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.


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