pinky-purple background makes it look like the merchandising is run by blokes.
Thanksdarling (www.thanksdarling.com) tries to be more unisex. As well as the usual driving days and white-water rafting, it offers tiger-feeding and romantic cruises featuring cabaret singers.
But I can't help thinking that Christmas is going to be tough for these sites. If a double-dip recession is on the cards, the first thing I'll do without is a spin around the racing circuit at Thruxton in a Ferrari.
This article was first published on revolutionmagazine.com
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