At the end of Part Four, I mentioned two more jobs, both covered previously, in other posts. These are behind us as we continue, and it is now 1976. My next sales venture was back in retail, though in a very different way from before, and for totally different reasons. I have touched on this earlier, in a post I called ‘Looking after Mum’, and I will now go into it in more detail, and if you will forgive me, at considerable length.
When my Dad left, and forced the sale of the marital home, I was working as a taxi driver in Kent, and Mum was working in an office job. I was in my early 20’s, and did not want to be tied to a mortgage at the time, especially one taken out with my own Mum. However, it was highly unlikely that we would have qualified for a home loan, as my employment was strictly ‘off the books’, and my accountancy procedures had been erratic at best. The amount of money remaining after the division of the marriage assets, was not enough to buy anywhere outright, so my Mum decided to use it all, and to invest in a business.
To make this work, she would require my involvement, as well as my commitment to working anywhere that she could afford to buy. This was hardly an inviting prospect for me, but I did not see how I could let her down, and leave her to fend for herself. Some research into various shops for sale, soon told us that we could not afford to buy freehold, and that we would need to find somewhere with suitable accommodation included as well. It took a while to shortlist some places to look at, but after a few trips, our mind was soon made up.
We had found an off-licence in Clapham, South-West London. This involved applying to be a Licensee Tenant, on behalf of the brewery that actually owned it, and we would be tied into buying all our alcohol through them. It was a pleasant corner location, a short walk from Clapham Common, and was attractive to me, for two reasons. It was a lot closer to where my girlfriend, soon to be my wife, lived. More importantly, in a very large building that had once been a Victorian pub, the accommodation was extensive, though the shop itself was of average dimensions.
There were two floors above the shop, offering me the chance to have a completely self-contained one bedroom flat, as well as use of the huge living room, and all the usual facilities. Downstairs, there was a very large storeroom at the rear of the shop, behind a small living area, serving as a place to sit, when there were no customers. Mum was accepted as the licensee after we had an interview at the brewery, and we had to visit the current tenant, to view the stock.
We met a man and his daughter, who were both running the shop at the time. He claimed to be retiring for health reasons, and freely admitted that the shop takings were also below his expectations, and gave him little enthusiasm to continue. This was hardly surprising, as the fittings in the shop were outdated, and stock levels were depressingly low. It felt unwelcoming, a little shabby, and they didn’t even have the lights on inside. (To save money, apparently) We discussed the sale, and we were told that we would have to buy all stock at value, which would be audited by an independent accountant. Mum and I thought we could improve things, by investing in a chilled display, getting in an ice cream fridge, and having suitable display stands installed, for crisps, sweets and cigarettes, which were only displayed in delivery cartons.
The flats upstairs would take all the furniture from our house in Bexley, and there was enough space to get a dog too. There was even a small yard at the back, with room to hang out washing. After a weekend of consideration, we went ahead, and agreed to take it over. Having seen the miserable pair running the place already, we felt sure that we could do better.
On the moving day, we knew that we would have to open at 5pm. The shop would remain closed for the morning session, but had to open in the evening, due to the rules attached to the liquor licence. We were aware that the strange hours involved would impact our lives considerably. It was a seven days a week operation, with hours the same as those that then applied to pubs. We had to open from 11am to 3pm, then we had to close until 5pm, when we opened again, until 11pm. On Sundays, this was all reduced by one hour. We could not close for half-day midweek, as all the other shops did then, and this was all subject to scrutiny by the Brewery, who had area managers checking on you.
Although we felt that we had bought a business, we had to face facts that all we had really spent our money on, was the right to operate this shop for the Brewery, and we could never own it outright. We were unconcerned, as it gave us a chance to combine somewhere to live, with having jobs as well, and that would have been impossible, had we not gone along this path.
Arriving at the shop, we were surprised to find it brimming with stock, of all kinds. Cigarettes of brands that we had never heard of, stacks of small plastic bottles of cheap-looking soft drinks, and hundreds of boxes of crisps and snack foods, again with brand names that nobody have ever heard of. The storeroom was crammed to the rafters, with crate after crate of empty bottles. There were beer bottles from the brewery, in quarts, pints, and half-pints, as well as dozens of empty soda-syphons. More worryingly, we discovered hundreds of loose bottles, not in crates, arranged in rows, all around the walls.
None of this had been there during our visit, when we first agreed to take over the place. In the shop, was an ancient electric till, previously unseen, and two large freezers. These battered freezers had also not been there before, and they blocked the path to the counter. They were also packed full, with strange ice creams and ice lollies, again with names never seen before. The auditor was there, hurriedly scribbling down every single item, from each bottle of wine, to half-used rolls of sellotape. The previous tenant had left as we arrived, and could not be contacted.
Something was going on, and we made it our business to find out what it was.
There followed intense discussions with the auditor, phone calls to the Brewery, and to our solicitor too. After a couple of hours, we got to the bottom of what was happening. The former tenant had deliberately let stocks run low inside the shop. This was to give the impression that it would not cost a lot to buy the ‘stock at value’. Once he had a changeover date agreed, and a tenancy signed, he returned all this defunct stock, from storage in a nearby warehouse. This would now be considered to be the actual stock in the shop on the day, and charged to us accordingly. The crates carried a deposit charge of £1 each, as did all the soda syphons. Though the empty bottles had a deposit value of only a few pence each, the huge number of them added up to an enormous amount of ‘dead money’, tied up in this exchange system.
Of course, we told the Brewery, and our solicitor, that we would not fall for this sharp practice, which was a blatant con trick, in our view. They were surprised at our attitude, telling us we should have expected this, and that it was all legal, so we would have no alternative but to comply. Failing this, we would lose our deposit, be out on the streets with nowhere to live, and would then be sued by the Brewery, for any losses incurred. It seemed we had no choice but to carry on, and we opened the shop at 5, as arranged.
During the first couple of weeks, it was all something of a blur. We discovered many other things to worry about. Children were returning countless empty bottles to us, to receive the deposit money, which they then spent on sweets. The problem was, they were sourcing them from everywhere, and we had insufficient crates, to return them to our supplier. We then had to ‘buy in’ crates, paying even more deposits, just to send the bottles back. We had to have a rubber stamp made, with the name of our shop on it. Every label was clearly stamped, and after a given date, we refused to hand over deposit money on anything that did not have our stamp. This caused untold arguments, not only with the local kids, but also with their parents, and many regular customers, who apparently hoarded bottles, until they had enough to get a decent deposit return.
This whole sideline, of the deposit payment, and return of bottles, was so time-consuming, and so irritating to the retailer, it is small wonder that it has now disappeared completely. It made you no money, and only helped the Brewery in the long term. If is ever to be reinstated, to help recycle all the waste glass, it will have to be much better organised than it was then.
Looking at the mountains of old stock we had been left with, Mum and I decided to get rid of it by means of special offers. We offered the ‘unknown’ cigarettes for sale at a 25% reduction, and the crisps were sold at half price. The cheap pop drinks were also shifted, on a ‘buy four, get six’ offer. This naturally cost us a lot of money, but at least gave us a fresh start, with more saleable stock. The main problems left were the rows of un-crated empties, for which we eventually had to buy-in crates to return, and the various items from companies that we did not have accounts with, so would not take them back.
We carried on with our plans to modernise the shop. The unattractive old desk that served as a sales counter was dumped, and replaced with a smart new-looking ( but actually second-hand) display fridge, with a serving counter on top. Customers could see the wines and cans clearly, and we could access the fridge from behind, to serve the chilled items. The shabby freezers were put into the storeroom, and a smart new ice-cream fridge installed. This cost us nothing, save a small service charge, as it was put in by the ice cream company who we traded with. We then set about re-organising the interior racks and shelving, which had previously displayed goods at random. One side was used for wines, with reds, whites, roses, and champagnes given allocated areas. Then we added Sherry, Port, and some cheap liqueur drinks.
The other side was left to display beers and soft drinks, with the most expensive spirits, cigarettes, and cigars, only accessible from behind the counter. We had a proper display rack for tobacco products built on the wall, to allow the customer to see the choices, and attract spontaneous purchases too. I bought a used sweet display rack from a supplier, and we enlarged our stock of brand-name sweets and chocolate bars. We also decided to increase our range of large boxes of chocolates, liqueur chocolates, and gift items, as we found that many customers arrived desperately seeking something for a forgotten occasion.
In a short space of time, we had transformed the look of the shop, changed the window displays, and made it cleaner, fresher, more welcoming, and up to date. But we had little money left, and were now dependent on increasing our trade as fast as we could. At least with only two of us serving, and being family, we avoided the problem of dishonest staff. We got a small new till that gave us a daily total, and could provide a receipt if the customer asked for one. We were careful to take notes out of the till on a regular basis, in case we were ever robbed, or had arguments about change. We had soon got to know the regular customers, and we took note of things we were often asked for, but did not stock, and went out of our way to get them in.
It was getting warmer every day, and we would soon experience the famous Summer of ’76, the hottest, longest summer in living memory. It was easy to see that sales of canned drinks, especially soft drinks, were increasing at an unusually high rate. Although we were tied to the Brewery for alcohol, we could buy everything else wherever we wanted, and we had accounts with the big companies, like Coca-Cola, and Schweppes, as well as numerous small local wholesalers. There were also some well-known Cash and Carry establishments that we could use to top up stocks, so we thought that we had it covered. Trade was steady, we didn’t pay ourselves much, though we ran a new car through the business, saving a lot; and despite the long hours, it was a congenial atmosphere to work in. Most of the time.
At that time, Clapham was going through a transition. Formerly a poor working-class area of London, it was fast becoming trendy, and a desirable place to live. Easy access to the centre, convenient tube stations, and the attractive open space of the huge Common; all of this was attracting young professionals, upwardly mobile office workers, and artists and actors, from all over the UK. Prices of flats and houses were increasing rapidly, and rental costs were so high, only those with considerable incomes could think of living there. On the other side of the main road, towards Chelsea Bridge, the large council estates of Battersea were being populated by West Indian, and African families, as the cultural landscape of this area changed dramatically.
An area once home to only ‘have-nots’ was becoming divided between the ‘haves’, and the ‘have even less’. We had to reflect this change in our shop, and cater for a clientele that bought cheap cider one minute, and a case of Chablis the next. It was a delicate balance, and did not make life at all easy. Unfortunately, this change brought with it some more worrying aspects. Unruly customers had almost been unknown before, but we could now get gangs of aggressive teenagers descending on us, as well as determined shoplifters, and others trying to pass bad cheques, or even forged currency. We started to notice things going missing during busy periods, and we also had to constantly refuse requests for goods on credit, something that was becoming increasingly common.
By far the biggest impact on our trade, was the sudden decision by the leading supermarkets, to sell alcohol. For you younger readers, this was something new then. Prior to this, any alcoholic products could only be sold in Licensed Premises, so just pubs, or off-licences. The supermarkets got round this, by applying for licences in the names of the shop managers, essentially making them individually responsible for this area of sales. For the big breweries, and soft drink companies, this was seen as a welcome sales boost, also reducing the need for them to have the bother of running their own shops and pubs. More than anything, this was the beginning of the end for the traditional off-licence, and eventually, many of the pubs too.
In the hot summer of 1976, it was also responsible for killing off what could have been a sales period that would have made our small shop a great success. It was so hot, that we could sell almost anything liquid, and cold. We soon sold out of all soft drinks, most canned beers, and many bottled beers too. The wholesalers had nothing, the cash and carry outlets were empty, and the supplying companies introduced quotas, for small customers like us. We might order 200 dozen cans of Coke, and only be ‘allowed’ to have 60 cans. Our customers soon deserted us, as the supermarkets had all the stock, their buying power held like a gun to the head of the suppliers, who sent them almost everything.
We managed to survive, just; but only because we were open late, as the supermarkets all closed at normal times in those days, and did not open on Sundays. The biggest sales opportunity for a hundred years, had left us with less sales than during the weeks before it began; it was a tragedy for us, and took a long time to recover from.
Outside of shop life, our personal lives were beginning to suffer. I was only 24 years old, and my relationship with my girlfriend was conducted at the counter of our shop, or after 11pm, as we sat upstairs, cashing up for the day. Mum and I were thrown together in a 24-hour a day working and living situation, and it was straining our usually good relationship. I rarely got time off, and even when I did, I could not relax, as I was worried about who was helping Mum in the shop, and whether or not it would all be OK. I also had very little money, as the wages provided by our profits were derisory. After a lacklustre Christmas season, I decided that I would have to get a ‘real’ job, if I was ever going to be able to save money, or have a decent future with my girlfriend.
I applied for, and got, a very good job locally. (This will be covered in the next part) This left the problem of managing the shop. My Mum was keen to engage an assistant, a regular customer who she got on well with, and had asked if we had any part-time vacancies. I arranged for a local teenage boy to come in after school, to help with the heavier jobs, sorting out the storeroom, and filling up the shelves. I also agreed to help out at the busier times, and to give Mum the occasional day off too. At the same time, we bought a flat not too far away, and I moved out.
I had a new job, a new flat, and a wedding planned for late December that year (1977). Mum was seemingly happy, as she now felt completely in charge, and was content to be there alone, as she had a huge Alsatian dog for company, as well as a kitten. The dog would sit under the counter, and looked suitably fierce, hopefully discouraging any robbers. I went off to my busy job every day, and helped three evenings a week in the shop as well. This was exceptionally tiring, and we soon realised that it would not work out. The assistant was employed, almost full-time, and I only helped at weekends.
Within a year, things were beginning to go badly wrong. The takings were still good, but profits were down, and stock was going missing, at an alarming rate. I worked some shifts there, taking holiday from work, hoping to discover what was wrong. I found that the teenager employed to manage the storeroom, was taking lots of sweets and cold drinks. I spotted a lot of discarded wrappers and cans at the back of the storeroom, hidden under some cardboard. He was too lazy to even throw out the evidence. I went to his house, and told his Mother. She was mortified, and felt very ashamed, accepting that he was now sacked, and barred from the shop. I also noticed that the new assistant, a woman in her 50’s, was very cagey around me, and that a lot of her family and friends were always hanging around in the shop.
I suspected that she was handing them extra goods free of charge, when they made small purchases, and perhaps giving them excess money in their change as well. It was difficult to prove, with no CCTV then, so I just had to let her know I was watching.
Mum would hear nothing against her, but then things started to get serious. The VAT people came in, and told her she was not paying enough VAT, or income tax, as her profits were ‘artificially low’. They suspected that the stock losses were contrived, to avoid taxes, and demanded that she pay thousands of pounds in unpaid back tax. When she tried to explain that she had to keep profits low, to generate custom, they would not hear any of it, and even her own accountant advised that she pay something. When I tried to tell her it was because of the assistant and her cronies, she became angry.
Around the same time, Mum was the victim of two robberies during opening hours, when individuals leapt over the counter, and snatched money from the till. The ‘fierce’ dog just watched them, he didn’t even bark. During all this trouble, the same assistant decided that she would leave anyway, citing family reasons. That confirmed my suspicions that she had been up to no good, and feared discovery.
Mum could no longer cope, the long hours and pressure was all getting too much. She sold up, and bought a small grocery shop in Kent. The off-licence time was behind her, and it did not leave either of us with fond memories.
I was still working at my new sales job, which is the subject of the next episode in this saga.