Call me, maybe?

Think about all the times you’ve bought something online. Now see if you can remember how many times you were asked for a “contact phone number” (as opposed to, er, a non-contact phone number?) so that the seller can get in touch if there are any problems with your order.

Done that? Right, now ask yourself: how many times has the seller subsequently phoned you about a problem with your order? In my own case, it’s precisely zero. Oh, there have been problems all right: item not in stock, order made on “an old version of our website which you should not have been able to access”, endless delivery problems, you name it. But never, in my entire history of ordering items online, has anybody ever phoned or texted me to let me know about any of these problems. Sometimes (not often enough) I’ll get an email. But never, ever a phone call.

And yet when you’re buying online, providing a phone number is often non-negotiable. This screenshot shows a recent purchase I made from Wiggle:


Apparently my decision not to supply a phone number can only be viewed by their system as “an error”. If I want to buy the items, I have to provide it. But I know from experience that they don’t really need it, because they have my email address already, and the chances of my being contacted about my order by telephone are vanishingly slim.

Last year I had an aggravating experience with Dunelm Mill. The laundry basket I ordered wasn’t available, but other laundry baskets were. You’d think this was a textbook example of a time when it might make sense to use the phone number they’d asked me for. But no. They just substituted a different basket without warning. If that scenario didn’t warrant using my phone number, what scenario does?

Do businesses who require phone numbers actually have an idea of the kind of situation in which those contact details would be used? Or do they ask for them in the general spirit of requiring you to “register” with them, a spirit of pushing the buyer into a fake relationship with the seller? Or perhaps it’s about harvesting details to use later, maybe even to sell.

I don’t have a great strategy for dealing with the totally unnecessary harvesting of phone numbers. As I wrote in my post about website registration, online purchasing takes away your power to negotiate because there’s nobody to negotiate with. The choice is between buying from that site or not buying from that site. And sometimes you really want the item and nowhere else sells it, or you have the sunken costs of time spent navigating a hideously confusing site, or you just want to get on and buy it because Eastenders is starting. So when they demand that you “create an account” or give your phone number, you give in.

All I can suggest is that when you have more time and energy, you get in touch again. “Why did you need my phone number?” “I don’t consent to you storing or selling my phone number. Can you confirm you won’t do this?” Right now the demands happen because businesses don’t have to put any resources into defending this practice. And that’s mainly because we’re resigned to seeing it as normal. But if every customer queried this practice, we might see some change.


Nick Burch (not verified)

Fri, 2013-06-28 12:59

I've found quite a few good companies have asked for my mobile number, then sent me a texts to keep me informed of the order process (order confirmation, order sent for delivery, order being delivered soon etc). A few hotels have also sent me a booking confirmation, but annoyingly not the more useful bit which would be texting you directions (or at least a phone number) a few hours before checkin.

Also on the travel front, I've once had BA ring me up about a problem with my booking, and didn't you once have your train booking company (aka Jamie) ring you up when there was a problem?

Overall, I'd say a few places ask for it and do something useful, but very few do. Maybe the answer is to get your own 08xx number, and list that, at least you'd get some money if someone did call, and there's a very good chance that they then won't bother selling it on / spamming you on it!

Thanks for these comments, Nick! You're right, our train booking company did once phone us about a problem with our train journey, but that was an absolutely exceptional thing to happen - so exceptional that I blogged about it, making the point that Loco2 as a train-booking agency cares about customers in a way that the companies running the trains simply don't. I think that is literally the only time in my life that a company has used my (or my husband's) mobile phone number to tell me about a problem with the goods or services I'm buying. That's despite the fact that almost all of them ask for (or even insist on) a number. And in some cases - for example, when we were getting our phone line fitted by BT -  I actually begged them to please text me so I wouldn't be stuck in an empty house for nearly six hours. They still didn't text or phone me.

Some of the differences between my experiences and yours may be because you seem to travel on business a lot more than I do. Perhaps business-orientated hotels etc are more geared up to providing a non-time-wasting service!

Shani (not verified)

Fri, 2013-06-28 14:02

I've had my phone number used once. It was a series of automated texts from the carrier to say 'your parcel has been received and will arrive within the next N working days, tracking number XYZ ... your parcel will arrive today ... your parcel has been delivered' which I really appreciated. But I agree that it's very rare compared to the number of times I've had to provide it.

One thing that might be going on is that certain types of delivery require a phone number along with them - I encounter this at work. Maybe they feel it's simpler to collect the number in all cases so that they have it if required, rather than trying to distinguish between the situations and only ask for a phone number if that deliver option has been selected? If so, they could certainly be clearer about the purpose of requiring it, and what they plan to do with it (especially with regards to passing it on or using it for marketing themselves).

I've been known to input my number with one digit changed if I really don't trust a company with my details (I do the same with my DOB and other things). Hopefully I'm not spamming a bunch of people with similar phone numbers...

Thanks for your comment, Shani. I think your guess might be right: some types of purchase do require a number and it's simpler just to collect it in all cases. I think if there was more pushback from customers about providing numbers, that "simpler" might not feel so simple any more. I live in hope, anyway.

Strange you should mention Dunelm Mill. We had just moved house and, consequently, needed curtains for the new place (as I would expect many purchasers of curtains are new house people). We had informed our bank (Nationwide: and yes, your blog post on their online system is what made me aware of your blog ;) ) about the change of address, but it hadn't yet reached the credit card department for some reason. So when we placed our order on Dunelm Mill, it all appeared to go through and we received the order confirmation by email. No on-screen notifications, telephone calls or emails letting us know there was a problem. 4 days later = no curtains. Called them up "Oh, erm, yes, the credit card company says the address doesn't match so we can't process the order." Thanks for letting us know! We then had to *ask* them to actually provide the refund "Oh, erm, it'll take a few days for someone to sort it out" [if they couldn't process it, why didn't they just cancel/refund it?]. We said in 3 days time, we'll open a chargeback with Nationwide about non-delivery if the refund isn't credited to our card by then. 2 days later = refund.

If they had called or emailed (or even updated their online "order status page"), it would have been something!

Goodness me, another tale of Dunelm Mill fail! I could blog about this on the Restless Consumer blog if you like? I agree: what is the point of taking phone numbers, taking email addresses or having an online "order status page" if you don't use ANY of these to tell the customer that there's a problem with the order?