Going Shopping: The Victorian Experience

Some of you will recall that I recently posted a photo-series about the sort of shops that were around when I was very young. Some more research shows that around one hundred years earlier, during the Victorian Era, many of those same shops were already trading. It seems very little had changed between 1860, and 1958.

Sainsbury is one of the largest supermarket chains in Britain. British readers will know the name well, as there is hardly a town or city in the UK that does not have a branch nearby.

This is how they started out.

Much in the same way as so many Victorians liked to be photographed standing outside their beloved houses, the same applied to the shopkeepers of the time.

Long before local authorities banned excessive on-street displays for ‘health and safety’ concerns, it was usual for many goods to be stacked outside the shops. There was rarely enough room for everything inside, and all that stock had to be laboriously carried back in at closing time.

There were always lots of small shops selling household essentials.
This would have been the ‘Homebase’ of its time

An ‘Off-Licence’ (or License) is a shop that sells beers, wines, and spirits that have to be consumed ‘Off’ the premises. Unlike pubs, it was forbidden to open any bottles inside, or to drink them in there. Customers could take in their own pots and jugs though, to be filled from barrels of beer inside.
They continued until the supermarkets began to sell alcohol, and drove them out of business.
I actually operated one, with my mother, from 1976-1981.
Not this one though.
(The sign ‘Free House’ doesn’t mean that the drinks were free of charge. It means that the shop is not tied to one particular brewery, so ‘Free’ to sell all brands)

Sweets and chocolate were always very popular. Dedicated ‘sweet shops’ could be found everywhere, usually with small children inside, trying to decide which sweets to spend a very small amount of money on. They almost always sold cigarettes and tobacco too, and you can see that stated in small print over the entrance door.

Tobacconists usually sold newspapers and magazines too, as well as offering some sweets or confectionery to tempt customers.

At the same time in America, shops were getting grander and grander. This is a Philadelphia drug store, in 1880.
The interior is magnificent.

After trudging around doing all that shopping, the Victorian consumer usually liked to stop off for a cup of tea, and perhaps a bite to eat.
Popular ‘Tea Rooms’ offered genteel surroundings, and fair prices.
You would be served by very smart waitresses too.
Still prefer Starbucks?

I think it is a great shame that these character-filled small shops with their dedicated and knowledgeable owners have all but disappeared.

Like many good things of the past, they have been consigned to History.

Selling Yourself: Part Six

I hope I am not wearing down my readers, with this unusually long series on my exploits in the world of sales. Judging by figures for the posts, enthusiasm has dimmed somewhat since Part One. There is one more to go after this, and that will take me up to the Ambulance Service. No more selling stories to come after that, I promise.

As I have previously told you, I needed a job, as the shop was not paying enough to save for a future. I saw one advertised locally, and had an idea that I could get it, if I gave a good interview. It was back to sausages and pies, something I at least knew a lot about. My first employer in that field had now been swallowed up, and had become part of the brand leader, who had been my second employer. There was a new number two now, all these years later, and they were looking for staff, to cope with an ever-expanding market. They traded on a countryside theme, with a manufacturing base in the West Country. Their distinctive brown and cream livery was becoming a familiar sight in the London area though, and aggressively threatening the dominance of the leading giant. They were advertising for supervisors, in a depot in Battersea, and if I got the job, it would be a step up. The place was a little shabby, a portakabin in a large fenced yard, and a loading bay. Twelve delivery trucks operated from there, covering all of West, and South-West London; a huge area, ranging from Westminster down to Croydon, and all the way out to Heathrow Airport. There would be two teams, and a supervisor for each, the whole thing overseen by an area manager, responsible for three sites.

At the interview, I could immediately tell that they wanted me. I had already worked for the two largest companies operating similar sales, and there was not much I didn’t know about all the potential scams, and fiddles. The salary was more than generous, and could be almost doubled, by successfully hitting team sales targets. I would be expected to turn up very early, no later than 4am, and watch the loading of the vans, as well as dealing with the orders for the next day. Any complaints from customers about my team, would have to come to me to deal with, and I would also sort out time off, lateness, and sickness. When someone went sick, or took annual holiday, I would have to step in, and do their round, as well as my own job. The hours were long, and would include some Saturdays, and the job was confrontational in nature, so expected to be difficult, and stressful. That was why it paid so much. Still, I was only 25 years old, not yet married, and fit and healthy, so was confident that I could rise to any challenge. I got the job, and started the following week.

The deliveries arrived at the depot from the West Country, in the early hours. The driver would open up, off-load the entire lorry, then lock up, and return home. By the time we arrived, we were faced with hundreds of stacks of pies, sausages, and cooked meats of all types, piled to the rafters in the small depot. They were supposed to be stacked in some approximation of each van round that had ordered them, but were often mixed up, or just dropped at random. This instigated a free-for-all, as twelve driver/salesmen, two supervisors, and occasionally, the area manager, struggled to get it all into some semblance of order. The staff seemed friendly enough, at least at first. The idea of supervisors was a new one, and they didn’t really know what to expect. There was a closed shop in operation, for the union USDAW, and it was hoped that we would join. I later did so, although I was aware that this could lead to problems later on. My team was a mixed bag of individuals. I had a couple of loners, some fast-talking whizz-kids, and one man who was obviously not up to the job, and looked it. The shop steward was on my team too, a laconic, sarcastic man in his forties, who exuded an air of ‘seen it all, done it all’. By 7am, they were all loaded, and away. The other supervisor, a man somewhat younger than me, and a trained butcher, suggested breakfast, and we drove to a nearby cafe, for a ‘full English’. We were already worn out, and both had headaches, and the day had only just started.

Once back, we had to check the allocated stocks against what was delivered, and prepare the order for the next day, based on assumptions of what might be left over, and kept in the large refrigerated store. We quickly discovered huge differences between what was supposedly delivered overnight, and what had gone out on the vans a few hours earlier. As we had managed to check most of the orders first thing, we could only conclude that the sales staff had managed to alter their paperwork, to show shortages that did not exist. When we nervously rang this information through, the factory supervisors seemed remarkably unconcerned, and simply booked everything as ‘short-delivered’. They even suggested that we should write off some non-existent ‘damages’, to give us some extra flexibility with the shortages. The fact that it was obvious that our twelve staff had stolen almost £1,000 worth of goods, was shrugged off. It was too hard to prove, and not worth the effort of trying to establish who the culprits were. Besides, sales were on the up, and the profits rising accordingly. Sacking staff, and having disputes with the Union about dishonesty, would not bode well for a continued supply chain; and loss of deliveries, would have meant our larger customers might have changed to the opposition. We were amazed. They had employed the supervisors and area manager to stop this kind of thing happening, then didn’t want us to actually do anything about it.

What happened next, was worthy of a Brian Rix farce, or a Mike Leigh play. Every morning, we would arrive early, put the stacks into the correct order, and watch the staff load. They would be checked off as we did this, to ensure that there were no shortages. In the meantime, staff already checked, would load goods into other vans, who would then have too much stock. By the time we had it all sorted out, half the vans were short, once again. If we delayed the departure on the rounds, for extensive re-checks, customers would complain in their droves, and the salesmen would get off late as well. The whole culture of the company was to accept this wholesale theft, at the same time urging the supervisory staff to do more to stop it. I began to feel as if I was in an amateur dramatics production, running from one side of the depot to the other, as staff slid goods around, behind my back. There was only one thing left to do, only one course of action open to us. We joined them.

Once the supervisors were ‘cooperating’, we might just as well have had a machine that printed banknotes. The opportunity to write off imaginary ‘spoiled’ goods was enormous. With tiny adjustments on the paperwork, whole loads could be shown as ‘not received’. Nobody cared, no matter what the cost involved, as the profits were so substantial, it all went unnoticed. Ruined and damaged food was also tax deductible, as it could obviously not be sold, and in theory, went to be fed to pigs. In practice, it had all been sold anyway, as it was never damaged or ruined in the first place. Every day, day in, day out, we wrote off thousands of pounds worth of stock, as either unsaleable, or never received. The rewards were immense. Some salesmen drove Range Rover cars, and lived in houses with land, stables, and horses for their children. Others were less greedy, and chose to do their round quickly, and finish early. The earliest rounds were done by 10.30am, and even the latest returnees were away by 4pm. The longer they stayed out, the greater the rewards, both in actual salary, but also in unofficial earnings; some men had more customers ‘off the books’ than they did on them. And we still made the sales, smashing all targets, no matter how high. In the week before I got married, in December 1977, I earned more money than I did in a month, thirty-five years later, in 2012.

This massive income enabled me to do lots of things. After less than a year working there, we moved to a house in Wimbledon Park. We ran two cars, both fairly new, and top of the range, and had at least two holidays a year. My wife was able to give up her job, and return to college, to train to be a University Lecturer. I used to have so much cash in my pocket, it made my trousers uncomfortable. Most of us hardly touched our actual wages, which were still more than three times the normal rate in those days. They went into the bank, paid the mortgage, and direct debits, keeping  it all above board. Everything else was paid for in cash, lots of cash. But it came at a price, as it always does. The hours necessary to make all this work, were phenomenal. I was up at three, and rarely home until five. Hours of heavy work, perhaps covering a round in between too; followed by paperwork, hassles on the telephone, and making sure all the discrepancies were covered up. I was always tired, in fact shattered would be a better description. My colleague, the other supervisor, had a sickness situation on his team, so spent most of his day covering a large round. This took him twice as long as anyone else, because he was using the opportunity to shift vast amounts of ‘unofficial’ products. It was worth it financially, but it really was relentless.

In case you thought I had forgotten the actual job, I had not. This was busier then ever. The largest supermarkets, you know their names, made ever more demands on us, sometimes insisting on three deliveries a day in the busy seasons, which were Easter, Christmas, and most of the summer. If the salesmen were back, and finished for the day, they would not go out again; they had a union agreement forbidding them to do so. As a member of the same union, I could not ask them to do anything contravening local agreements. My eagerness to participate in the union had indeed come back to haunt me. It was left to me, and sometimes my colleague, or even the area manager, to get out there, with a small van, loaded to the limit, with whatever they insisted that they were short of. We were getting off later and later, having to eat our own products on the move, and paying for all that money with great chunks of our home life. And the fiddling in the shops was still going on too, that never stopped. At times, the combination of conning the company out of goods, followed by pinching stuff supposedly left in supermarkets, left us with so much money, it was too difficult to actually get it. We just had nowhere left, no outlets remained to take all the extra stock. Ironically, when this happened, we really did have to write it off.

In the whirlwind of all this fiddling and deceit, it was sometimes easy to take your eye off the ball, and forget your actual role as a supervisor. This was brought home to me one morning. The man who I suspected was not up to the job, and who I had noticed on my first day, was deteriorating rapidly. His sales were always low anyway, as there were no supermarkets of any size, on his Central London round. We would simply invent cash sales, that never actually happened, financing them from the huge slush fund available to us. This would keep his target secure, and accordingly, we would all qualify for bonuses. If he was ever off sick, or on holiday, I would do his round, make up half the sales, and still be finished by 10am, back to do my own job for the rest of the day. One morning, I got a call from his last customer, asking why he hadn’t been in. I made up a story about breakdowns, and set out to look for him. Following his normal route, I eventually found his van, in a back street in Pimlico. As first, I thought he was dead at the wheel, but I soon discovered he was flat out drunk, slumped in the driving seat. He was lucky it was me that found him, and not the Police. I had always suspected that he liked a drink, but never noticed that he had gone this far. I got him back to the depot, and arranged collection of the spare van, sorting him a lift home at the same time. I was shaken, as I realised that I had let him down, too busy chasing the cash. He had all sorts of problems in his life, but never felt able to approach me.

Not for the first time in my life, I realised that if all us had made a fraction of the effort actually doing our job, instead of putting all our efforts into ducking and diving, things would be a lot different. There was already talk of our company going the way of others, and reverting to a telesales service, with next day delivery. The bigger shops wanted us to deliver direct to their own warehouse, at greatly reduced prices, and they would sort it out from there. The cash bubble looked as if it was soon to burst, and it was all feeling very stale, with lots of deja-vu to boot. I started to look around for a job to move to. I was cautious, as I would be taking a huge drop in pay, even on a good salary. I wanted a decent car, so I could sell mine, and a nice area near the centre, to avoid staying out overnight.

One evening, I looked at the paper, and saw an advertisement for a sales representative for the leading manufacturer of cider in the UK. They wanted the Central London area covered, and offered a new car, and the usual salary package. Time to move on, to bid farewell to the sausages and pies yet again; this time for ever, as it turned out.

Selling Yourself: Part Five

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 working at my new sales job, which is the subject of the next episode in this saga.

Selling Yourself: Part Two

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.

Currency fluctuations

There is definitely something going on. I’m not imagining it, as I have the till receipts as proof. Things are going up. A lot. Prices are increasing well beyond reasonable justifications; such as the World Recession, and the collapse of the Euro Zone, or increasing fuel costs. And indecently quickly too.

When I moved to Norfolk, just under a year ago, I resumed my role as chief shopper in our household. I normally buy everything in one shop, Tesco, and get enough for a week of meals. There is the non-food stuff too, which varies from week to week, but not really enough to notice. We do not buy bread there, as Julie gets it in a high-street bakery, and any alcohol purchased, is paid for separately. Taking a random date, say April 2012, we could expect to pay about £88 for that once-weekly shop. This Thursday, buying almost the exact same stuff, the bill was £124. A small example, two chicken breasts, basic type, nothing fancy. They were £2 for at least the last couple of years. This week, £3. This is a massive increase in one small item, and to my mind, cannot be justified.

In under a year, the cost for virtually the same goods, has increased by £48. These shops have been on TV, trying to tell us that they are facing increased prices in Wheat, Animal Feeds, and Transportation Costs. One executive said that the wholesale prices to the shops had gone up, by between 10-20%. In that case, my chicken should have cost an extra 40p, at the most. But no, why should the shops leave it there, when they can just round it up nicely, to a 50% increase? More profit, better dividends for shareholders. I don’t consider that our shopping list is extravagant. There was no pate de foie gras, or quails’ eggs in aspic in my trolley. I used the ‘loyalty card’ vouchers, and bought the ‘buy 2 for £3’ deals, although they actually only save about 20p. It all adds up though, don’t you think? Or does it?

My pensions have not been increased, because the salaries that they were based on, have not increased for those still employed in those jobs. Julie’s salary at the bank has not increased either, due to the ‘Economic Situation’. Yet, everything else keeps going up, in unacceptably high increments. The lower income group in society is being penalised it would appear, simply for daring to exist.

Today, I received a letter from our electricity supplier, EDF. It was a statement, and a notice of price increases. It contained graphs, curve ratio charts, and numerous technical terms. All of these were used to disguise a monthly increase, from £25, to £57 a month. To fully understand it, would necessitate a degree in Physics, Maths, or Geometry; and that was the exact intention. Blind me with science, and then rob me of £32 a month. I wasn’t having it this time. It took an hour on the phone. I discussed our domestic usage, with a pleasant man in the North-East. I told him that we would not pay this increase. although I accepted that there would be increased charges, whether I doubted the need for them or not. After threatening to change to another supplier, the amount required miraculously dropped to £40 a month, and there was the additional sweetener of a discount of 6%, for paying by direct debit. It is still a large increase, but falls short of a mask-wearing bandit holding a gun in my face. Just.

There is a lot of money around somewhere. Many people around here are visibly flush. A non-scientific survey of the town centre car park reveals a lot. At least half the cars are less than three years old. Most of them cost (new) £22-35,000. About 10% are expensive four wheel drives, or executive saloons, costing well over £65,000. Waitrose is the most expensive of the mainstream supermarkets, yet their home delivery subsidiary, Ocado, has a small fleet of vans delivering around this area. There is money, and there is a lot of it. It just isn’t fairly distributed.

It seems that everyone in power, and all those controlling shops, fuel companies, and pretty much everything else, have all come to the same conclusion. They can milk the poor, to feed the rich. It is as if we have all been put into a time machine, and taken back to a time when ordinary, hard-working people counted for nothing. It is a national disgrace.

Shopping

Most men won’t have anything to do with shopping. If their wife or partner mentions a trip to the local city centre, or retail park, they will usually remember that they have to do something else, and it is very important. As for getting the groceries, they might be prepared to drive to the shop, but will sit outside, and listen to the sport on the radio, until it is time to load up the weekly shop, and drive home again. Even with the advent of ‘modern man’, ‘caring man’, ‘house-husbands’, and men who are prepared to wear moisturiser, shopping remains the last taboo.

I have never felt like that. Maybe I am ‘in touch with my feminine side’, who knows? If this is the case, it goes back to a time long before that phrase was ever uttered. I have just never seen what all the fuss is about. If your wife or girlfriend wants to wander aimlessly around lots of shops, until deciding to buy the first thing she saw, in the first shop she visited, where’s the harm? At least you are spending time together, getting out of the house, and having the option to eat out later, or perhaps see a film. If she asks you to choose between outfits, or asks if something makes her look fat, this is also easy to deal with. The most expensive thing looks the best, and nothing ever makes her look fat, at least as far as you are concerned. Job done. And it makes you very popular too.

These days, it is even easier to tolerate these trips, as many shops have nice cafes,  and some even boast acceptably good restaurants, so you can stop for a coffee, or a substantial lunch. Just accept that the day is gone, and plan around it accordingly. Tape anything you really wanted to see on TV, and plan to do something on the way to the shops, or after they close. You might even decide to get some of those things that you needed as well, so it could be useful for you too, rather than being viewed as an unpleasant chore.

Grocery shopping is a different thing. I get all the supermarket shopping, and much prefer to do it alone. I have a list, that is actually listed in the order that the products are to be found in, inside the store, and I stick to it. I am not swayed by signs that say ‘New fragrance’, Special Offer’, or ‘Just In’. I don’t mind a trip to the local hypermarket. I know that there can be lots of screaming kids, harassed housewives, and dawdling codgers to avoid, but there is also lots to see and do, as well as just buying the food and veg. You can examine the latest electrical items, play around with laptops, and try out cameras and phones. There are even clothes to browse, as well as a handy DIY section, a full range of best selling books, DVD films, and music on CD. Stationery, greeting cards, stamps, anything from a chemist, dry cleaning, and even a new pair of spectacles, it is all there. The ultimate in one-stop shopping. It is just a shame that they don’t do car repairs too, then you could get the car MOT done, while you are browsing, or sitting in the in-store cafe. It is also open 24 hours a day, so pick your time right, and you can shop in relative peace and calm.

So, calling all men of a certain attitude. Think again about your antipathy towards shopping. Embrace the idea, and with some suitable planning, and a smile on your face, you will be more attractive to your partner, and step up a few levels in their estimation too. And you will be a better man for it.

 

Halloween- Scmalloween

What is all this fuss about Halloween? Does anybody remember when it all started here? Shops full of pumpkins, devil-suits, and tridents; parties with fancy-dress themes, gangs of kids wandering about, begging for sweets. I certainly have no memory of it, in London at least, until about 1990. It is yet another unwanted American import, alongside baseball caps, (Who knows the rules? Come on, tell me.) rap music, and McDonald’s. Driven by the Marketing Men, Supermarkets, and Television, desperate to fill the gap between Summer holidays, and Christmas.

Why do we always fall for this rubbish so easily?  Is there no tradition that cannot be sold on, re-packaged for British taste, and successfully marketed, until nobody remembers a time before it existed? What’s next, Thanksgiving? That would fit nicely into the space before Yuletide, and would increase turkey sales even more. We could all wear stove-pipe hats, and big Puritan collars, trying to pretend it was OK to swindle the Red Indians out of their lands for a few beads and trinkets. It wouldn’t matter that there were no Red Indians here, we could just make that bit up. Or maybe we could call them ‘Native Americans’, to make us feel even less guilty.

Nothing has value anymore. There is no special time left. Hot Cross Buns are available all year, pancakes can be bought anytime, then microwaved, to save the effort in making them. Tangerines are no longer a Christmas treat, any Tesco will have them in, anytime you want. We have slowly removed everything that we ever had occasion to anticipate excitedly, and to look forward to, as the seasons changed. Once we had lost all that, we had to search elsewhere for something to plan for, and along came Halloween. We can now arrange parties, or the appalling ‘Trick or Treat’ parades (Ask them for a trick is my tip!), and have everything from themed burgers, to pumpkin socks. How did we ever cope before?

I would love to take you back in a Time Machine. You would relish the prospect of Buns at Easter, delight at trying to make pancakes on Shrove Tuesday, and be unable to sleep on the night before Christmas. You would never have heard of ‘Grand-Parents’ Day’, and Halloween would be something that was ‘done’ in America.  Brazil nuts and tangerines would appear in December, be enjoyed briefly, and would not be seen again, until that time the following year. Baseball caps would be worn by baseball players, and some other people in The Americas, but not in England. If you wanted a snack, you would be happy with fish and chips, or pie and mash.

There is nothing wrong with American cultural celebrations. They even keep some of ours, like Christmas. But the newer ones should stay on that side of the Atlantic, along with their terrible fast food. That way, those that seek it, can travel there to enjoy it, and celebrate the differences in our societies and customs. We might even tell them that we used to celebrate All Hallows’ Eve as part of the Harvest Festival, and that Halloween is a Scottish corruption of that phrase. That would make it ours then, not American at all. Like most things, including many we have since discarded, they were taken to America by settlers. America does not have a culture as such, just an amalgamation of many of the cultures of its numerous settlers, and more recent immigrant populations. However, it is doing a fantastic job of re-exporting those traditions, whether we need them back, or not.

Surely it is enough to celebrate the difference in the various traditions and cultures of the many countries and societies in The World, without having to assimilate everything? As the French say- ‘Vive la difference’.