No CEX please – we're shit(tish)
Alert WoSblog viewers will have noticed the absence of posts yesterday, which was entirely due to having most of my day wasted by these idiots:
I used to go to the original Computer Exchange shop in Rathbone Place in London regularly in the early 90s. While the staff were prone to certain amounts of the sort of elitist arrogance you often find in independent record shops, it was as exciting and fun as videogame shops have ever been.
Packed full of the latest consoles, hardware and games imported from the US and Japan, CEX was a magical wonderland of the exotic and glamorous. (With prices to match – one of my first tasks at Sensible Software was to take a trip to Rathbone Place with the company credit card and pick up one of the earliest Japanese Playstations and a copy of Ridge Racer, a purchase which rang up at over £600.)
But it wasn't just the fact of being able to buy games you couldn't get anywhere else. The enthusiasm of the staff (once you'd been deemed knowledgeable enough to get past the haughty facade) made the store feel more like a club. These were people who LOVED gaming, who given the chance would stand around and talk your ears off with giddy excitement about their latest discovery, while you patiently stood there waving fistfuls of money around in the hope of swapping £100 for a Japanese copy of Daytona USA at some point before your train left.
CEX was cool, too – their magazine ads were funny and sarcastic, with cartoons drawn by Charlie Brooker. Going there was to visit the absolute cutting edge of gaming, and made you feel like a proper hardcore gamer, in the days before "hardcore" somehow came to mean "tedious fanboy wanker sneering at new and innovative games while obediently lapping up Tired Franchise Sequel 12 – Deluxe Plastic Tat Edition for 85 quid".
(It probably helped that it was a particularly thrilling time for videogames, with the 32/64-bit machines smashing the 3D barrier in gaming's last true paradigm shift, but CEX was also sort of at the forefront of retro gaming, sometimes offering old arcade JAMMA boards at knockdown prices along with 'Supergun' devices to play them on.)
More importantly, though, before the days when videogame retailers devoted half their space to flogging preowned games, CEX was the only place where you could sell games as well as buy them. The scary prices of the latest import gear were offset by the fact that you could trade in the stuff you'd bought the month before, and get paid a decent price for it too.
The store's success saw it grow, first moving to a bigger shop in London and then branching out to new stores in the capital and then the rest of the country, and the business model was noticed and copied by both independents and chains, to the point where even Argos and Asda now buy used games. CEX – by now standing for "Complete Entertainment Exchange", having expanded into DVDs and mobile phones and other stuff – genuinely changed the entire face of games retailing nationwide.
Now, however, they're just a bunch of timewasting twats.
With an imminent project requiring a pricey new 32GB iPod Touch, I decided to trade in a bunch of stuff at the Bristol store. I hate going into Bristol at the best of times, and doubly so if I have to go by car, because the only car park that costs less than a fiver for a couple of hours is a half-mile walk from the main shopping precincts and getting there is a hellish trial involving all of the city's most congested streets.
So since it rained all day yesterday too, I was already in quite a bad mood when I got to the shop with my bag full of stuff. But, looking forward to conducting a nice bit of mutually-beneficial business and then going to the South African snack shop, I offered a cheery greeting to the sales assistant anyway. He, though, was as miserable and sullen as the weather, and would soon prove more dispiriting than the greyest drizzle.
Having not sold anything at CEX since the 90s, I figured I'd need a new account, and therefore probably some ID. I'd scoured the company's website in vain for any clue as to their requirements, then tried to phone, only to get a recorded message (absurdly pronouncing the name as "sex" rather than "kex", which at least offers an opportunity for a headline pun), noting that customer service was now entirely email-based. So I sent an email, but after a couple of hours there was no reply, so I'd grabbed a utility bill and a letter from HMRC (both dated within the last week) for proof of identity and address and headed off. (The reply, incidentally, would eventually arrive around 14 hours later, shortly before midnight.)
The morose counter-jockey, however, wasn't having any of it, and looked down at these bona fides in barely-concealed disgust like I'd just tried to hand him a dead owl and a bucket of horse manure. Apparently Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs isn't considered a reputable reference these days. Bizarrely, however, a credit card that I could have pickpocketed in the street five minutes earlier was deemed acceptable evidence of identity, and we moved onto the second act of the developing farce.
Though the shop was all but empty, our brooding hero grunted that I'd have to allow up to an hour for the testing of my items. These comprised an unboxed but immaculate 16GB Creative Zen MP3 player, a pristine five-month-old 16GB iPod Touch complete in original box and sleeve with unused, sealed earphones, a good PC graphics card barely a year old that someone had kindly given me but which wouldn't fit in my PC, and a Polaroid bluetooth photo printer that had only been out of its box long enough for me to discover that I owned one of the tiny handful of phones it wasn't compatible with, before being meticulously repacked.
The printer was instantly dismissed (although half the shop's shelf space was devoted to mobile phones), and the Zen followed within seconds, on the grounds that it didn't come with a USB charger and therefore couldn't be tested. I pointed out that it was already fully charged, and in any case took a standard USB mini-B cable which there were presumably a hundred of in the shop, but to no avail.
The other two items were deemed worthy of inspection, though, so I handed them over, got a receipt and went to wander around Bristol in the rain for 45 minutes (SHOPPING TIP: Primark is currently selling some really nice 100%-linen trousers for £9), comforting myself with the knowledge that I'd soon have some lovely cash and would be able to pick up a shiny and capacious new 32GB Touch while Currys still had their special offer of a free £50 iTunes card on. I returned to CEX three-quarters of an hour later, soggy but positive.
The first bad news was that the graphics card had one miniscule screw missing from somewhere around the fan, and although not a single component of the card could be wiggled even a fraction of a millimetre (and that again, presumably a computer-parts shop would have hundreds of suitable screws just lying around), this was an instant-rejection offence.
This left just the 16GB Touch, which amazingly CEX was prepared to take off my hands and make a tidy profit on. Sadly, not to the extent of giving me any actual money for it. Despite being a business built and named wholly around the concept of buying stuff from customers, the shop apparently didn't have any cash on them.
They were happy to hold onto my Touch for two weeks, during which I could make a 40-mile round trip to come in at random (there being no way to phone in advance to check, of course), and just hope that they had some money in the tills that day, or I could take it away and bring it back some other time, in which case we'd have to go through the testing process again.
I have to admit, I spent quite a few seconds gaping at the dour-faced assistant in mute, incomprehending confusion at this point.
Eventually collecting my thoughts, I concluded that I'd had quite enough of my time wasted, and elected to take the Touch back and do something more productive with it than trying to sell it to CEX, such as throw it in a river. So the ill-humoured assistant handed it over, minus the cellophane sleeve and protective screen-covering sticker – apparently thrown in the bin – and no longer neatly packed into its compact plastic casing.
As I tried to box it up again so it didn't get scratched or damaged in my bag, I inadvertently pressed the Home button and switched it on, and noticed that it now had a different screensaver. Suspiciously I touched a couple of icons, and had my fears confirmed – every single piece of content (which, ironically, I'd left on there in the first place specifically so the machine could be tested) had been deleted, and every setting reset to the factory default.
I could feel one of my special headaches coming on, the ones where everything goes a bit fuzzy and red and I wake up in the woods with a spade in my hand and binliners full of body parts everywhere.
"You've… deleted… all… my songs… and movies… and settings?"
"Yes. That's part of the testing process."
"How is that 'testing'? 'Testing' is seeing if it plays properly. This is 'wiping'. This is 'factory restoring'. That's really not the same thing at all."
"We can't sell it with files on it. Copyright and security and that."
"Obviously. But wouldn't the time to delete everything be – and stop me if I'm being a crazy irrational person here – AFTER you've actually bought it off me? You know, when it's actually YOUR PROPERTY rather than mine?"
"We put it straight onto the shelf."
"Of course. And you didn't feel that maybe this was something you should perhaps mention at some point when you take it in for 'testing'?"
"It's part of the testing process."
"But… that's… I… you…"
[vacant stonewall stare]
Reeling in sheer stunned disbelief, I gathered up the scattered components of my iPod and left before I discovered that store policy was to confiscate and/or smash anything left in the premises for more than an hour or something. Trudging back through the miserable rain to the car park, only my complete astonishment was managing to suppress the rage.
Now, obviously, the way iTunes works means that restoring the iPod is a relatively non-catastrophic task, requiring only a couple of hours of twatting around and re-syncing to get your songs and videos and settings back on there (assuming you don't use manual sync, in which case you're screwed). But you have to admit, it shows a keen dedication to wasting your would-be customers' time, above and beyond the call of duty, to operate your business in such a way that you can waste several more hours of their time even after they've left your shop.
Viewers! If you've got some high-end consumer goods you want to sell for someone else to make a profit on, I recommend going to the roughest part of your town and waving them around in a conspicuous and provocative manner until someone beats you up and steals them.
Because getting a brutal kicking and then claiming the money back on your home contents insurance will be a more fruitful, and much less painful, experience than trying to sell them to a useless bunch of timewasting fucking arseholes like CEX.
PS Does anyone want to buy a near-mint 16GB iPod Touch?