Friday, December 05, 2008

Retail sourcing


A girl in the art shop's asking a boy she works with how to make a skirt. He's doing his best - telling her she needs a paper pattern. I guess he might be a fashion student, probably at Brighton. I'm looking for cheap gold and silver paint. It's that time of year. I'm going to decorate my own wrapping paper. But I'm side-tracked now by a bargain bin of reduced beads by the counter and can't resist butting in.

Do you want a skirt with a waistband? No. Do you have a skirt you want to copy? Yes. So I explain. Sister Short would be proud. I explain how she can lay the skirt out on newspaper and draw a pattern. I explain the need to allow for seams, that it's easier to seat a zip at the back than the side and no, she doesn't need to take the original apart - the secret's in ironing, pinning and tacking.

I guess no-one needs to learn to sew now. Clothes are so cheap. But on the news today there are reports workers in Bangladesh earn about 7 pence an hour for making clothes for supermarkets and the British high street. There was a turning point when I realised it was cheaper to buy clothes ready made than fabric and a paper pattern. It wasn't a life affirming epiphany.

So I cheer when I hear of supermarkets' drop in profits. Two moments from my past: for an 80,000 report in 1999 about retail sourcing and merchandising, I had to research case studies - Kingfisher, one-time owner of Woolworths, was one and I wanted Tesco too. I trekked up to London for a meeting with Kingfisher's then chief executive. I'd been allocated 30 minutes, grudgingly. When I got there it had been cut to 15 minutes. The corporate affairs man knew I was coming from Brighton. Couldn't we have done it on the phone? The chief executive spent those 15 minutes avoiding eye contact, fending off questions with ready-made replies and breaking paper clips into ever smaller pieces.

Tesco's corporate affairs man at the time told me I couldn't use them as a case study because I wasn't important enough.

I still wouldn't want to share a meal with most of the individuals I met or talked to in the course of writing that report. I began to loathe the retail industry. There were some good guys. A chief executive who used to work for Oxfam - he had integrity. A couple of the trade unionists I spoke to. Fair Trade campaigners.

Let the others spend a week working in a battery chicken shed, sewing jeans, putting cheap CD players together, breathing fumes at a plastic mouldings factory. And what would they conclude? That retail now is a worthy human endeavour or a shabby waste of human imagination?