The longest week of my retail life was at Christmas a few years ago. I was managing a food and non-food superstore in the Midlands. The strategy for this most important season had been set a few months before at a Christmas conference where store general managers were reminded of the fact that 40% of the year’s sales depended on the October to December period. We were informed that product availability, especially fresh food, would be second to none, more than ample to meet demand.
This was big business for fresh turkeys, vegetables, hams, meat, pork pies, dips, salads, cheeses and all the rest of it, so to miss out on sales by not getting the supply and distribution chains right would be close to disaster for the profit and loss account.
But what happened in the course of the big week leading up to Christmas was challenging, frightening and, in some ways, potentially dangerous.
The buyers had bought enormous quantities of fresh food. The directors had signed off the plan. The store managers had to manage at best and cope at worst with increased deliveries of pallets and pallets and pallets of fresh food, before more and more pallets arrived.
The rules of fresh food handling dictated that we had to receive the delivery and have it checked and refrigerated in chilled conditions within an hour at most, but twenty minutes was the ideal target. Even Tom Cruise would have found that mission impossible. But, and if ever a subject deserved to be in a book called “Retail Confidential”, I can reveal that huge quantities of fresh food did not see refrigeration storage for days.
Luckily, the weather was on our side. Outside in the warehouse yard, it was bitterly cold and so, I suppose, by default, we complied with chilled conditions. But the fact of the matter was that the amount of food sent to us, predetermined by buyers and merchandisers, far outweighed our storage capacity on the premises.
On our daily Christmas conference call, store managers voiced concern about the avalanche of food arriving several times each day. On one of the calls, the Chief Executive of the company brushed our concerns aside and told us that our top priority this Christmas was to maintain availability of all fresh food products to closing time on Christmas Eve. He seemed unconcerned about the mountains of food being stored in supermarket yards across the country for upwards of forty-eight hours.
The general public had no idea.
All across the UK, delivery areas of supermarkets were choked full of product that belonged in properly refrigerated storage. We had to manage the situation as best we could and we did, with flying colours, if flying by the seat of our pants was a legitimate way of working.
We got away with it because of the weather but it taught me a few lessons about sales pressure and the ability of some senior people in retailing to turn a blind eye to practical problems, preferring to concentrate on the balance sheet above and beyond customer safety and care sometimes.
Let the customer beware of what goes on behind the scenes.