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.