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Tuesday, 5 June 2018


I joined British Home Stores, Belfast in 1973, was transferred to Manchester in 1976 and then to Romford, Essex in 1977, where this piece is set......
In British Home Stores in the 70s, we in the lower ranks seemed to find common ground and team spirit in our collective fear and dread of our store managers who were tough, sometimes uncompromising authoritarians, “old school” status-conscious bullies at times, you might say.  The most fearsome of them all, Mr Robinson, (for these were the days when we were definitely not on chummy first name terms) would rule his store and his team with an iron fist and a terrifying scowl.  He controlled everything and if you crossed or displeased him in any way, you were subjected to the fiercest bollocking you can imagine and you left his presence shaking.  He had the sinister knack of arriving on the sales floor and, somehow, exuding an aura of terror amongst the managers.  We did not even have to look up.  We knew he was there.  On the occasions when I did look up, he would be standing a good hundred feet away staring back at me before wagging his come-hither finger.  In a terrified Uriah Heep, ever so humble way, I would approach him knowing that he had spotted at least three things on my department that needed attention.  “Use your eyes, son.  Make sure you see these things before I see them.”  I would nod silently and he would march away to terrify the next department manager.

If you wanted a new duster for your department, you had to take your old one to his office, knock the door, await his barking instruction to enter and then request a replacement cloth.  He would be reclining back in his chair, stone-faced and, I swear, not blinking.  He would grab the old rag dangling from your trembling fingers, hold it up to the light, peer at you through the holes in the fabric and then thrust it back at you.  “There’s at least half a dozen more cleans in that, boy,” he would shout.  This was one of my first groundings in cost control, albeit a trifle extreme but a good lesson in watching the pennies.  I wasn’t rational enough in those days to understand it but when I became a store manager myself, I often used this true tale as a benchmark against waste.  My team members looked at me with the same quizzical expression I had used a couple of decades before.  But, no one can deny the principle of not wasting a business’s money unnecessarily.

On reflection, seeing how standards of service and *staff appearance are these days in a lot of shops, I think retailing could use some of the Robinson bark and bite to restore a wee bit of discipline.  I have obviously lived and learned - a graduate of the old school.

*And don't get me started on that!

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