Strange how some tings happen. One day, on the same day, I was chatting to a university undergraduate and an hour or so later to a retail manager. In my time I have been both but things were very different back then. I am certain as we talked both the undergraduate and the manager thought this silly old man had lost his marbles. I bet that both thought I had flushed my marbles, together with all reasoning of history down the toilet. That's funny isn't it ? No ? Well sod you, read on and I will prove that I am right.
As I have said in previous rambles in this best selling book I left school at the age of sixteen and went to work as a management trainee in Lewis's Department Store in Central Birmingham. I worked there for two happy years before spending two years as an unqualified assistant teacher at Chetwynd House Preparatory School for Boys in Sutton Coldfield. Four years in total.
The norm was for a school leaver to complete sixth form then to go to university at the age of eighteen. I was twenty years of age, going on twenty-one having worked and paid tax for four years. I, therefore, qualified for a maximum grant. Those without the tax payments behind them, the tax payments I had, were obliged to have their grants assessed on parental income and to expect Mum and Dad to top them up to the level, chipping in more than a few quid, to reach the level of a full grant. Everyone received a grant of some form, we were paid to go to university. Not bad eh !
My grant was paid termly and was about one third of what I had earned before becoming an undergraduate. Birmingham opened some of its inner city schools as pay centres and glorified youth clubs during the holidays to keep kids off the streets and out of trouble. I secured a well paid job working in these schools during the holiday.
Tuition feed, what were they ? We never had them. No student of my generation had any idea what they were.
Accommodation was provided, free of course. A study bedroom fully furnished. Towels and bed linen changed every week. Every morning a cleaner came in to make the bed and keep that study bedroom clean and tidy. All free of charge to the student undergraduate.
Meals - a full service provided every day, again with no charge. A full English breakfast but nobody every crawled out of bed for bacon, sausage, egg and whatever else. I could not tell you whatever else was as I was always in bed. Lunch a two course cooked meal. Oh and by the way every single member of the refectory team was called Doris. Just a bit of student fun. The evening meal was a three course extravaganza. Actually it was a four course serving with soup, main meal, pudding and a lavish cheeseboard to round off. The Head Doris put out linen napkins for we students to take bread, cheese and biscuits back to our rooms for supper and the odd midnight feast.
How many undergraduates today in the third decade of the twenty-first century can enjoy such a pampered lifestyle as we did back then in the early 1970's.
Now let me contrast my life working in a giant department store with the role of a staff member in one of today's supermarkets. The word super does not mean special or great, it means big. The original Board Of Trade definition for a supermarket was a self-service shop with a trading area in excess of 2,000 square feet. You could take one of today's average supermarket and fit it into a single trading floor of Lewis's Department Sore in Birmingham, we had seven trading floors so there isn't a supermarket anywhere in the country to match what we had. No, we did not use self-service - we used customer service.
We sold products people wanted to buy. Today we have a retail industry which expects customers to buy what it wants to sell. To us stock control was vital, supplied had to be ordered and efficiently delivered to not just Birmingham but to the other nine giant stores in the group. Stock had to be quickly taken from the good inward department and put out in the various departments. Display and presentation were central to success. Today we have chain after chain of empty shelf supermarkets. Never mind BUY IT QUICK BEFORE IT'S GONE, chances are it was never there in the first place.
Speaking recently to a retail manager in one such supermarket he definitely thought this silly old man had totally lost his marbles. Given his supermarket does not sell marbles there really is no hope. Actually they do but are out of stock fifty-three weeks of the year.
Opening hours ? This particular supermarket opens Monday to Saturday 6am to 11pm. Sunday doors open at 9.30am for browsing with checkouts active from 10am and closing at 4pm. Open every day of the year save for Christmas Day and Easter Sunday. The petrol station is open 24/7 with self-service pumps but the frequency with which pay at the pump is out of order means this just does not work. Of course the growing tendency is for supermarkets to stay open for twenty-four hours. MAD !
Opening hours Lewis's Department Store style ! Monday to Friday 9am to 5.30pm with late night opening every Thursday to 6.30pm. Saturday the store closed at 5pm. Sunday, of course, it was closed all day.
In those days customers had lives, today for many shopping is an addiction masking the reality of life. Staff in my day mattered, sadly not today. We had a staff manager,many businesses downgraded this to a personnel manager until today we have a human resources manager.Humans - PEOPLE - treated as an expendable resource and nothing more, a bit like the spare wheel on a delivery truck !
Semi-intelligent robots these days are replacing fully intelligent human beings. There is only one thing more stupid than a supermarket self-check out and that is that supermarket's chief executive officer. In my day Lewis's Department Store had a managing director. Our managing director was a retired army colonel by the name of H E Sloan. We all knew who he was. I wonder how many supermarket staff today can say who their big boss is ! I wonder how many care. I don't blame then for one thing is certain he does not care about them.
PAY: At Lewis's I was well paid. Our rate of pay was higher than the Birmingham version of Harrods, Rackhams as it was knows, just down the road. Every year pay went up with a service award. Not that it applied to me but staff putting in forty years service qualified for double pension. Many staff members were ex-servicemen, war service was included when it came to calculating pension.
Coming back from lunch one day the department sales manager told me the staff manager wanted to see me. Hell, what had I done wrong ? My manager smiled: Don't worry you are for a merit rise. That day my pay went up by 20% ! Twenty-percent just for being good at my job.
There were fringe benefits. Staff discount of 10%, 20% for managers. Every year it was double wages at Christmas and every member of staff received a personal gift. To keep us looking smart every year we could have a free suit, two pairs of shoes and five shirts. The store had an in house barber where we could go anytime we liked. Haircuts were free and taken in store time, not during our breaks.
Open from 9am to 5.30pm that was an eight and a half hour day. Minus the lunch hour and minus an extra half hour for morning coffee and half an hour for afternoon tea. Young staff under the age of eighteen were given meal vouchers which covered a basic lunch in the canteen. We could top it up from our own pockets if we wanted. Do supermarkets have staff canteens ?
Is there much shop lifting in a supermarket today ? I don't know. At Lewis's we had a little bit of criminality. There were three st ore detectives who all thought they were James Bond. We;ll two of them did, one was female so I guess she was Miss Moneypenny. I am not sure if these intrepid store detectives ever caught anyone stealing, if they did I doubt they would have known what to do !
Nicking, however, was common among staff. Sad that, given just how generous the store was to we employees. I can honestly say I never did anything wrong, it never occurred to me. However, there was one lady, I use the title lady with scorn, who stole a bit of cash from the till every day. Every day during he entire forty years she was employed by Lewis's Department Store in Birmingham. What happened to her ? Did she go to court ? Did she go to prison ? NO, she was sacked but allowed to keep her double pension for forty years service stealing from the till.
And with that I will draw a line and this particular ramble.