Mar 11, 2016

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

My assistant Norman was off for a couple of days last week with a recurrence of his sciatica and when he came back we got the full treatment - the stick, hot-water bottle, surgical backrest and a carrier bag of painkillers.

“I shouldn’t be here,” he said. “I wouldn’t be if we had any proper back-up or contingency strategy. What would you do if I was run over by a bus?” Probably get a rebate on his PAYE payments, but maybe some things are better left unsaid, eh?

Part-time help
Anyway, the upshot was an advert in the local paper asking for occasional part-time help, preferably from someone with experience in the retail trade. That was Norman’s idea - he’d read in the Daily Mail that people we’ve got to call “of mature years” were having problems settling into retirement and wanted to keep busy.

The first applicant was a chap so old I feared he might die walking from the door to the counter. He said the job centre had sent him because they needed his waiting room chair.

He also said his wife wanted him to find some part-time work to get him out of the house when she was watching Flog It! When I asked his name, he said he couldn’t remember, but thought it started with G.

He admitted his health wasn’t too good either. “I’ve had two bypass operations and a hip replacement and my medication makes me dizzy and subject to blackouts,” he admitted. “I can’t feel my hands and feet and I’m waiting for a second cataract operation. The good news is, I’ve still got my driving licence.” I said we’d let him know.

The next interviewee was a chap in an archery club tie and brogue shoes who had retired the previous week after 40 years in wholesale plumbing supplies. “It was quite touching, really,” he said. “One of the directors made a speech saying how they would miss me and how I didn’t know the meaning of an impossible task, a lunch break or going home before the job was finished. Then they gave me a dictionary.”

A bloke who came in mainly to use the lavatory said this was the first job he’d applied for since getting a new hearing aid. “It was getting really embarrassing,” he said.” How can you deal with the public when you can’t hear properly? Now I’ve got a state-of the-art piece of kit, not your NHS rubbish.”

“What type is it?” Norman asked. “Quarter past three,” the man replied.

“I think there would be quite a lot of responsibility which might worry you a bit,” I added, trying to let him down gently. “Oh, that’s no problem,” the chap said. “In my last job, if anything went wrong they always said I was responsible.”

If all that wasn’t dire enough, this morning a very scary woman came into the shop. She was about the size of a small wardrobe and looked as though she had spent too much time next to pans of boiling water. She said her name was Mrs Pierrepoint, had come about the job and wanted to see the ladies’ toilet.

“We haven’t exactly got one, as such,” Norman said, which made Mrs Pierrepoint very angry indeed. “Can I remind you about the Sex Equality Act 2010?” she said. “Not to mention the Workplace Regulations approved code of practice 1992 and the findings of the select committee on anti-discriminatory industrial strategy 1989. We’re not living in the primeval swamps, you know.”

Norman said there was a very nice ladies’ toilet in the funeral director’s four doors down and if she went in with a wreath or a few flowers he was sure they’d be fine about it, which seemed to make Mrs Pierrepoint crosser than ever.

To try to calm things down, I asked about her experience in the retail trade. Mrs Pierrepoint said she had been an unarmed combat instructor in the territorial army and was a Kennel Club qualified judge for Doberman Pinschers.

“I don’t think I’ll have any trouble adapting,” she said. “I’m very good with people.”

Damn-fool question
Then Norman said: “How would you describe yourself?” It was a question he’d seen in a Reader’s Digest article on interviewing technique and apparently it unlocks the human psyche.

Not this time it didn’t. “Usually with words,” Mrs Pierrepoint said. “But I’ve been working on an interpretive dance if you prefer. What damn-fool question is that?”

After she’d gone, Norman and I needed a pot of tea and half a packet of custard creams to recover and by then I’d made an executive decision. No more interviews, thanks, and what’s wrong with a card on the door saying ‘Closed due to staff illness’?

Whatever Norman may say about contingency strategy, in the long run there’s a lot to be said for the old fashioned ways.



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