This is the final episode in what has become a seven-part saga relating my experiences in numerous selling jobs. As I come to the end of this part of my history, it has occurred to me that I have now covered on this blog a great deal of my working life; also all three marriages, as well as my day to day life at the moment.
I have commented on countless films, and quite a lot of music, as well as voicing my opinions about world events, domestic politics, and other issues. Almost 330 posts, which I have to look back on, to even remember what I wrote at the time. Am I running out of things to write about? I have lived for sixty-one years, and almost covered that life so far. I will have to hope that this is not the case, and search my memory. I may even try a new category, and write some Fiction.
Anyway, I digress…
The cider company that I started to work for (Bulmers) still exists, and is very well known. At the time I was with them, they were still privately owned, by the West Country family that gave their name to the brand. They even owned the orchards that grew the apples for the drinks, and were one of the largest employers in their part of the country. Back then, cider was not the trendy drink we see today. There were no ice-filled glasses of Magners, or companies selling drinks pronounced ‘Cidre’, not Cider, and certainly no flavoured cider drinks like the ubiquitous ‘Kopparberg’.
Two companies dominated the market; the one I was employed by, and the ‘other’ one, which was called Coates-Gaymer. They had the cheesy TV jingle that went, ‘Coates comes up from Somerset, where the cider apples grow’. They also had the market leader at the time, called ‘Old English’. We considered ourselves upmarket by comparison, and were going all out to become number one in this area of the drinks market, which was then in a period of stagnation.
The reasons for the decline in the sales of cider were many. Lager was becoming more popular, and imported brands, like Carlsberg Export, Special Brew, and Stella Artois, were all beginning to appear for sale in the UK. They were trendier, grown-up drinks, and had no associations with quart bottles, or smock-wearing West Country farm workers. Cider had unwelcome connections too.
It had long been the drink of choice for alcoholics, street-drinkers, and the tramp-like underclass generally referred to as ‘Winos’. This was not a misnomer though, as these people actually did drink wine, the fortified tonic wines and sherries, like ‘Emva Cream’, or ‘Buckfast’. Cider was a reasonably priced way to get drunk, and to maintain that state of drunkenness over long periods. The two-pint bottles ensured adequate supplies, and even had the bonus of a money-back deposit on the empties. It was easy to drink, sweeter than most other alternatives, and sold almost everywhere. It was the stigma of street drinkers that was really killing the sales of cider though.
Shops did not want this sort of customer inside their establishments, and also did not want them sitting around nearby, on benches, on walls, or in parks, drinking the stuff that they had just bought there. They stopped stocking it, thereby solving the problem, at least for them, in one fell swoop.
It was our mission to get the product back into these shops, and to increase our sales in the outlets that still stocked it. We were also tasked with raising the profile of the drink in pubs and bars, pushing it as an alternative to real ales, and the new lagers. They did not suffer the same problem with unsavoury customers, as they could just refuse to serve them, and ask them to leave. This was not so easy in an off-licence, or small supermarket. It was primarily in city centres and large market towns, where this problem existed at all, and it was at its worst in Central London.
This was the reason for the new recruits like myself, and the increased investment in advertising and promotion that accompanied the larger sales teams. My area stretched from Bow, in East London, through the City and most of the West End, finishing at Edgware Road, which marked the Western boundary of my territory. This was potentially a graveyard for cider sales.
The shops in the East were fed up with the alcoholics and tramps, and those in the City and West End were refusing to stock ciders anyway. The few pubs where we still had a foothold were changing fast, with wine becoming more popular, and the latest lager beers taking over. It didn’t look too good, and I was starting to wonder if I had made a mistake.
These were ‘modern’ times though, and the company was set to respond accordingly. We had an arsenal of sales aids; posters, cut-outs, coupons, dummy bottles, and stickers. All of these were in line with the latest advertisements on TV, and in the press. We also advertised heavily in trade journals, and were always represented at conferences, and trade fairs, anything to do with the brewing, or drinks industry.
If all else failed, we resorted to outright bribery. Most shops and pubs we traded with then, were owned by large companies, and run by managers. They worked for wages, and sold what they were told to sell; they had no favourites, and no affiliations. If we could offer them a free gift, handed over at the time the order was placed, then this was something for them, not the company, and made them feel that they were being respected, and involved in the sales process. These gifts ranged from free bottles of champagne, to sets of golf balls, even small tool kits, torches, sets of glasses, or kitchen implements.
Those incentives, as we liked to call them, were always packaged attractively, and never looked cheap and nasty. They would be dangled like a carrot, and the bigger the order, the more they got. This was also used to gain valuable display space on the crowded bottle and can racks, an issue that constantly affected overall sales potential.
The other weapon in the war to increase sales was diversification. We wanted to be more than a cider company, to add to the range that we could offer to bars and retailers, and my firm actually came up with some really good ideas to help make this happen. They acted as distributor for one of the premier champagne houses, selling the ‘third best’ champagne in the world at the time, which was actually the market leader in ‘pink’ champagne as well. They then outdid themselves, by becoming the UK supplier for Red Stripe West Indian lager, and arranging to sponsor the coming Test Cricket season.
Things were beginning to look good, and were about to get even better. I finally had something to sell, that customers not only wanted, but also needed badly due to public demand. On the back of this product, I was able to reintroduce some of the cider products, and even sneak in some champagnes. I no longer had to bribe anyone either, as the managers were being instructed to take our goods at last. This left me with a nice sideline in undistributed gifts, which I naturally wrote off as given anyway. Everyone I knew ended up with stuff, from golf balls, to free champagne. The good times were back.
My biggest problem, was where to park my car. Parking in Central London was becoming more and more difficult, and I couldn’t rely on meters, as I never knew how long I would be away. Instead, I would head into one of the NCP car parks, like Shepherd Market in Mayfair, or Brewer Street in Soho, and use them as a base for the time that I was in the area, travelling back and forth to the car, as necessary. If I was in the City, I would normally head for Finsbury Circus, a really useful car park, in an ideal location.
The cost of this would have been crippling on a personal budget, but the company were happy to pay, albeit a month in arrears. This left me wandering around the busy centre, carrying cutouts of lager cans, or cider bottles, as big as myself, and laden with samples, paperwork, and order pads. I later added a tool kit to this, when we had another task added to our routine. The pumps in bars that dispense draught drinks, are a real front-of-house selling tool. The colourful headers, all facing the customer, are great advertisements, and have been shown to be responsible for impulse buys, as well as defining ‘choices’ for consumers. It was decided to change our branding and logos, which necessitated replacing all the headers in numerous establishments.
Now, as well as selling, and managing accounts, I would have to roll up my sleeves, get behind the bar, and change these things too. We were also given an expenses budget to buy drinks for buyers and managers. This was a cynical ploy, hoping to gain us more time to discuss orders, increase display space, and introduce promotions, as well as to build a rapport with these customers.
But for me, this was the real deal. Money to spend, products that actually sold, together with new branding, a fresh image, and the buzz of the City and West End. Surely it couldn’t get better? Then it did just that.
The entire sales force was called to a meeting at Head Office. We had been told that something exciting was going to happen, and a new product was about to be launched. As I already had my new Vauxhall Cavalier car, and I was doing pretty well with sales and customer development, I was not apprehensive of unforeseen dismissal, or other reprimands. The meeting was brief, and concerned the agreement to distribute a product. This was not a new product as such, and for those of us who had travelled abroad, it was familiar. However, our company had arranged a deal to be the sole supplier in the UK, and they were very excited about it.
We all had two bottles in front of our seats, one a litre size, the other a quarter litre, which looked tiny by comparison. It was Perrier Water, a huge brand in France, and some other countries around the world. Some of the sales staff were bemused. They did not agree that people in England would pay for bottled water, something available free from the tap. If this sounds strange now, when everyone seems to always be clutching a bottle of the stuff wherever you go, consider that this was the late 1970’s, and bottled water was rarely seen here then.
As the representative for half of London, I knew different, as did my colleague, who covered the Western half of the metropolis. We were all too aware of San Pellegrino, Vichy, Evian, and others, and their popularity in the bars and restaurants of London. The company gave us all sales targets, which were modest, and to my mind, easily achievable. We were also given a car load of promotional material, and boxes of samples to give away. There was one problem though. The recommended retail price put this bottled water into the premium category, meaning it would cost the customer as much as a cheap bottle of indifferent wine, or a quality lager.
As we left, the other salesmen looked glum, and made defeatist comments. Perhaps if I was facing the prospect of trying to sell this idea in Sheffield, or Wrexham, I might have felt the same. By contrast, I was bullish, and pleased to have anything to take the pressure off of selling cider, the least popular product in my own area.
The next week, I was out early, clutching my huge cutout bottle photos, and carrying a bulging case full of the small samples. There was a great Ad campaign running alongside our new product, and the company had pulled out all the stops. I hit Soho straight away, sure that customers in that area would snatch my hand off, for such a trendy product. What I actually hit, was a brick wall. I found myself dazed and confused; nobody wanted it. The bars and restaurants, the natural market for such things, were already tied into deals with other companies, and they were happy with their current sales of San Pellegrino, the popular Italian water.
They did not see the need to offer alternatives, a far cry from the separate ‘water menus’ found these days. In the shops, they hardly sold water anyway, and actually laughed at me, and in particular, the inflated retail price. All I heard, day after day was, ‘who will pay that, for water?’. I found myself at a complete loss. The company had been expecting so much, and were getting nothing. The story was the same everywhere, and customers would not even take it on a ‘sale or return’ basis; we couldn’t give it away.
Investments had been made, and pressure was applied. London was expected to save the day, and I could hardly sell a case of the stuff. I changed tactics completely, and began to call on wholesalers, notoriously difficult customers to even see, let alone deal with.
One late afternoon, actually on my way home. I pulled a card from my prospecting box with the address of a wholesaler that I had not yet called on. It was close to Blackfriars Bridge, in a run-down office above a shop in Farringdon Street. I parked on a meter near Smithfield Market, and walked around to the place, which looked closed. I went up, walked in, and was greeted by a young man. He told me that he had just taken over the company, and was too busy to see me, without an appointment. I left a product sample, and a business card, and departed, asking him to let me know when he was free, for a longer talk.
I didn’t have to wait long. The next day, he left a message with Head Office, (no mobiles then, at least not in everyday use) asking me to call in to see him, at my earliest convenience. I did so, on my way home again, around 4.30pm that day. One of the truest things I ever heard, was the old saying ‘don’t judge a book, by its cover’. This was yet another example of how accurate this can be. This young man, a few years younger than me even, was a classic entrepreneur. His shabby-looking company, that no outsiders had ever heard of, was actually the largest supplier of various sundry goods to the restaurant and catering trade, all over London and the Home Counties. His client base was enormous, and did not include any of our existing customers, as we did not call on small restaurants, or catering companies.
And he was interested in stocking the 25cl bottles of Perrier. Very interested, in fact.
He debated prices with me for a long time, too long for my liking, as I realised I wouldn’t get home until almost 7pm. However, as I was leaving, I asked him one last question. ‘If I can get that price, how much are you thinking of ordering?’ His answer simply staggered me, and I tried to look nonplussed, as if it was an everyday event. I had never been so excited by an answer, at least in all my years in business. ‘Let’s say a quarter of a million litres to be getting on with, but I want that price though’. That was a million bottles. I was light-headed, as I descended the stairs, and made my way back to the car. Not only was this ten times our entire target, for the whole country, it would get the brand into a potential new market of thousands of outlets. I arrived home talkative and exhilarated, unusual for me, when it came to selling.
The next morning, I delayed my normal departure, to get straight on the telephone to Head Office. It was like ringing up to confirm that you had won the Football Pools, and I expected nothing less that shouts of delight from the managers. I was surprised when their response was lukewarm, and they even had the temerity to ask if I had sold any litre bottles, to other customers. They said that they would discuss prices, and contact my area manager, who would get back to me later. After three days, I had heard nothing, and contacted him myself. He arranged to come and meet me for a coffee, near one of my calls in the West End.
In many ways, that meeting changed my life, and altered my future. He told me that they would not be taking the order that I had got. It was not a question of the price, rather security of distribution. In other words, they were too scared to sell so much, to one man. It would have solved their sales problem, but given them an altogether different dilemma. Perrier would have to deliver such a huge order direct to the customer, on large trucks, all the way from France, as we did not hold sufficient stocks in the UK. The underlying fear, was that this young businessman would steal the distribution away from us, and strike a deal with Perrier, as we only had an interim contract, that was not open-ended.
Added to this, was the worry that Perrier would actually see a real opportunity in the UK, instead of a sideline, and operate over here themselves. I had never been involved in decisions made from this strange kind of logic before. I was told to contact my customer, and to tell him thanks, but we will not be supplying him. I made protestations to my manager. Why was I out there? What was the point of it all? Why make such a great sale, then be too afraid to supply it? It struck me that this was a small-minded company, parochial in outlook; their actual operation belying the modern nature of the marketing strategy. I took my leave, and continued with my day. But my mind was already made up, and I did not want to carry on working for them.
I reflected on my Dad’s maxim, delivered so many years earlier. I had never really sold myself. Nobody had ever wanted to buy me. I had spent years selling stuff of all kinds, without ever really selling it. I had ordered it, I had merchandised it, and I had placed it in shops, on sale or return. In retail, I had handed it over counters, placed it in displays, and responded to customer demands.
However, I had never actually sold something to anyone that they did not really want to buy. The only people who had been doing that, were some car salesmen, and direct sellers, like double-glazing companies, and some more unscrupulous con-men. The whole industry had the wrong name. It wasn’t selling, it was supplying, and distributing. I had spent years of my life living a lie, and making profits for companies that I had little or no respect for. I was sick of it, and needed a complete change.
Time to go. Again.
I had considered the emergency services at least twice before. I failed to get into the Police, as I was too short. When I applied, at the age of nineteen, they had a strict minimum height policy. If you were a male applicant, you had to be five feet eight inches tall, and that was that. I was five feet seven, (and a fraction) not tall by any standards, even wearing a large Police helmet. Despite having all the necessary educational qualifications, and some relatives on the Force, I was knocked back at the medical, with a ‘sorry son, too short’.
By the time they scrapped the height requirement many years later, I was far too cynical about their role, to even consider a second application. I had also tried the Fire Brigade. Their medical was even stricter, requiring the carrying of a dummy around an exercise yard, and a breathing test, to see if you could wear the necessary apparatus in action. I failed on both counts, and was told that I could re-apply later, as long as I was ‘considerably fitter, and laid off the cigarettes’. At the time, I thought that both these jobs were worthwhile, and served the community, without making profits for multinational companies.
Later, I was less sure about that. Unhappy at the cider company, I started to look around for a new job, one that definitely did not involve selling, and preferably something that had some social credibility.
I saw an advertisement for the London Ambulance Service in the evening paper. The basic pay was less than one third of what I was then earning, and I would naturally lose my nearly-new car. This would drop us down to a one-car family, for the first time since we married, and would mean that I would have to suffer the indignity of using a moped to go to work on. After a brief discussion with my wife, about happiness, careers, and doing something useful for society, I applied.
The rest, as they say, is history.