I was a bit fed up with records by now. I wanted to listen to them, collect them, and discuss them, not sell ones I didn’t like, to argumentative heavy metal fans, and old ladies. I researched new markets in which to invest my skills.
Food, and shopping for food, was changing dramatically by then. Large supermarkets, called Fine Fare, Safeway, and Tesco, were beginning to dominate high streets, especially in the suburbs. Even the traditional grocery shops, represented by Lipton’s, J. Sainsbury, and the ubiquitous Co-Op, were enlarging their stores, and reducing the amount of goods physically served to the customer. Self-Service was the new shopping catchphrase, and working women were no longer the housewives of the past.
Along with the busier lifestyles, came the need for food that was easier to prepare, required less fuss and bother, and could all be bought in one place. It wasn’t quite the death of the High Street, as we know it now, but it had definitely been diagnosed with a terminal illness. There was a new service being provided by companies, to meet the needs of these new shops, as well as continuing to supply more traditional outlets; Van Sales.
This was a change to the previous practice, where they ordered for next day delivery, or from a central warehouse. This was immediate, at a regular time each day, and could be increased or decreased, dependent on sales. For the shops, it removed their fears of being left with out of date fresh foods, and for the suppliers, it meant that they could take the reins of ordering and merchandising their own brands. I decided to step onto the running board of this new trend, and see where it took me.
To an outsider, it might seem that there is not a great deal involved in selling sausages, pies, bacon, and cold meats. They are staple foods in the UK, bought frequently, reasonably priced, and widely enjoyed. It is not a small thing though, it is a massive market, fiercely contested by those involved, and at the time I speak of, worth a huge amount of money. Companies were recruiting fast, and I joined the ‘number two’ company in the field, as a van salesman covering an area in South London, on the borders with Kent. There was no induction course, or training modules, delivered in a nice classroom environment. It was a 6am start, at a depot in a car park in Catford.
I got a company overall, a cash bag, and a list of products and prices, which got cheaper the more that were bought. I was accompanied by a grumpy trainer, for three days only. He ran me around, made me do all the heavy work, and shouted at me from start to finish. It was on the go, physical work, with no time for breaks, and being under the pressure of time, for the whole day. Luckily, that day was short, as nobody wanted fresh food delivered after 3pm. By Thursday, I was on my own, and decided to calm things down a bit. I planned my route differently, and got all the smaller customers out of the way first. They were the ones most likely to complain if I was late, or didn’t have what they wanted. Once they were dealt with, I could offload the bulk of the goods into a couple of supermarkets, sort out my paperwork, and pay in any cash taken. These vehicles were not refrigerated, so it was important to sell everything daily, as it could not be kept overnight.
I also got to keep the van, to use privately if I wanted to. I didn’t mind, as it saved me commuting in my own old car. My Dad was less amused though, as the company logo, of a laughing pig carrying a sausage on a fork, was painted all over the vehicle. He didn’t want this parked outside his house in Bexley Village, as he thought it was seriously lowering the tone. I had to park it further down the street, near a large hedge that shielded the offensive sign-writing from easy viewing. I liked the solo nature of this new job. Nobody to answer to, planning your own day, and finishing pretty much when you wanted. The downside was the juggling act, constantly trying to have enough to meet demand, but not being stuck with stuff either. It was not an exact science, so measures to deal with any problems had to be rapidly learned.
As I said, the vehicles were not chilled, but they were insulated. This meant that in all but the hottest weather, goods would stay reasonably fresh overnight. Sell-by dates were a new idea, and generally printed on the wrapper of the item. Bulk goods, like trays of unwrapped pies, or large bags of catering sausages, did not have a sell-by date. I had to learn, like a sorcerer’s apprentice, to invoke the magic arts of the food salesman. This was not difficult, as we all met every morning, to collect our goods for the day, and would have a quick chat, as we loaded our vans, and checked our deliveries. I listened and learned, very soon applying these new found skills.
Sell-by dates are easily dealt with. A dry Brillo Pad will remove the date, either causing doubt, or just enabling resale, in places where dates are unimportant. This takes time, naturally, but it is worth it, when you know how to capitalise on it. A certain percentage of goods were always written off, as spoiled, damaged, or simply beyond sell-by. These figures did affect commission and bonuses, but that was irrelevant, as our money was already earned. Any packaged goods that went out of date, could be easily sold on, unwrapped, and sold as ‘catering’ products. Sausages would be moulded into larger packs, passed off as bulk supplies for caterers. Pies were even simpler, as they were just placed in a tray, and sold as goods for cafes, or catering establishments.
It says something for the fallacy of the whole ‘sell-by’ ethos, that no-one ever died, or became ill, or complained, as a result of this ‘date adjustment’ policy. There was a much easier way to ‘fiddle’ things. This involved duping the original customer, by way of short deliveries. Sausages and pies were delivered in large plastic trays. These could be very heavy once filled, and given the large orders placed into some shops, difficult to manage. All the major supermarkets employed a ‘back door man’. They would check your order, and countersign that all was correct. We had a ‘cat and mouse’ relationship with these guys. They knew we were up to something, and we had to fool them. They had numerous deliveries being received at once; they were under pressure, and showed it. The plastic trays we used had slots in the sides. This was to enable the checkers to view the delivery, and count them in. We were normally one up on them though.
When I started, I noticed that my colleagues always carried empty egg boxes, although we did not sell eggs. I soon found out the reason for this. Placing egg boxes between the layers of sausages and pies, could give the impression that we were delivering full trays of goods, when we obviously were not. This was potentially a gamble, as discovery might lead to arrest or charges, or at the very least, serious complaints. If undiscovered, these short deliveries could prove incredibly lucrative. Substituting the egg boxes, could leave as much as 12 pounds of sausages, or 24 pies short delivered, sometimes 20% of any order. In a large shop, this could add up to a substantial amount of money, available at least five days a week. The goods not delivered, would be unwrapped, and sold to a catering customer.
Sometimes, they might even be delivered later, to the same supermarket that eventually paid twice for the same goods. I accept now , that this is dishonest, and illegal, and offer no justification for my actions. At the time, it was ‘the game’, and we all played it, and saw nothing wrong in it. Naturally, this element of dishonesty increased our income immensely, and could more than double our actual salary. At busy periods, such as Easter, and Christmas, it was literally a licence to print money. It is fascinating, to me at least, to realise that I earned as much money in the mid 1970’s , as I was earning before I retired from work, in 2012.
Greed is an unfortunate desire in humans, and it eventually took me over. I had heard that the ‘Number One’ supplier was looking for staff. They had a depot within walking distance of my home, and offered half as much again in basic pay, but no use of vehicles. I decided to give it a go, seduced by a much later start time, of 7.30 am. I quickly discovered why they started later. They finished later, a lot later. Working for the brand leader was an education. The volume was immense, the vehicles stacked to bursting. We went out with a minimum of two, sometimes three men, one driving, as the others struggled to prepare orders, in the moving vehicle. There were twice as many customers, and the volume put into supermarkets was beyond comprehension, with twice daily calls to the larger stores. From the time you hit the first call, until finishing late, around 5pm, you were running around, and shifting huge amounts of food.
The stacks of trays were often ten feet tall, and they had to be dragged from the van, into the shop, and all priced and merchandised into position. Even at a very young age, I returned home exhausted, and dreading the next day. And there were fewer fiddles. I had to live on the salary, and a few ‘catering perks’, along with free breakfasts. I was working twice as hard, for less money overall, and soon realised it couldn’t go on.
It is worth mentioning the sheer volume of goods involved. There were Pork sausages, Beef sausages, Pork and Beef sausages, as well as chipolatas, and bulk packs of catering sausages. Pies were available in assorted flavours. Pork Pies, Large Pork Pies, Pork, Ham and Egg slicing pies, Steak Pies, Chicken Pies, Mince beef Pies, Steak and Kidney Pies, Chicken and Mushroom Pies, Slices, and Pasties. Bacon was available in bulk packs, or retail packs, and involved Back bacon, Middle bacon, Streaky bacon, and could be un-smoked, or smoked. Then there were skinless sausages, Scotch Eggs, and numerous joints for carving; Beef, Pork, Cooked Bacon, and Hams.
The product list was enormous, and our stock was accordingly huge. Some days, we had sold out by 11am, and returned to refill the van, and start all over again. As the brand leader, the supermarkets called the shots, and could make us return late, as late as 5pm, to deliver additional pork pies, or sausage meat, depending on the season. I was soon sick of the sheer toil involved, and the lack of ‘extras’. I needed another move, and began to look for something else to diversify into.
It didn’t take long.