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.


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