saucony
saucony
May 17, 2016

Under the counter: a sideways look at the world of independent retailing

What is the worst thing about running a shop? For me it’s a no-brainer. If I had to choose between having my wisdom teeth extracted without anaesthetic by that mad dentist in the film Marathon Man or doing the yearly stocktaking, lead me to the dentist’s chair.

Why is it called stocktaking, anyway? In our shop not a lot of stock gets taken (just look at the sales figures). Most of it stays where it was put after we were conned into buying it by some snake-tongued salesman.

Then once a year my assistant Norman and I put on our brown overalls and go into the stockroom to gaze despairingly at all the stuff gathering dust and mildew and wonder what possessed us to buy it in the first place.

Depressing ritual
The ritual is depressingly familiar: “Why on earth did you order all those pink rugby balls/ illuminated cricket stumps/sequined sports bras?” “It wasn’t me, boss. And I did warn you that England wouldn’t win last year’s Six Nations when you bought all those ‘We Are The Champions’ sweatshirts.”

When I ran the shop with my dad, we had none of this. Stocktaking wasn’t a problem, mainly because we didn’t do any. If we couldn’t find what someone wanted, we’d say we’d just sold the last one. “To be honest, I wouldn’t feel happy selling you one of those anyway,” my dad would say and he’d flog them something more expensive.

You can’t get away with that any more. You’ve got the hard-eyed men from the Financial Reporting Council Stocktaking Auditing Practices Board banging on your door asking how come you’ve got an odd number of hockey socks and the even harder-eyed men from the HMRC Inventory Regulation Authority rummaging through your bargain bin.

It seems Norman hates stocktaking as much as me, but only because we do it so badly. He’s told his wife Enid that his heart sinks when he sees me rooting around for my clipboard and coloured felt-tip pens and shaking the moths out of my overalls.

“He’s never heard of stock management software packages and integrated order handling databases,” he said, to which Enid apparently replied: “Well, tell him about them, petal.” The other day, during a coffee break - which is technically his own time - he actually did.

“There’s some really dinky management software around, boss, which would make life so much easier,” he said. “They’re just barcode scanners linked to an integrated order handling, automatic update database. My son’s mate, Bartleby, did a course on them as part of his redundancy package from Kentucky Fried Chicken before he got the job at the undertakers. I could get him to drop round for a chat.”

Bartleby was surprisingly cheery, considering how he spent his day. He said our stocktaking would be a doddle with a simple statistical sampling program. “I happen to have copied one on my last day at KFC,” he explained, opening his laptop. “Strictly speaking, it’s for chicken thighs, but that shouldn’t be a problem.”

Bartleby said we should bring stuff in from the stockroom and he would key it in to the program to establish a tracking pattern and work out a lead time to prevent reorder overkill.

I explained that the last thing we wanted was to reorder stuff we shouldn’t have bought in the first place, but the next thing I knew Norman was staggering in with boxes that hadn’t seen the light of day since the 1966 World Cup and saying: “We can bin this lot for a start.”

Sporting history
“Not so fast,” I said picking up Billy Bremner’s signed autobiography. “We’ve got sporting history here.”

“We’ve got rats, too,” Norman added, holding up a football boot gnawed through to the laces. “And you should see what they’ve done to those green and silver shell suits you said would one day be back in fashion.”

Next to emerge was a box of leather footballs. I remembered that when they got wet they were so heavy small boys who headed them could end up in hospital with mild concussion.

By the time we got to the Johnny Leach ping pong bats, the Christine Truman tennis shoes and the Kermit the Frog golf ball covers, Bartleby was not a happy bunny. “The program keeps asking for a basic selection strategy and 10 chicken thighs,” he said. “Now I think there’s a problem with the resistor. We’d better call it a day.”

As I said to Bartleby, I think it’s a big mistake to rely on modern technology. And luckily I had my felt-tipped pens with me to write him a modest cheque for his trouble.

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