Quick recap: in 1979 I gave up my job in banking to take control of my life and went into retailing, where at times it felt like I’d lost it completely. The boss’s reputation for not suffering fools gladly was well-deserved, as he reminded me on a daily basis. He was of the old school where customers had to be personally served from over the counter, yet it seemed fate had decided that the task of modernisation – of both the shop and his antiquated attitude – would be down to me. Oh, joy of joys! The problem was that you could fit everything I knew about retailing on a price label. What had I let myself in for...?
We stocked only the best tools, every one of them a brand leader. The market was grounded in centuries of tradition: fathers mended the home, their sons were taught woodwork at school. Stanley hammers hammered and clawed away and we had record planes flying out of the door. But things were about to change.
It was after New Year 1980 when we were first asked for cheap tools. Maybe the powers that were had put something in the water supply, but it was as if overnight people were no longer impressed with the big names. “Haven’t you got nowt no cheaper?” or “I’m not paying that much!” Didn’t they want to buy British? I asked. The responses varied in volume and degree of physical impossibility. In the bank it was the staff that used colourful language to make impractical suggestions; in the shop it was the customers, and they insisted these imported tools were every bit as good as the over-priced British stuff.
I now see that we were out of touch with recent changes in the marketplace; a sad state of affairs brought about by our main wholesaler, who was even more out of touch than we were. There was no internet back then and the only way to source new stuff was by spending hours on the phone to Directory Enquiries – which was free in those days.
When the consignment finally arrived, we were eager to get the tools on display because there wasn’t room for both of us and the crate behind the counter. First out were the screwdrivers. Oh dear. We’d asked for pozis, but got Philips. It was bad enough that most of the customers didn’t know the difference, let alone the importers, but we did and these were guaranteed to chew up the pozidriv screw heads; Philips drivers were ten a penny, pozidrivers could be like rocking horse droppings to get your hands on (which doesn’t sound so good). In time, every one of the cheapies was returned to us. They were so bad that the good screws had ruined the screwdrivers.
The hammer shafts bore a sticker with a brand name that is still around today (so I’d better not mention it). Back then I didn’t know one metal from another, but I could sense the difference between drop-forged steel and cooking foil, and these hammer heads had texture like dumplings, which was suspicious. The boss agreed that we’d better not offer them, and instead we tried one ourselves in the shop. After only a few weeks’ light work the business end of it had mushroomed faster than a toadstool on speed, forming chunks of soft steel that could so easily break away and damage your eyes – possible life-changing injuries – and to this day I’m so relieved that we took them off sale.
Times move on, and today’s budget tools are so much better quality than 30-odd years ago, many of them able to stand being used by the trade.
Naked in the sheds
By this time, the DIY superstores were beginning to spread across the land. The main one, so it seemed, was Wickes, no doubt helped by the TV ad presented by the company boss Dick Clark. And before long, people were beginning to threaten us with B&Q, whoever they were. Of course, since then you’d need to come from outer space not to have heard of them.
Arthur was a dog-eared rep for one of our suppliers. One day he confided to me that he’d had a brainwave: he would make an appointment with B&Q and get an order so massive that his bosses would give him the red carpet treatment, thenceforth using his name to describe such examples of initiative and growth development. He imagined himself with a bigger company car, a wardrobe of smart business suits, and company-provided lunches – no more home-made sandwiches. At last, respect!
One afternoon, he staggered into the shop, no longer looking desperate for our miniscule order, so maybe it had worked out well for him, though it did look as though he’d worked hard for it. “I don’t know if I’ll ever get over it,” he said, and described how the room full of buyers had laughed at his home-made catalogue, and ridiculed his pathetic presentation and deplorable perception of discount and generous settlement terms. This was garnished with a dressing-down for wasting their time. “I felt so small,” he shuddered, “like they’d stripped me naked. I’ll not be doing that again.”