Monday, July 31, 2006

Yesterday's little rebellion

On my own with the Invisible Man (aka The General Manager, aka The Stud) yesterday, I lost my temper after spending most of our opening hours issuing refunds and making till changes for products that were 'on offer' but not scanning correctly.

Only at around 3:00pm with an hour of trading left did I discover that for the first time in memory some of the deals included in the offer period that ended this weekend just past were ending on the Saturday, rather than the Sunday. We had spent the Sunday trading with promotions of offers that had ended. The end date is the fine print and an argument could be mounted that the customer should have taken the time to read that fine print ... but as customer relations go, giving prominence on the shelves to offers that have lapsed is a bit of a fiasco as I can testify after a day of dealing with the frustrated to down-right livid.

We had been offering lots of deals on ice-creams and related frozen confectionary lines: half of the promo. flyers had to come off, but had to stay on. Then I phoned the GM (who was skulking in his office)and told him what I'd done expecting to have to argue a defence for having committed such an outrageously unilateral and independent act. Instead I got stunned silence followed by a request that I repeat.

Did no one higher up the food chain bother to point out the unprecedented end date of some offers? If they didn't were they expecting to rely on the "read the fine print" argument. Belatedly I had someone go round the rest of the store ripping off the out-of-date offer signage. Probably cost us some measurable percentage of our profits and blame hasn't yet been apportioned.

I'll get it in the neck for the refunds and the till adjustments, but I'll be expected to blame the AGM who was supposed to be managing the offers, who in her turn will also get it in the neck from the AGM will lash out at the shop floor staff who fail to manage their sections with sufficient care and everyone will blame the system and the higher life forms who leave us to swing in the breeze.

In the grand scheme of things this was just small change, but as a vignette it illustrates perfectly the sundry minor failings that mount up to constitute a failing internal system and a collosal leakage of staff moral and customer goodwill.

Saturday, July 29, 2006

Culture Stuff

Before turning my hand at retail I worked in management consulting for seven years (and before that I worked as an ...). I don't do regrets but I do see now that I missed a trick not blogging my way through my stint with the nameless firm I gave seven years of my life to and the clients we fleeced: and I mean that. £1,600 a day for me?

We overdid the culture crap, we tied ourselves in knots and spent small fortunes in our attempts to get the culture thing right. Performance management, training and development, career management, personal development planning, development centres.... and we made increasing use of technology to plan, develop, operate, evaluate and communicate all this 'stuff'. To support this every individual had access to an intranet and not merely the right but the responsibilty to avail him or herself of this information and the opportunites for development and progression provided by the firm.

Of course there was secrecy, of course there were circles within circles and of course there were machinations.

What we didn't do was blame and fear. Partly this was down to careful recruitment. We recruited people who could cope with self-starting, self-development and thriving in an up-or-out culture (particularly, in the latter case, on the fee-earning side).

I had no idea what I was letting myself in for when I joined this current outfit. Having been reared in a culture which expected me, when I had a question, to identify and go directly to the source of information.

So in all innocence I called our HR deparment when a few store staff had a question about pay rates. It's an HR-y question so I call HR. Obviously. Er, no.

I made the call at about 9:30 and spoke to some young thing who offered to post the information I was asking for to my home. I asked that instead she fax it to me directly at work. She then got cold feet (though I wasn't certain that was what was happening until afterwards) and said she'd check and come back. A couple of hours passed and no fax. I went off to lunch.

I came back and a few minutes later the phone at my desk rang. It was the GM.

>Had I phoned HR?



:To get some information about ...

>Well you should have asked me


>What did you want to know?

:What the award says about pay rates

>What do you want to know?

:What the award says about pay rates

>Well, you [blah, blah, blah]

:This isn't about me

>You [blah, blah, blah]

:This isn't about me

>What do you want to know?

:W h a t t h e a w a r d s a y s...

>I know that there are rumours going around, there is a lot of discussion and mis-information about what people are entitled to this coming bank holiday - but you are [blah, blah, blah]

:I just want to be able to read, for myself, what the award says

>Well there's a copy of it on the staff canteen's notice board...

:There is?

>Well there should be (much background muttering, seems he's not alone and now The Hairdo is in a panic, I'm beginning to understand what I've triggered)


So let's get this straight. I can go upstairs and read the fucking thing (if it is on the staff notice board) but I can't have a copy sent to me. I could stroll upstairs to make a cup of coffee, take the thing down, bring it back with me to the office, copy it and then quietly return the original - but I can't have the fucking thing faxed to me.

I don't think he's ever forgiven me: because he, and by way of what passes for delegation The Hairdo too, has responsibility for providing certain information to the staff and by calling HR I'd led to them querying whether the fucking thing was properly displayed, or in other words whether The Stud and The Hairdo are doing their job properly.

Oops. Bad politics I grant, but I still think the whole thing is fucking stupid. You see, back in the half hour before I made that call to HR I actually did consult with a colleague who's been with the business for 9 years about where I might find the information I wanted: she didn't know about the pay arrangements for bank holidays being in a document on the staff notice board. As far as I've been able to ascertain no one else did either.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Information overload, but it cuts both ways

From the moment the Shopper steps foot inside a supermarket he or she is subjected to a barrage of information.

The challenge this constitutes compounds and compounds as the Shopper is drawn past the newspapers and magazines into the greengrocery department. Beyond lie the dairy and other chilled goods on one side and the deli on the other. At the far end is our in-house bakery. Having made it this far the Shopper is confronted with our butchery and seafood offerings.

By this time the Shopper (who may or may not have arrived with a plan - see here for an exploration of The Shopping List) has probably given up what from the start was a very unequal struggle and surrendered to us.

Things only get worse from this point. Which ever way the shopper turns there is no escape. Head south and face a wall of herbs and spices that segues into jams and pastes or strike out in a westerly direction past the bagged bread in the direction of a long tunnel of biscuits and snacks.

Which ever way the Shopper turns he (for the sake of simplicity) will turn left or right at some point and run the gauntlet or one or more of our 'aisles'.

First aisle is (currently) laid out with the pastas and sauces, followed by the 'ethnic' food(yes, that's what its called, though only for internal consumption: it's the rices, noodles and asian sauces, plus the mexican range) and then whole foods (that's the tofu and other inedible stuff). On the other side are the tinned crap (mostly baked beans), tinned veg, tinned meals (actually more tinned crap) and then the tinned fruit.

On and on it goes, through household, baby stuff, petfood, beverages, soft drinks, booze, health and beauty and frozen goods. Beyond the main aisles lie the remaining concessions - pharmacy, electrical and travel.

Everywhere the shopper turns he's being manipulated; everywhere he turns he's being bombarded. Every item we stock (excluding some loose greengrocery and some loose bakery) is packaged, and the packaging carries information.

The packaging will bear some combination of branding, variety, description, size (weight, volume, length), barcode, price, special offer specifics, manufacture's name, supplier's name, customer care details, warnings, contents, instructions for use/cooking, manufacturing codes such as production date and batch number and Use By date.

Sometimes in addition to all the above the packaging carries competition details, or marketing hooks: New Formula! New Scent! New, Improved! New, Bigger! Now 'whatever' than ever!

The shelves carry 'shelf labels', the price tags which carry a whole lot of information, some proportion of which is utterly of no interest whatsoever to the Shopper. The information on one of our SLs will include:
  • some abbreviation of the product name
  • the size
  • the price
  • the warehouse source (of no interest to the customer)
  • price per unit or weight (supposedly to facilitate understanding of the price and also make comparison possible)
  • barcode (of no interest to the customer)
  • warehouse code (of no interest to the customer)
  • manufacture code (of no interest to the customer)

Unfortunately the information provided by the manufacturers (and us) doesn't end with those shelf labels (always assuming we've actually got them present and correct). Also taking up space along the shelves are the 'offer notices'. These are much larger than the shelf labels and also a contrasting colour. They carry information about BOGOFs (that's buy one, get one free) or TWOFERS (two for - or three, four etc, some price). We also, sometimes, do those old-fashioned WASNOW (clearance price type offers) deals.

The aisles are usually something of an obstacle course. In addition to the mid-aisle displays (including the one topped out with a TV that promotes a range of shoddy domestic cleaning gadgets) you'll often find abandoned warehouse cages, packaging litter and abandoned shopping, as well as geriatric customers, middle-aged conflabs and an assortment of children.

Beyond this the store is festooned with more or less pointless 'stuff' such as bobbing flowers to celebrate the warm weather but really to add more noise to the cacophony. What limited wall space is available will be plastered with posters promoting a cross-section of the current deals and special offers.

Within the arrangement of the departments the goods are arrayed with multiple sometimes conflicting objectives.

On the one hand the supermarket has an obligation to its owners to maximise the return available from inducements to position products in the position of choice of the supplier/manufacturer.

On the other hand the supermarket has an outright objective of selling through as much as possible in the shortest possible time. So product must be placed within sight of its target audience. Which is why granny's mints are at her eye-level but her grand kids lollypops are at their eye-level. Simple and blindingly obvious. Where there's a conflict the product that takes precedence (inducements being equal) will be the product with the most demanding target. That means toddlers.

Don't expect products to be clustered. The chopped tomatoes will be on one shelf, while the chopped tomatoes with garlic will be on another shelf and foot or so to the left and the chopped tomatoes with garlic and herbs will be on yet another shelf and someway off to the right. Why? Because it forces the shopper in search of that particular product to scan the shelves in way and to an extent that he or she might not. In this way we hope to contribute to maximising impulse buying.

Impulse buying is one way in which customers are beguiled into spending more than they'd intended (or even perhaps can reasonably afford); buy buying things they absolutely don't need.

No-one impulse buys milk.

Another way customers are beguiled into spending more than absolutely needed is through the pricing structure, tortuous 'deal' terms and conditions and sloppy labelling. Bigger isn't always cheaper. Study the price per (100g/kilo/cl, whatever); take a calculator if necessary. Often the largest packaging of a product will have its price per described one way while the other smaller sizes will be described in other ways, making it difficult if not impossible for the shopper to be canny.

For the second time this year we're offering a range of our bottled ales and beers on a 3 for £4 deal. Individually the beers are £1.85 per bottle. About eight beers are included in the offer and the shopper can purchase any three beers to qualify. The bottles are all on the top shelf in a block. Except that there's a cuckoo in the nest: in their midst we've placed another popular bottled beer which we sell at the slightly higher price of £1.89. Now of course the customer's got an obligation to pick his way through the promotion fine print, which isn't so small anyway.

But the number of customer's who've come to the tills with one of these cuckoo bottles strongly suggests that they're making what they see as a perfectly reasonable assumption that the whole row of bottled drinks is included in the offer. And all to often when confronted with the evidence of their mistake - the fine print, the shopper chooses to add to his shopping with enough bottles from the range in the offer to qualify the offer but without returning the bottles of the non-qualifying product. They just take the added hit.

I also wonder quite how exercised we as a business are about complying with the Sale of Goods Act. We're selling a range of flash priced ice-creams, we've been selling them for weeks, one of the most popular varieties for some reason doesn't trigger the offer at the tills, so the customer ends up paying for each at the individual price rather than in accordance with the flashed Two for £x price.

Of course when a customer picks up the mistake we're all grovellingly apologetic and refund the overcharge. But someone somewhere quite possibly is making the calculated decision that anything less than 100% return for refund is a win for us. You can be certain that someone sits in an office quite a long way from the nearest customer.

On average every three weeks our offers change over and the first few days afterwards are total chaos. The offers don't scan properly, the check-out staff and their supervisors get totally stressed and a flurry of emails ensues as we work to get the offer coding right. Inevitably after the first few days things settle down as the necessary programming of the tills is fed in finally and everything scans.

And that is precisely what makes me so cynical about the ice-creams. If we can get each offer period's new deals working within a couple of days (and of course they should all work from the off, but that's a different subject) then why has the ice cream still not been sorted out after weeks and weeks?

On a completely different level we simply fail to keep everything we're selling properly and accurately price-tagged. So people buy what takes their fancy without any regard for the price they're going to be charged.

This can have unfortunate consequences and sometimes unpleasant ones. Yesterday I was confronted by a seriously pissed-off gentleman who'd picked up a couple of bottles of a wine from one of the display bins down in the dairy section. He found me on the shop floor and complained that he'd been overcharged because the wines were being promoted as a 2 for £x offer and he'd been charged full price. I went round with him to look at the promotion. Often the shopper has not read the fine print (see above) and can be brought to accept that they've made a mistake.

Unfortunately what I found more than justified the shopper's state of fury. First of all the two adjacent bins held two very different wines and neither bin had any pricing information whatsoever. Secondly, draped across the bin from which the shopper had drawn his two bottles was a sign that did indeed promote a wine on a 2 for £x offer. But the promoted wine was the wine in the adjacent bin. Someone from among our staff had clearly got bored before completing the stack. Instead of setting up the promotion poster in a stand he or she had left it lying about, where isn't clear, and at some time it had become associated with the wrong wine.

Now the poster did specify, down in the lower right corner, which of our wines qualified for the deal, but handwritten rather than printed. The irate shopper's point which was that it was difficult to know what to believe when we were so sloppy in the way we laid out our product and failed to apply price labels and display promotion details was entirely valid.

By the time he'd finished I felt thoroughly wrung out and half-expected a visit from trading standards.

I sorted the promotion posted and price labels out and got back to my job. I didn't bother telling the GM what had happened because he doesn't care. If the customer has made a mistake, and the sign did specify the wine (or in other words we're skirting on the right side of the law in respect of the promotion), then all the rest (including the customer relations) isn't his problem.

And you can bet if Trading Standards had turned up to rap him over the knuckles he'd have clobbered someone else in turn.

Wednesday, July 26, 2006

Workplace negotiations

First of all identify the weakest link in the rest of the management chain and offer up the hope that you'll be her friend (and laugh at her unfunny jokes), then dig your stubby little toes in. Pout and insist that you won't do any more holiday cover until you're given approval of your chosen holiday dates. Then sit back and wait. In the time it takes for the coffee maker to overflow and send fresh coffee tumbling in aromatic rivulets down the front of the box-safe you'll have her back with not just a confirmation of your holiday dates, but an offer to re-jig things so that you don't take the bank holiday as a Monday, and she'll pay you for it anyway because its one of the days you're contracted to work.

I'll settle for that for the moment.

I didn't get poked in the shoulder by any repellent customers yesterday, which in some ways constitutes a victory.

We had our fair share of muppets though. Including the woman who couldn't read the shelf talker promoting soap powder offer. Including the couple of kids who picked up two random packets of bacon and then complained when they didn't go through on the TwoFor offer we currently promoting on a completely different range. The chicken satays still don't scan. One product from the ice-cream TwoFor offer still isn't keyed into the offer: quite why every single customer buying from the offer range is picking up this particular product is mystifying. I guess without such screw ups the check out supervisor would be out of a job.

Some fool wandered in with a couple of boxes to deliver. He wandered in through the front door and spent an unhappy 15 minutes touring the aisles before anyone pointed out to him that the service entrance would be a more appropriate place for deliveries. Our yardman spent a happy half our in the afternoon inside the chicken ovens. He's that sort of odd-ball.

The GM fucked off during the middle part of the day to take delivery of his new gazebo. He's spent a fortune on his garden this summer. The mood lightened appreciably. For a shot time everyone was able to get on with his or her job, without his particular form of micro-management to send everyone climbing the walls.

The stock take apparently went well and the figures were well within tolerances. Not only that but our trading figures are coming out top of the regional league table.

We're all feeling rather smug. An insubstantial post, I admit, but it is rather warm already and it is my day off.

I'm off shopping.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Some stuff our staff tolerate

There's standard crap and then there's industrial grade crap. In the main our staff cope with the run of the mill by being run of the mill but when the industrial grade crap comes along they can surprise everyone, themselves included probably, by rising to the challenge in the most heart-warming way.

Leaving aside for the purposes of this post the management weaknesses there are still many challenges; they include in no particular order:

  • Thieves, aka Shoplifters. The shop floor staff are our eyes and ears. The walls of their lunch room are adorned with cctv images of known thieves and staff are expected to be alert at all times to attempts by these known criminals to carry out an offence within our premises. If you ever see a member of store staff behaving like Inspector Clousseau on a bad day, that's quite possibly because he or she is making a valiant attempt to be more effective than said inspector without any professional training whatsoever.

  • Under age would-be customers. Alcohol, cigarettes, lottery, matches, lighters and knives are just some of the lines we sell that are 'age restricted', though the age varies. Our policy is that customers who don't look at least 21 years old should be asked to produce ID and the range of accepted ID is very limited. The personal consequences of being caught not adhering to this policy are rather serious ( formal discipline leading directly to dismissal for a second offence).

    The consequences of selling to someone who is underage and being caught doing so are potentially catastrophic. Trading Standards (under the cosh) are investing heavily in choking the life out of the problem from the supply end as manifested in supermarkets and other retail outlets for alcohol. Of course the business would suffer from bad publicity and potentially loss of licence, but its the poor sodding checkout operator who gets the fine and the criminal conviction if she or he gets it wrong.

  • Smelly customers. We're not talking BO, we're talking the kind of stench that can make a toughened stomach heave at ten paces and can be smelt from one end of the store to the other. This is the kind of reek that lingers long after the actual source has left the building. We have two sources, and they are both regular visitors. Both are elderly ladies, both have attentive husbands. We're mystified.

    So bad is the stench that emanates from these two ladies that we have an established alert network, thanks to which we know from the moment either enters the store that she's around. The check-out supervisor will do what she can to ensure that Smelly Lady ends up at the check-out operated by her least favourite operator.

    Rumours abound from the soft hearted that both suffer from medical conditions that are the root cause of the stench; the hard headed know, this being a small town, that both live in the midst of too many cats and too much detritus and that if they'd only clean up their respective acts they'd both smell a lot less offensive.

  • Mad ladies: We only have one at the moment. She's almost extraordinarily well spoken, when she speaks at all. Her brain though has been fried by drink and drugs. Out side the store she's infamous for stomping up and down the high street all day, veering from one side to the other for cause of something or other imperceptible to moderate drinkers, totally oblivious it seems to road users and other possible threats on her life. Come hail rain or shine she wears a heavy coat, jeans turned up to mid calf and deck shoes. In winter she adds a beanie, in summer she wears a head scarf. She mutters to herself too.

    She comes in pretty much every day to buy a small amount of shopping that she gathers into one of our hand baskets. On her bad days she won't carry the basket, though. Instead she kicks the basket around the store, keeping it just ahead, never more than a couple of feet from her. To my knowledge she's never actually kicked her basket into another person or a fixture. She must be quite practiced. It isn't easy to kick a semi-loaded shopping basket with any degree of accuracy. I tried it once out of curiosity.

    Depending on her particular form and degree of paranoia she might take it into her head either that she's being followed or that something malign is emanating from one part of the store or other; under such a delusion she'll slope about the store, basket at her feet, with her coat pulled up over the lower part of her face in an effort at disguise or self-defence.

  • Bad drivers: bad driver hazard comes in three forms. First the car park ayrton senna, determined to take someone out with him (or her). Then the trolley trasher, determined to sever a few achilles heels and take out a display stand or three. But the greatest threat of all faced by our staff (and customers too, I guess) are those geriatrics who insist on getting their bloated carcases about in what are known, I believe, as mobility carts. They're those electric scooters old folk drive about town without regard for rules, manners or the safety of anyone. No driving licence required. No thought required either, it seems.

    Easy Rider has been banned after being caught trying to make a getaway in one laden down with half a dozen bottles of hot scotch. This has caused great distress to the underage yoots who loiter outside; he had been one of their chief sources of illicit booze. Several others though still will insist on manoeuvring these damn things into and around our store.

    Clearly this is all ageist, these mobility carts transform the lives of those who would otherwise be housebound. I'm just intrigued that such a high proportion of their users are so grossly overweight. Fat so they can't be bothered to walk, don't walk so they get fatter. The arrival of the mobility cart seems to herald the departure of the will to get any better.

    One of my favourite poems is the one about getting old and wearing a purple dress and running my umbrella along the railings of the fence (etc), but please, if you ever see me get into those carts, shoot me.

I've not covered rude customers, stupid customers, work-shy colleagues, incompetent colleagues and other stuff that will come to me. I guess there'll be a sequel.

Friday, July 21, 2006

If you ever get the feeling

that the place you're shopping in is run by a shower of idiots who couldn't stage the proverbial piss up in a brewery then, guess what? You're probably right.

The retail sector isn't my natural home, I knew that years ago; I'm a lousy customer, how could I make a success of stack 'em high, sell 'em cheap. We're not quite at that end of the market but we're not far from it.

Whereever this curious career detour takes me, however it ends I won't regret it for the vivid experiences: the sampling of life amongst a demographic I've rarely experience before and in an economic cul-de-sac.

For all the importance of consumer spending to the overall economy, however central retail is to the circulation of money (the oxygen in the bloodstream of the economy), it is in many senses a dead end.

There's nowhere else for the product to go once it gets here. It simply has to be sold or it can't be, and nature abhors a vacuum. People make stuff and people build stores in which to sell stuff and employ people to stack and flog stuff and employ people to design manipulations to convince the public that they need (and can afford) the stuff.

The truth though is that most of what we sell every day of the week is non-essential. I'm willing to bet that probably 90% of what passes through our check-outs falls into that category in the sense that no-one would die for want of that soft drink, bag of crisps, chocolate, alcohol, cigarettes, biscuits, cakes and so forth. We feed our selves and pour the other 90% of our grocery spending into 'stuff'.

The alternative to this cornucopia of choice is of course the starkly unappealing barren shelves of eastern europe and the soviet union before the curtain crashed.

So I'm conflicted. I do believe in a free market economy, I just find the logical conclusion of that argument as manifested in cheap, mass-produced junk made for and bought by people who have no real need for it (can't really afford it anyway) thoroughly distasteful.

It seems you can't go wrong by under-estimating the taste and discretion of British consumer. So we flog microwaveable burgers which must surely be disgusting. They almost certainly skirt the line that exist to define and separate what is fit for human consumption from that which is not. And they fly off the shelves.

Most of them are bought by spotty yoots who should be immersed in academic work or in training towards acquiring a saleable skill or in a job. These yoots are being left to drift through their adolesence without any direction or supervision and without a clue how to look after themselves. When they can they purchase cigarettes and alcohol.

A proportion of the rank produced is purchased though by the mothers of these yoots and their younger siblings. This junk is fueling a generation of brits that have worse prospects than any generation born in the preceding century. The very technology that enables me to compose and publish this post is driving change at a pace that like all seismic industrial shifts before it leaves vast swathes of the population drowing in its wake.

When my ancestors took up work in dangerous conditions on the railways or down the coal mines or in the factories 'up north' they didn't do so in hope, they did so in desperation.

No need to take a lousy job these days. The state takes with one hand and gives with the other. Like a latter day Robin Hood, the exchequer and the inland revenue stand shoulder to shoulder and between the haves and have-nots.

The people who stack shelves and operate the checkouts of our supermarket in the main stand just one notch up the food chain. If they're older women they weren't properly educated in the first place, were given no plausible alternatives as children and teenages to marriage, home and a job that fitted in with the demands of the husband, the house and the kids.

The rest are people who couldn't get a job anywhere else for some other reason (and currently that does include me).

Even the General Manager's neither as intelligent nor as competent as he likes to believe but some rat-like instinct has told him that with his limitations he'll rise relatively higher up the food chain in retain than he could in any other sector. Nowhere else would be be earning 50 grand a year, but then nowhere else would he have risen to the heights he has scaled.

Circumstances of one kind or another drive almost all of those in retail to chose it over some other sector. Very, very few are actually called to work in the sector and for them I feel a mixture of awe and compassion.

Relatively speaking at every level within retail peanuts are the going rate and monkey's are what we get to choose from. And that goes someway to explaining why the last couple of nights we've had about twice as many staff in as we actually required to receive and break down what was being delivered and put it on the shelves. But tonight when the biggest order of the week was about to arrive, we were struggling to man checkouts let alone fill shelves.

Only one AGM was available to work the shop floor (Barbie doesn't do nights and The Stud and his paramour were trysting somewhere off-site). That left The Bulldog effing and blinding all over the shop when I called in to pick up a few last minute bits and pieces for the evening meal.

Staffing is put in the hands of a bonkers Supervisor who has a good but imperfect grasp of English and her own very firmly fixed views on what is required. But the consequences of her folly laid at the feet of management who either shrug their shoulders and marvel at the sheer folly that seems all-pervasive while the on-duty manager effs her way through her evening. On the other hand the same customers who on Wednesday night must have felt under seige every time they looked like they just might need help were left tonight wondering if anyone actually was working.

Poor lambs. There's always That Other Chain.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006


July. Summer. Hot weather. Dining al fresco. The circumstances demand to be taken into consideration when planning product lines and when ordering.

Which goes no way towards explaining why we're not getting burger buns or 'finger' (hot dog) rolls.

The man in charge of the bread department calls our supplier. The lovely young man on the other end of the line says "we have a problem". The man in charge of the bread replies with "I have a problem, and its you." The Bread Man asks why he hasn't received the rolls and buns he ordered. The fragrant young man on the other end of the line complains that its hot, as though demand for such bread lines should be depressed by the heat.

Patiently the Bread man explains the link between warm weather, dining alfresco and the upsurge in demand for precisely the sort of bread line so popular at barbeques.


The Bread Man has no say in which supplier he orders the bread from. Such issues are decided by beings further up the food chain and at several removes from the 'coal face'. Who ever drafted the contract we have with the Bakery neglected to insert an effective penalty clause. The bread's supposed to be with us an hour before we open in the morning, but since the penalty clause only kicks if the bread's more than three hours late the bread turns up pretty much whenever the bakery's driver feels like it.

Under pressure from That Supermarket Chain (which recently opened an outlet near us now on the bakery driver's route) he took to delivering to them first, though we'd amended the contract to require that he deliver to us first.

That Supermarket Chain only obtained planning permission for their outlet, which is situated in a built up residential area, when they agreed to only open at 7 and accept deliveries during business hours. Threats of legal action were required before they brought their practices into line after opening. Mind you the man who was running the place at the time has since been sacked and taken up a job as a school caretaker.

In the meantime we still have to deal with our supplier's rather lacadaisical approach to order filling and time keeping. We do have fun with heaving, sighing customers who take one look at our empty shelves and stomp off vowing only to shop with That Supermarket Chain in future. They usual slink back an hour or so later, tails between their legs, only having discovered that That Supermarket Chain hasn't any more bread than we do.

The Bakery gets its revenge for our compliants about having to deal with the consequences of their incompetence. The bread trays are left out in the open for long enough, between bagging and loading onto van, for the birds to have their breakfast and every day, without fail, the Bread Man gets to pick through the delivery to remove the bags the birds have pecked through.

Inevitably one or two will slip through the net from time to time and so I get to deal with the complaining customer who has finally got his or her bread loaf and got it home, only to discover that the birds got there first.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Ten Things Your Supermarket Doesn't Want You To Know

This is the text of an article written by Anne Kadet which can also be found here at SmartMoney's web site. It was written with an American readership in mind and and consequently there are aspects of law and practice that are inapplicable in a UK or European context. I haven't cleaned up the American Spelling yet, but will get around to that. Furthermore the article first appeared in 2001 and the passage of time may have resulted in a limited amount of redundancy. Nevertheless, read on:

1. "We trick you into paying higher prices."

Most of us have spent enough time in supermarkets to think we know how to save a few bucks: Buy in bulk whenever possible and buy brands that are on special. Too bad the supermarket chains have quietly changed the rules.

Bulk buying, it turns out, is often more expensive, simply because in the early 1990s supermarket chains figured out that consumers lean toward it, and they've jacked up prices accordingly. "Supermarkets know that consumers believe a two-pound package is cheaper, ounce per ounce, than a one-pound package," says Arun K. Jain, a marketing professor at the State University of New York at Buffalo. "

But the reality is, you're often better off buying two one-pound packages." He estimates that almost all supermarkets engage in this practice. We found proof at a store near the SmartMoney offices, where a 12-ounce bottle of Aunt Jemima syrup cost $2.09, while a 24-ounce bottle was $4.65; a quart of Lactaid milk was selling for $1.79, while a half-gallon was $3.85.

2. "Our 'specials' are anything but."

Do you tend to pick up a supermarket circular when you walk into your store, hoping to cash in on the weekly sales? They can be a bad deal. "Shoppers don't bother to compare the price when they have a coupon," says Jain. "So supermarkets use them to unload products that are more expensive than other brands."

Some supermarkets even raise the retail prices on items during weeks in which store coupons will be appearing in newspapers and circulars. "The regular retail prices fluctuate, making the discount seem larger for some sales," says one ad-department employee at a large supermarket chain.

Also, beware of the false in-store "sale environments," complete with a separate cardboard display and handwritten signs displaying the price. "People think it must be a special deal," says Jack Taylor, a professor of retailing at Birmingham-Southern College in Birmingham, Ala. "But in reality, it's the same price as always."

3. "Everybody pays a price for our 'loyalty' program."

More than 50 million Americans use supermarket loyalty cards that entitle them to special in-store discounts. Who foots the bill? Those customers who refuse to join. "The whole point is to give the best shoppers something special, and you have to pay for that out of something," says David Diamond, president of emerging business for Catalina Marketing, the St. Petersburg, Fla., company that handles many supermarket card programs. "It used to be that everybody got Rice Krispies for, say, 79 cents. Now they're available to anyone for 89 cents, but the best shoppers get them for 49 cents."

And if you do join, you'll pay in another way — with your privacy. Diamond says his company sells to manufacturers only data that don't identify individual consumers. But under special circumstances, your shopping history may be used against you.

Consider the case of Robert Rivera, a 62-year-old retired tow-truck operator in Los Angeles who in 1995 slipped on a carton of spilled yogurt in his local supermarket, shattered his kneecap and filed a lawsuit against the store (later dismissed by the judge for lack of evidence). During a discovery session, Rivera claims, a lawyer for the store threatened to air his buying habits. "He said they had information that I buy a lot of alcohol," says Rivera. "I shop at lots of different stores in the chain. There's no way they could have known that unless they used my club card information."

"They know if you drink, have hemorrhoids or practice safe sex," says Los Angeles consumer advocate Tim Duffy. "I tell people, unless you're using the card to cash checks, give them a fake name." Luckily, your supermarket will usually play along. Safeway, for example, allows members to sign up merely as "Safeway Customer."

4. "Our stores might make you sick..."

You'd be horrified to find roaches, rats or other critters in your kitchen, but those same creatures may be running amok in your grocery store. A 2000 New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets report, for example, found rodents, birds or bugs in the aisles of almost 15% of supermarkets. At an Albany, N.Y., Sam's Club, an inspection turned up rodent-gnawed chocolate bars, 500 samples of mice droppings and six dead mice in aisle 13. (A Sam's Club spokesman says the store has "taken extensive steps to correct the problem.")

And while the bugs and rodents present an obvious health hazard (flies can carry E. coli on their legs and bodies), the pesticides that stores employ in defense can be worse. "We've seen people go in and spray pesticides [and] actually contaminate the food," says Joe Corby, director of the Food Safety and Inspection Division of New York's Department of Agriculture and Markets.
How can you tell if your seemingly bugless supermarket is really safe?

Good supermarkets employ a food safety manager to ensure the foundation entrances are sealed and food shipments are inspected before they hit the shelves — the best ways to prevent vermin from getting in. One red flag: old, faded stock. A failure to rotate products properly gives insect eggs that have snuck in with grain products time to hatch and create an infestation.

5. "...and if they don't, our employees will."

Six-legged creatures aren't the only cause of harmful bacteria at your supermarket. "Employee practices are probably the No. 1 cause of cross-contamination," says Joseph Reardon, a food compliance supervisor with the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services.

The problem, in part, is the nature of the workforce, which is typically unskilled. But management also shoulders plenty of blame. "The hours budgeted for cleaning are constantly under barrage by management, and it's hurt food safety," says Carl Lafrate, president of ProCheck Food Safety Consultants, a Baldwinsville, N.Y.-based firm that designs food safety programs for grocery chains. Five years ago, "meat departments were cleaned every four hours, but now they've cut that out." Indeed, in a recently published survey of U.S. supermarkets, the FDA found that more than half of deli workers didn't properly wash their hands and that 45% of meat department employees failed to keep surfaces sanitized.

To find out how your store scores, request a copy of its most recent inspection report. In most jurisdictions, inspections are handled by the department of health, consumer affairs or agriculture.

6. "Federal guidelines? Who cares?"

While the FDA regularly issues a food code to suggest good safety practices, it's merely a recommendation — the federal government has no role in supermarket inspection. Not surprisingly, few of the 3,000 regional inspection authorities update their local regulations to match the current food code. The result? Utter inconsistency.

The food code, for instance, recommends that cold foods be kept at 41 degrees or lower, but most states set it at 45. The code also recommends that stores be given a maximum of 10 days to correct health violations; Vermont gives stores a month to comply.

"Some localities are still using the 1976 code," says Charlotte Christin, a food safety attorney for the Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit Center for Science in the Public Interest.

"There are pathogens that injure people every year that no one even knew about [in 1976], such as a deadly strain of E. coli."

Even if the local laws reflect high standards, they're not always enforced.

"Most states require annual inspections, but that's often not taken seriously," says Lafrate. "In a lot of states, inspections are generated only on a consumer complaint basis" — a good excuse to complain if your store looks subpar.

7. "'Fresh' is a relative term."

What do some supermarkets do if the steaks don't sell fast enough and start to look a little grungy? Grind it up into hamburger meat. If the chicken is past its "sell by" date? Slap a new label on it.

Surprise! Except for regulations about baby food and infant formula, there are no federal laws mandating product dating. In most states a retailer may legally sell foods beyond the date on the package as long as the product can be considered unspoiled and safe to eat. Even repackaging is legal.

The FDA does requires that if dates are provided, they be accompanied by an explanatory phrase, but those phrases won't reveal much about the true state of the kielbasa in your cart: A "sell by" date simply tells the store how long to display the product, while a "best if used by" date can suggest when the product will lose its peak flavor or quality. Only an expiration date can be used by the supermarket as an indicator of whether food is still safe to eat. Not that you're likely to find one. In the majority of states, no type of freshness dating on food is required at all.

8. "We like to play head games."

Shoppers who stick to a prepared shopping list are few and far between — and they're also the supermarket's worst enemy.

How do supermarkets capitalize on your tendency to stray? They play soft music in the aisles, inducing you to relax and spend, says Richard Rauch, a professor of marketing at Long Island University who consults for supermarket chains. Some stores, he adds, even use special mood-enhancing lighting that filters out higher frequencies in the visible light spectrum. It produces only relaxing colors such as blues and purples, which reduce the rate at which your eyes blink.

"It slows your pace and gets your mind to slow down," says Rauch. "Using lighting to create an atmosphere is not an unusual tactic. Most of the larger, more sophisticated stores use it."
That bakery smells good, doesn't it?

There's a reason those ovens are always on full blast. "Studies show the smell of baking bread drives people bonkers," says Jain. The scent drives up sales all over the store. "We haven't encountered these things," says Todd Hultquist, a spokesman for the Food Marketing Institute, a retail association. "Retailers want to offer the best value, quality and selection. That's what drives sales."

9. "Our product offerings are rigged."

So your local supermarket stopped carrying your favorite brand of potato chips? Don't assume it was discontinued. More likely, the manufacturer refused to fork over its "slotting fee" — a payment to the supermarket in return for shelf space.

Many manufacturers gladly pay such fees to score shelf space at eye level, where the products are most likely to attract attention. But other kinds of slotting fees stifle competition, hurt consumers and hold smaller manufacturers over a barrel.

Among the worst: "pay to stay" fees — regular payments the manufacturer makes if it wants to sell its goods in the store. According to Rauch, supermarkets make more than half their profits on such fees. It's an issue that many small manufacturers quietly accept for fear of angering the powerful supermarket chains.

At a 1999 Senate Small Business Committee hearing on the issue, some small manufacturers testified with hoods and voice scramblers to conceal their identity.

Slotting-fee profits are passed to consumers as lower prices, insists Hultquist. But Nicholas Pyle, vice president of the Independent Bakers Association, says those fees force bakeries to increase wholesale prices, which cancels out in-store savings. "Otherwise," he says, "they couldn't survive."

10. "Our scanners are a scam."

While supermarkets were among the first stores to adopt scanners, many stores still can't use them right. A 1998 FTC study of supermarket scanner systems found that roughly a fourth failed to earn a passing grade, and a few chains overcharged customers on more than one out of 12 items.

The most common errors are made on sale items, says Jerry Butler, a field supervisor with the North Carolina Department of Agriculture's Standards Division. Usually, store management just neglects to enter the sale price into the scanner system.

Tim Duffy says that jotting down prices and watching the register can pay off more than you think. Over the course of one year, he patronized California supermarkets that give customers an item for free if the scanner rings up the wrong price. By year's end, he says, he took home more than $4,000 in free food, which he donated to charity.

The Back Office

I refer often to the Back Office without having elaborated on the physical layout of the building. Building layout is an under-recognised and esoteric science, which perhaps explains why the person who designed the layout of our building got no further than the layout of the shop floor.

On the ground floor (and there are no subterranean floors) perhaps 85% of the available floor space is given over to shop floor laid out in a good approximation of the familiar tried and tested supermarket lay out.

Customers enter via the kiosk where we sell cigarettes, news and magazines and lottery. This kiosk area also has snacks, sandwiches, drinks and ice-cream so that people wanting a Sun, sandwich, chocolate bar and fizzy drink don't actually have to enter the main store. Beyond the kiosk, separated from it by one way operating doors, lies the greengrocery department. From there the shopper is guided past our deli, dairy, bakery and butchery before entering the part of the store where we stock the tins, jars and packets of the stuff with which people feel compelled to fill their trolleys.

In the most remote corner (relative to the entrance) we have a pharmacy concession and a travel concession by the exit. At the far end of the odyssey lie our checkouts: nine of them in total, two of them wide aisles, one of them a designated "express" check-out. For the convenience of our customers we provide a photo booth, a pay-phone, a business card kiosk and a child's ride. We have a large board by the exit on which people can post (free of charge, for a fortnight at a time) notices such as offers of items for sale or wanted.

Behind the shop floor, through swing doors, we have a lower warehouse on this ground floor. Tucked away behind the kiosk are two doors; one opens onto the foyer with the clocking-in machine and the stair case leading to the upper floor, the other is the door to the Cashiers Office.

Upstairs we have a second, smaller warehouse as well as vast staff room, toilet facilities, offices for the General Manager (long, narrow and soul-less) and the Assistant General Managers (long, narrow, and shared) plus a security suite.

Nobody much likes upstairs, particularly at this time of the year. If there ever was any ventilation it long since got clogged up and what we're left with is rather like a sauna without the moisture content.

That doesn't go any way to explaining why absolutely everything seems to happen in the one, small office downstairs.

The office downstairs contains the two networked computers, only one of which in installed with both the stock software and the financial software. Both computers have Windows (hiss) and Lotus Suite (yes, really) installed.

The second computer is used for email and sundry administrative processes, such as recording price and date checking, preparing end-of-week documents and so forth. It is probably the most under-used asset in the building, while the computer along side it is the most fought over. Go figure.

Often I've thought the obvious solution would be to install the stock and financial systems on the second computer, and install a second fully loaded computer in one or other of the offices upstairs.

This would improve accessibility to business critical systems. It would also alleviate strain on the office space in the lower office. At times we've got, working should by shoulder, the Cash Supervisor, the Checkout Supervisor, the General Manager, one of his deputies and perhaps one or more members of staff all jockeying for position in what is barely space for three people to work comfortably.

For reasons of convenience pretty much all but the most sensitive conversations take place in the lower office. In the midst of bellowed conversations between the GM and one of his deputies on the one hand and the Checkout Supervisor and one of her troops on the other the Cash Supervisor is supposed not to make mistakes in managing our cash to the nearest penny.

Sometimes the place looks like organised chaos, rest of the time the place is organised chaos: Staff back and forth asking for a program form or a label request or order sheet of gap check schedule or a holiday request form or .... Replacement pens, box cutters, name badges which mysteriously vanish. I swear there's a corner of this building into which such items, having lost the will to live, crawl and die. One day during the demolition their sad desiccated remains will be disinterred to be mourned over.

In the mean time the checkout boxes require supplementary floats during the course of the day, the lottery facility needs new boards, ticket rolls, or other paraphernalia. Reduced stickers are requested periodically. Customers request higher value face cream or razors or higher DVD/CDs (all items particularly vulnerable to pilfering and kept in the lower office rather than on the shelves).

Staff want to come in and argue over mistakes in their pay, plead special circumstances over short notice holiday, complain about work assigned, colleagues, the temperature, the scheduling of tea breaks, the colour of the walls (pretty much anything and everything).

Following an attempted ram-raid we also keep the tobacco products and the lottery instant win tickets in this office overnight.

This is not an environment in which anyone could accomplish successfully and accurately anything demanding any great degree of concentration, yet that's what we attempt to do every day of the week.

Fortunate really, because over the years all sorts of things have happened or been discussed within its four walls; that's a lot of anecdotal material to accumulate.

Thursday, July 13, 2006


Bloody hell.

This country has such a monumental problem with alcohol - far too high a proportion of the population have a problem with alcohol. Alcoholism, binge drinking, the associated anti-social and criminal behaviour are rife, or so we are to believe.

It was ever thus. See Hogarth et al.

This Government formulates policies and enacts laws but it (and to be fair its predecessors all) is in a bind.

Alcohol has acquired a mystique and has always enjoyed a certain social cache. So drinking is aspirational behaviour. The magic number is 18. Before that age the consumption of alcohol is an illicit thrill underpinned by bravado, after that age the consumption of alcohol constitutes a badge of honour. Either way consumption must be conspicuous and excessive.

The consequences are wasted lives and broken flower pots, blighted townscapes and litter.

Government must respond and must be seen to respond to middle-class distaste for such behaviour, and liberal handwringing.

The government must be seen to be formulating policies and enacting laws that will ... do what? Reduce the level of consumption in this country? The government says underage drinking must be reduced. Are those among us sadly old enough now to consume alcohol to drink greater quantities by way of compensation?

The National Health Service is falling apart at the seams; it is reportedly underfunded. Certainly what resources it does have seem eternally to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Smoking, alcohol, poor diet/nutrition and a lack of exercise are obstacles to reducing demand on this service. [Please note the lack of cost attached to rectifying these delinquencies, at a personal level.]

No-one from the government benches or those opposite actually calls explicitly for a reduction in overall alcohol consumption or, in the circumstances, dare call for a consumption transfer (in the mode of the energy emissions trading).

But most people agree that those under the age of 18 should not purchase or (except under certain permitted circumstances) consume alcohol. Someone under that age purchasing alcohol is committing a criminal offence. Anyone purchasing alcohol on behalf of someone under the age of 18 is committing a criminal offence. Anyone under 18 selling alcohol is breaking the law and anyone 18 or older selling alcohol to a 'minor' or knowingly permitting the sale is in breach of the law.

Simple innit? Not quite.

This is a game. The kids want to find out if they'll get away with it and we do what we can to stop them. The government (run by a leader whose son was found some years ago when still under age in a gutter in Leicester Square in central London almost comatose) can't think of a single feasible or conceivably effective thing to do to deal with the problem from the demand end, nor can it afford to tackle the supply end so it does what it does best and compromises. It goes for muggins in the middle. And muggins in the middle is the retailer.

More specifically the government has in its sights the on-licence (pubs and night clubs) and off-licence (supermarkets, bottle shops) establishments. Supermarkets are a big, bloated sitting target and we're in the crosshairs.

You see the Government can't afford to lose all the revenue it accrues from the sale of alcohol without establishing an alternative revenue stream. And the revenue stream it has set up is the fines and other penalties we're all to fill the coffers with.

This is the new game.

Government extracts value from us. The national government gets favourable coverage of the clamp down on those evil, irresponsible supermarkets selling cheap plonk in vat quantities to tots. Local government pockets the fines, improves its fiscal position and makes lesser demands on central funding.

In the meantime everyone (conveniently) can ignore the absence of parental control or influence.

No-one thinks to say "what the fuck are 15 year olds doing with either the money to purchase alcohol or the time on their hands to get to the shop and attempt the purchase?" When I was 15 I had enough on my plate attending school, doing homework, doing violin practice, playing tennis, swimming (seasonally) eating, doing household chores and, yes, sleeping.

No-one thinks to say "how the fuck are these kids so underdeveloped that the summit of their ambitions is to acquire alcohol?". When I was 15 I was petrified lest I fail my academy exam or not do at least as well as my sister in the local tennis tournament or qualify to take pure and applied at Matric.

The powers that be within our organisation have responded to the Government's laying of the burden of responsibility in two ways. Firstly they have made it abundantly clear that the buck stops with the checkout operator. Secondly the checkout operator has absolutely crystal clear guidelines on what he or she must do in respect of the sale of alcohol (and for that matter ALL age-restricted products). Furthermore the operators all are to understand that if they following the guidelines they CANNOT get into legal difficulties and therefore they WILL be supported to the hilt at all times and by all more senior members of staff in following those guidelines.

The guidelines define circumstances that err very heavily on the side of caution under which an operator must demand to see proof of age before selling an age restricted product. The guidelines also specify which forms of proof are acceptable, and these forms are very, very few in number (passport, photo bearing driving licence, BITE card and pretty much nothing else).

All staff as part of their induction are brief and rebriefed and then rebriefed again on the law and our policies as well as what is acceptable as proof of age. All staff are instructed to refuse to sell alcohol (or whatever) from the moment ID is requested until satisfactory proof of age is provided. That is the solid ground on which we can and will all stand.

All supervisors and managers know this and that our checkout operators are on the front line, bearing the burden of immediate responsibility, taking the flack from enraged customers who take umbrage at being asked to prove their age and knowing always the back of their minds that the next young customer buying booze (or fags, or lottery tickets or a knife or a 15 rated DVD, etc) is a stooge of Trading Standards. sent in with the specific purpose of setting us up. Somehow these underage 'consumers' are exempt from the law concerning the purchase by a minor.

In theory this works beautifully. But it is a system that like all others is vulnerable to human weakness.

Tuesday afternoon one of our more sensible, intelligent and together staff was put onto a check out during an exceptionally busy period. She elected to request ID of a young man in her queue who had looked increasingly odd and agitated as he approached her. He had no (acceptable) ID to provide. The sale was declined. He became more agitated. I stepped in to support the operator. The would-be customer became yet more agitated.

He showed me court documents relating to an offence of violence that had a name and a date of birth. Unfortunately for him the date of birth he'd claimed for himself was not that which appeared on the document he showed me. I stood my ground I backed my operator. He eventually gave up after calling me "fucking pathetic" in an increasingly belligerent tone, threw his not-to-be-purchases on the floor and left.

Or so I believed.

A fairly short while later, but after I'd taken the woman off the checkout and sent her back to her 'section', I happened to spot the would be customer in conversation with our very own walking talking Hairdo. [Incidentally I should mention now in case I use it later that she's also, I now learn, known as Barbie.]

In the wash up I've learned that he loitered outside until he caught sight of another senior member of staff and ran to her (Barbie) with his sob story of how he'd travelled down to our town (as though he couldn't have bought booze where he lives, or if not why not?) only to be refused because he could not, when asked, provide acceptable ID.

He thrust the papers at her just as I reached her. She asked him if he had anything to confirm that he was indeed the person referred to in the court summons and when he produced an electricity top-up card (no photo, only initials, BUT MOST TO THE POINT NOT ON OUR LIST OF ACCEPTABLE ID) she handed the lot back to him and TOLD HIM HE WAS FREE TO GO BACK INTO THE SHOP AND PURCHASE HIS ALCOHOL.

Needless to say the shit has hit the fan over this. The operator and I duly recorded the incident including the abuse in log book - it should go without saying that the customer should have been out on his ear for the abuse alone. I took a copy of it and took the copy home after what transpired.

I asked the operator how she felt about what transpired and she went straight over my head to someone more senior.

To be fair today we've both been told that we were 100% in the right and the person who undermined us was 100% in the wrong. What makes the situation somewhat awkward for me is that the person who did the overruling or undermining or whatever it was is no friend of mine. But if she was hoping to humiliate me she's mad a mis-calculation because she's just attempted to humiliate me by using 'discretion' to circumvent one of the few clear an unequivocal policies we actually have. She'll keep her job, but she'll get a bollocking, and since this isn't the first incident involving the two of us she's probably holed herself below the water line.

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Political Correctness 101

I've done 'Disability Basics'. I've completed the 'Master Answer Sheets' booklet and now I'm going to poke fun at an earnest and well intentioned program to eradicate from the able bodied/minded (?) every last discriminatory thought/feeling and possibility of utterance.

The tutorial book tells me that there are (an estimated) 10.8 million disabled people in the UK so when I am asked at Question 3 "How many disabled people do you think there are in the UK" I tick the box for 10.8 million. Never mind what I actually think (the emphasis is mine), I want to put this wretched business behind me - if I get less than 70% I have to do a re-sit immediately, if I get less than 80% I have to retrain and do a re-sit in 6 months.

In fact the preceding question [Which part of the Act do you think this extract is describing...] is even worse since the Act exists, it has a clearly defined structure, only one part of the Act is described in the extract. There's only one possible correct answer so the question should be: Which part of the Act does this extract describe?

At the bottom of the first page of the answer booklet I found the following question:

Do you think a person who may have difficulty trying to hold a pen to write with would affect their ability to carry out a normal day-to-day activity?

That is verbatim the question. I promise. Blimey!

Do you think ... I'm being asked a question or am I being asked my opinion?

a person who may have difficulty trying to hold a pen ... about a person who may (or then again may not) have difficulty trying to hold a pen. Problem 1 - does or does not this person have difficulty? Problem 2: is the problem with the trying or the problem with the holding?

to write with ... huh?

would affect their ability to carry out a normal day-to-day activity? ... such as walking the dog?

After some deliberating I'm still not sure what this question is driving at. The question might be "Do you recognise that difficulty writing using a normal pen affects an individual's ability to carry out at least some ordinary day-to-day activities?" or it might be "Is a person who has difficulty writing using a normal pen such that performing at least some ordinary day-to-day activities disabled as defined under the Act?" or even "Does difficulty holding and writing with a normal pen constitute a disability as defined under the Act?"

Given the required pass mark I'm truly worried that I was supposed to mark Not Sure as my answer.

The problem I had with a lot of what followed was that I can't fix in my own mind where the line between plain and simple old-fashioned rudeness and discrimination lies or even if there is supposed to be one any more. For example an early question asked which of the following four scenarios illustrates 'discrimination':

An elderly person being rushed if he or she is too slow
A mum with small children and a buggy in a shop struggling and not being offered assistance
A blind person being refused entry into a building because they have a guide dog
A disabled person being told that they cannot shop because there are no facilities for them

To me three and four are obvious examples of discrimination while one and two are equally clearly examples of bad manners. In the first example someone is being rushed because they are too slow but there's no indication that this is directly to do with the person's age and a young dawdler might receive precisely the same treatment. Never mind disability discrimination, it isn't even obviously an example of 'age discrimination'. Similarly we've got someone not being offered assistance. Sorry, that happens all the time to anyone who needs help. The rude are a pretty undiscriminating bunch.

Later the test examines the candidate's ability to use 'appropriate' language. This is all about testing how well the candidate has taken on board the insights with which he or she has been provided into which words are now acceptable and which words are not.

Invalid is out the window. Only horses may be Handicapped; which is a mercy or the Melbourne Cup might become the world's richest race for Horses with Disability. Yes, you are supposed to deduce from the sarky tone that this was the point at which I really lost patience with the exercise. I have a handicap; I'd tell you his name but that might lead to 'issues' with kitchen knives and holes in the back garden being dug in the middle of the night.

The phrase dual sensory impairment is fine but the person is still blind and deaf. Under this regime 'dumb' and 'mute' are to become archaic and historical curiosities familiar only to those perusing the medical and census records of 19th century forebears. Someone who helps and assists a disabled person may not be described as a carer or a helper or, for that matter, a 'nice person'.

This is absurd. It might, just might, be right to consign words that have acquired such negative connotations as 'dumb' and 'mute' to the dustbin of lexicographic history - though an argument can be made for their reclamation from the clutches of misuse on the grounds than one word is to be preferred over 6 or 7 (the number of words in the alternative phrases we're to use). On the other hand are we seriously to stigmatise now the words helper and carer and eschew the phrase 'nice person'.

Thankfully and after ticking the correct box (the one next to Personal Assistant) in response to the question "how would you describe a person who helped and assisted a disabled person?" I was able to close the answer booklet and submit it for marking.

Monday, July 10, 2006

It's a Deal

Enter a supermarket and you enter a mini-universe; one where appearances are intended to deceive. Nowhere on earth is the average human being subjected to a more intense barrage of information compiled and delivered with the express intention to manipulate.

A small percentage of consumers are alive to the conspiracy, a smaller percentage enter the portals of any given supermarket determined to circumvent the system and the agents of that system ranged in opposition.

The year is broken down into offer periods that are planned out months in advance. Footfall and flow direction are analysed to death by supermarkets and by manufacturers, then data are used by both parties as weapons in a bidding war which has as its objective the maximisation of return on investment.

Excess product dumped on outlets by manufactures who have over-produced or buyers who have over-bought becomes the stuff dumped in cul-de-sacs on a wing and a prayer. The fortuate supermarket manager will convince someone higher up the food chain that the stuff should be priced reduced or linked to some sort of BOGOF variant. There's never a sale-or-return type arrangement available with this type of merchandise.

The supermarket manager will diligently order up big on the product that's about to go 'on offer'. Some product with long shelf life could be ordered well in advance to guarantee supply in sufficient quantities except that forward planning has its limits and in this case forward planning would run up against warehousing constraints. So the about to be 'on offer' product will arrive on a Thursday or Friday (hopefully). Friday and Saturday the shelves are cleared to make way for the new 'on offer' product and that new product goes out on Sunday.

As a result the agents of the conspiracy will spend Sunday patiently explaining to uncomprehending customers that although the product is on the fixture ends, the places where those special offers are displayed, the product isn't actually 'on offer' until the following day.

Behind the elaborate facade exists a massive computer system to support the ordering, stock management, pricing, promotion and revenue gathering activites. If ever any money were spent on this system it might work well but like everything else it is falling apart and only continues to perform an approximation of its full duties thank to a near constant effort to apply one fix or another.

By Sunday the files to be applied to make the offers active are sitting in the system and provided noone working in the back office accidently applies these batch files then the offers won't go live until they're supposed to.

Because Sunday is one of those two days we close the doors to the public and then leave ourselves (the other being Saturday) nothing more can be done about these 'on offer' products until Monday morning. Staff arrive at 6:00 and the public are let in from 7:00. That means an hour to complete the re-ticketing and put up the supporting promotional material.

It never works.

Usually someone's forgotten to read offer period amendments thoroughly and adjust orders accurately. As a result we've more or less got a warehouse full of stuff that was originally supposed to be 'on offer' but has been taken off for one reason or another. Alternatively the offer's been altered in some way. So, for example, initially a wide range of bottled beers are included in a, let's say, 3 for £4.00 offer, but some time before the offer goes live the range of beers is altered.

The chances that the collection of drones we employ will read through the offer documentation and link the offer products with the correct ticketing promotional material is non-existent.

Similarly there is not a change in hell of the computer batch files carrying the offers applying first time and accurately. Most offer periods last three weeks. The first week is taken up with clearing the fallout. The supervisors are back and forth correcting what has scanned (because we don't trust the operators to do that) and in the back office the staff are engaged in an increasingly heated exchange with those up the food chain who have the power to make the offers 'work'. The same by the way is true of those products on special but not linked to a specific offer period, such as merchandise which has a price or a deal indicated on the packaging.

Sometimes the correspondence is effective. Other times it isn't. Our seafood department has been selling packs of fresh sardines at £2.99 or 2 for £5.00 for several weeks (not linked to a specific offer period) and the damn things don't scan correctly for the offer despite all the emails we've fired off. Eventually the office staff lose the will to email (or give up fearing they'll lose the will to live) while out on the shop floor the staff and customers alike become resigned to having to summon a supervisor every time two packs of the damned things are to go through.

Right now, today, the staff up the road are frantically sorting through the promotional material and the offer products. They're not making sure that all the offers work. They're identify which ones don't. Notice the subtle difference. It lies in the mind set of those carrying out the task. Mountains and mountains of product and pricing information piled up at the most remote checkout, lists being assembled, the first round of correspondence being drafted. After that email's gone a couple of things will happen.

We'll get a set of batch files to correct the faulty set(s) and we'll get a call from some irate individual a few branches up the pond life spectrum complaining about the idiots at our store who haven't properly read the amendments and have written complaining about offers that don't exist not working.

And I have to go in to work this afternoon and take that call.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

General chaos

I arrived in time for the start of my 1-9pm shift and walked in to find the colleague I was to take over from wafting around on Planet-S.

Yesterday she was threatening to file a formal complaint against one of the Assistant GMs (who'd said the wrong thing or something in the wrong way or the wrong place) but she was at least smiling today as she told me precisely which critical systems had failed during the morning.

Then she wandered off, halfway through what she'd been doing, asserting that the books would all balance, 'hopefully'.

Well I double checked her figures and the cash balanced so I proceeded. Then I worked back and picked up all her little mistakes. They are little mistakes, but with the accounting there should not be any, and if necessary I will have to spend half a fucking hour finding that missing 6p – all (as it happens) because she can't read her own writing when she comes to adding up her figures.

Between that and the temp who is covering for the checkout supervisor (who fainted and split her head open at home on Sunday and won't be in all week) I felt like I hardly had 5 minutes to myself all afternoon. The phone didn't stop ringing too, and I can do without having to deal with people who want to know what time we're open until.

I know exactly why I hate my job. I hate my job because I don't ever have the opportunity to do it - or even one single component of it - well. There's always some sequence of minor to catastrophic issues to be dealt with, sometimes several all at once.

The problem has only become acutely pressing because the whole store seems to have hit a rather bad patch rather suddenly. Everyone is in a mood (even the GM and the AGM he's shagging had a blazing row on Monday), resignations are flying in thick and fast and a whole set of significant if not critical processes have been undermined to the detriment of overall performance by a lowering of levels of work performance scrutiny. In other words neither the GM nor any of his AGMs have recently been paying sufficient attention what the Kiddies are doing and (more importantly) how they're doing it.

As a result fewer and fewer things are being done right. As a result we're finding more and more out of code goods on shelves and more an more incorrect pricing. If Trading Standards were to go through us like a dose of salts tomorrow we'd be neck deep in the smelly stuff. In the mean time the GM, who has spent the first three days since he returned from leave telling everyone in turn exactly how and in what manner they are incompetent was in a positively sunny mood today.

Wednesday, July 05, 2006

The Great Dick

I get that 'sinking feeling' when I answer the phone and the bright bunny on the other end goes "ah, just the person I wanted to speak with ... I guess that doesn't happen often". Too damn right and thankfully too.

I had Julie (or Katie, or something) on the phone recently from our Food Group about a customer complaint I'd dealt with some months previously. That's months not moments.

By way of background when a customer returns something consumable that manifestly is of insufficiently high quality relative to the standard set for that particular consumable then a whole lotta paper work gets done.

The details of the product are recorded and, if a sample is provided by the customer as evidence of their claim then that sample is retained (and chilled or frozen as appropriate). The completed paper work is faxed off to a total jerk called Dick and the sample if available is sent to him via the internal mail.

The idea is that he, being very senior, liaises with whoever it is that one liaises with under such circumstances with a view to heading off at the pass any law suits and otherwise dealing with any claims as well as making it look like we're doing what's necessary to avoid any further instances of what are typically production line QA failures.

Returning to the call, I didn't get to the bottom of where Julie or Katie or whatever the hell her name is sits (organisationally speaking) in relation to the Dick. She wanted to know if we still had the foreign object some customer had found in her carton of juice. Happily, notwithstanding the distance in time since the report I did remember it and also remember both faxing the damned paper work to Dick as well as packaging up the sample for his delectation(with the assistance of a little bit of prompting).

She chirpily remembered both it and the dodgy pastie that we'd sent in the same run and then asked again if by any chance we still had the sample at our office. I told her it wasn't with us and had gone off to Dick. She once again chirpily admitted to having a recollection of having seen it and put it in the 'fridge in their office. Fool that I can be I thought I'd made some progress, but no, back she came, game and persistent if nothing else. "I don't suppose you have it still in your office somewhere?"

No dear, it isn't here.

Turns out their all turning cartwheels up at head office because (shock of shocks) the complainant has actually had the temerity to contact head office with a request for a progress report on the investigation into the 'foreign object' in her juice carton.

One way of looking at this is to see that obviously the foreign object's not been fatal or rendered the juice she drank fatal (or indeed even the cause of mild ill health) so she could just consider putting the whole grisly incident behind her and getting on with life. She could I suppose sue our arses off for the trauma of finding something alien in her apple juice. Alternatively she could have such an empty head that it has room to remember a complaint about something that has caused her no physical or mental trauma whatsoever but is, when all's said and done, the most interesting thing to happen to her in a twelvemonth.

The sample's been lost, last seen in the fridge in the office in the building where Dick works. The fridge that in the ordinary course of events is used to keep cool the milk for his tea or coffee. Quite where it's gone is a matter for conjecture but I fear we'll never have any certain knowledge of what befell it. And I swear I heard Julie (or Katie or whatever) say, as she put down the phone, something along the lines of "I guess this is another one to be put down to the Great Dick". The great dick, indeed.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Kiddie Capers No. 1

We employ lots of Kiddies. Some facts about Kiddies worth bearing in mind: they’re cheap, they’re desperate for money, they’re never out of bed before midday but they’re happy to work until ten at night before heading off to the pub.

So we employ lots of Kiddies.

Some of them are rather fine looking. I’m between lust objects at present, though only just. D. swung by in civvies yesterday evening as I was shunting baskets from the check-outs back round to the entrance, he smiled and I did at least remember why he’d been my lust object of a run of at least several weeks.

Some of the kiddies are employed for a specific purpose (to work behind the deli counter, or at the in-house bakery or in the greengrocery) but generally they’re expected to be jacks-of-all-trade, which is to say that they work where they’re required.

This does lend us a certain flexibility, but also significantly contributes to the Kiddies never actually become particularly good at anything. The major factor though is that they’re never trained (or retrained if they’re university students who only work with us for a few weeks over the summer).

This is something that came home to me during a recent graveyard shift. Having spent the day locked away trying to do two whole day’s worth of cashing up in an afternoon – and quite why I was in this predicament will have to be dealt with elsewhere, I quite gratefully bolted for the wide open spaces of the shop floor to spend the last couple of hours ‘code checking’.

‘Code checking’ is date checking. It is done section by section to a schedule laid down from on high that reflects product shelf-life and turnaround. The crisps and snacks section is checked for products within 6 weeks of going ‘out of date’. Any products found are logged in a diary.

I started work at one end of the section while a couple of bright (university student) girls worked at shelf filling at the other end. After a while one of them worked up the courage to ask me what I was doing.

So I explained.

And the reaction I got to my explanation of one of those tedious exercises we have to undertake to ensure that we’re within the law governing retail trade was: “Things have dates?”

Yes, ‘things have dates’, and properly trained shop floor staff would know to check the dates of the things they’re putting on the shelves. Checking to make sure that each item actually has a ‘best before’ date, and checking that the date shown is a future date rather than a past date.

To their credit they did go back and check everything they’d already spent the evening putting out. And they only found a few things that had to be recorded in the diary.

Customer anecdote No. 1

Everyone likes a bargain ...

It is easy to tell when summer's arrived in our part of the world. The idiots take on a particular quality.

By way of example I offer up the nitwit woman who bought a nutmeg grater then nearly took all the flesh off one side of one of her fingers trying to grate cheese with it. By her own admission she bought it because it was cheaper than the other sort of grater we sell (that would be the CHEESE grater) but she still wanted her money back because in her opinion the item was not fit for purpose since it said 'Grater' on the label, but did not carry "not to be used to grate cheese" as a product warning.

We gave the poor lamb her money back with a smile. She clearly needs it more than we do.

Sunday, July 02, 2006

Sunday Trading

The warmer weather of the past couple of months has coincided with an appreciable upturn in trading results. Sunday sales at this time of year are something like 35% higher than non-festival Sundays in December and January. Measured by spend per trolley our sales figures are up but we're also seeing more trolleys.


Our trading figures require a slightly more sophisticated analysis, but no number-crunching computer package could take proper account of our store's particular circumstances. We're the only real* supermarket for about a half hour drive in any direction, so to some extent we've a monopoly, but on the other hand the town's population swells during the summer-months as chavs descend and take up their summer residence in one or other of the two permanent caravan sites. Do the chavs spend more or less on average than the local population? Or are the locals spending more because the weather's improved?

Who knows? Who cares!

A couple of Sundays ago, with the return of the college kiddies, we suddenly found our selves with sufficiently high staff numbers to have enough checkout lanes open to meet demand, and to keep the shelves reasonably full.

Warm weather and the World Cup. What combination. Pouring over the World Cup Schedule and trying to figure out what that's likely to mean in terms of footfall patterns.

Then England went and got themselves eliminated at the quarter-finals stage (again) through penalties (again) to Portugal (again), a team managed by 'Big Phil' Scolari (again).

Sunday's may have been getting busier but I really truly believed that we'd have a quiet start to the day. I expected that customer levels would build up slowly as the town's men-folk woke late from self induced misery incurred to counteract football induced misery.


A glance at the monitors showed a crowd building up as we approached opening hour. A static conga line emerging from the shelter of the main entrance, past the cash point towards the exit.

Good Christ have these people no sense. We're not open. We never open before 10:00 on a Sunday because we're forbidden to open earlier by current Sunday Trading Regulations (we're too big). Go to the corner store for your pint of milk, your News of the Screws and your packet of fags.

Such is the sad emptiness of the life of the average British consumer that he gets out early to be part of the orderly line of souls waiting to charge through the moment the shutters lift.

Our Sunday deliveries (chilled and bread particularly) are supposed to be well and truly in-store by the time we open. Things don't always go according to plan. The chilled delivery arrives as the shutters are going up and the bread van at that time still can't be seen coming over the hills.

My main jobs for the day are to keep sufficient checkouts open to meet customer levels, to supervise the work of the operators and make sure they get the breaks their entitled to.

I elect to open with four and fingers crossed I'll spot the surge as it’s about to reach the checkouts (ten in total potentially) rather than get an harassed Assistant GM on my case.

The Duty Manager of the Day is the Bulldog (no bio yet, I'm afraid). The Stud is still on holiday and we're over staffed so that we can do what we can to make his life miserable, but minimising the amount he has to complain about.

We're immediately under assault and that has little do with the sheer numbers of Little Englanders functioning under the delusion that shopping every single day of the year is essential to human happiness. He has driven up the hill in his gas-guzzler, but WTF he'll buy enough pet food to last a day, tonight's meal and enough milk, just to get him through tomorrow's breakfast.

Most people shop though with a degree of fervour suggestive of a belief in the imminent arrival of The Bomb. Perhaps the bomb might drop, but would not running out of Low Fat raspberry yoghurt make your life any less unbearable under those circumstances? And why not buy six loaves of our chemically complete, never-go-off bread. It’s sure to be a hit with the birds once you discover (again) that the stuff is cheap but inedible.

By ten minutes after opening we have healthy queues building up at the four open lanes and then it begins. No. 3 is our wide aisle for cripples and geriatrics. The key pad freezes. While I'm grappling with that it becomes clear that all the other operators are having problems too. We can't process card transactions.


I get on the phone to the engineers who in an effort to resolve this for us have a female colleague crawl underneath the two problem checkouts looking for loose wires. I'd have told him to go screw himself had he asked me to stick a screw driver into the middle of that lot. Inevitably things got worse. After a short while the cards came back on line but only for lanes 6-10 so we were left making customer announcements ever few minutes asking customers intending to pay by card to please not use lanes 1-6 (well 3 and 6 were out of commission at that stage).

Inevitably the morons and idiots who blithely assume that no customer announcement can possibly be of interest, and the arrogant arse-holes who seem to think that we'll fix the problem for their transaction, if only they queue up, do just that. They stand patiently in line while the announcements ring out from the tannoy above their heads and then get difficult when told to pack everything back into the trolley and take it to another lane.

The bread delivery arrived shortly before midday; sadly just inside the time limit before we can claim compensation. A couple of hours late on a day when we're open 7-10 is a pain, almost three hours late on a day when we're open 10-4 is very nearly a fucking catastrophe. By 1pm we've had about 70% of the day's customers through. And now we get the day's fresh bread out.

Still giving the bakery a bollocking seemed to improve the Bulldog's mood a bit, if only briefly.

The cards came back on line across all the tills around lunch time.

That's when the 'thing' that drives the motors of the 'thing' that keeps the chill in our chiller cabinets packed up. Perhaps it the hot weather. Actually, it was a slow motion crash, with first one cabinet and then another going off line. Initially temperatures held within legal limits but as the number of chiller cabinets off-line rose the store temperature rose, and the strain on the remaining chiller cabinets grew and so on and so forth.

An "all shop floor staff to the lower warehouse" announcement livened up everyone's afternoon, but only briefly as there pretty soon was no need for an explanation. The young lads who had spent the morning filling up those cabinets spent the afternoon emptying them.

Everything came off the shelves and went back into the warehouse freezers and fridges before the temperatures in the in-store cabinets rose above legal limits, but as we closed the shop (finally) the Bulldog did remark that she'd not be buying yoghurt (from us) for a few days.

I left at a couple of minutes after four and spent what was left of the afternoon in the pool. Tomorrow's another day, but sadly I'll be spending nine of those twenty-four up at the funny farm.