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Dec 2, 2016

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

Bah Humbug! Prepare for the deluge of unwanted promotional presents and business gifting this Christmas

For years when Christmas approached, one thing I dreaded was my assistant Norman giving me a present.

The only consolation was that Norman had been known to lie awake at night wondering what I might give him in return. Hardly what the festive season is supposed to be about and I felt the least we could do was to have a friendly chat to clear the air and get rid of any possible ill-feeling.

I have to say it’s worked out pretty well. Since Christmas 2012 when Norman gave me a pair of musical boxer shorts and received in exchange a dancing frog in West Bromwich Albion strip, we haven’t given each other anything.

It’s certainly cut down the chances of either of us getting yet another chromium-plated acrobat committing suicide down a ladder, or a paperweight made of dried seaweed.

I have to say that one of Norman’s few redeemable features is that he dislikes Christmas so much that he once asked if he could come in on Christmas afternoon and start the stocktaking.

He’s particularly jaundiced about Christmas at the moment, saying it’s very similar to a day in the shop - he does all the work and the fat guy in the suit gets all the credit.

He also thinks that Santa Claus can be likened to the three ages of man: he believes in Santa Claus, he doesn’t believe in Santa Claus, and he becomes Santa Claus. It was, said Norman, all too depressing for words.

His wife Enid, who had popped in to give him his cough lozenges and remind him to get some catlitter, said the sad truth was that you stop believing in Santa Claus when you start getting clothes for Christmas.

I’m assuming that our festive arrangements this year will be pretty much as usual: Norman will give me the unopened Christmas card I first gave him in 1998 and I will give him one I first received in 2002. Every year we just change the names on the envelopes.

So the thought is there, without any expense or inconvenience being involved.

Perhaps you’d like to try it next year. Sadly, few people in larger and more successful businesses seem to have worked out such a relatively painless way of dealing with Christmas.

According to a study of 250 shops and offices, what’s known as “business gifting” continues to shower all and sundry with unwanted presents. For instance, my friend Trevor, who’s in logistics and distribution solutions (he drives a van), has in recent years received from his boss a variety of unwanted Christmas gifts which this year include two tickets for an Ed Balls lookalike contest and a framed photograph of the company chairman riding a camel in Dudley Zoo.

It seems he could be one of the comparatively lucky ones. Victims of last year’s Christmas business gifting reported being lumbered with unwelcome presents varying from scented toilet paper, a 300-page volume of Les Dawson jokes and a 10ft long blue inflatable walrus.

I expect that this Christmas we’ll continue to receive bizarre presents from reps and other people who unaccountably believe that giving us a fibre-glass singing fish or a Gareth Southgate pencil-sharpener will persuade us to buy their fourth-rate trainers or steak-and-kidney-flavoured game-guards from Taiwan.

They never give up. Last year for instance we had, if I remember:

Paperclip holders shaped like peapods

A plastic parrot which sang: “Is this the way to Amarillo?”

An inflatable dartboard (yes, really)

A light-up pair of reindeer horns

A flock of sheep-shaped candles

Invariably, the most unwelcome presents come from people who must think I’ve got nothing better to do all day than mess about with what they insist on calling “executive toys”.

Last year I got a stainless-steel puzzle based on Schrodinger’s atomic wave mechanics theory.

Or so I believe - I never managed to open the box.

The bad news is that this Christmas there are even more executive toys designed to drive you mad with either rage or boredom - Google turned up over 800,000 hits last time I looked - and the ingenuity of executive toy designers has surely reached new heights of inanity this year.

Brace yourself to receive zero-gravity water balloons, electrostatic waterfalls, light-powered horizontal windmills, programmable ouija boards and friction-driven dancing spiders.

My guess is that this year’s best sellers will be either the plastic replicated hornet farm or the solar-powered aluminium cyclist.

So is there anything I would actually want for Christmas?

Well, if anyone bothers to ask, I wouldn’t mind a new black tie for funerals or someone to put a new lock on the shop door.

And I can’t see many of us sending back a bottle of ten-year-old malt, a tasteful Rolex, a pair of Champions’ League final tickets or the keys to a Mercedes SLK 300. Can you?

Merry Christmas

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