Thursday, December 18, 2008

London Road Post Office

Into the holly hedge this festive season go the post office, ntl, Barclays, all insurance companies and the allotments office at Brighton and Hove Council.

The post office, for obvious reasons, but chiefly for its decision makers' apparent inability to leave their desks. If I knew who to invite, I'd call them down to London Road post office for mince pies and a retro experience because the London Road post office reminds me of Romania when the Wall was still up.

I went on a press trip to Romania in the eighties. We were accompanied by a communist party official at all times. We visited Vlad's castle in Transylvania, some astonishing painted monasteries, saw black robed women in lines in the fields, a beautiful young gypsy woman in a cafe (and heard plenty of stories about Romanian racism) and toured coastal resorts with sixties names like Sputnik. We were taken to a department store where there was nothing on the shelves but crystal bowls.

This is the department store the London Road post office reminds me of. The post office is on the ground floor of an old Co-op, remarkable for its marble staircase, its size (dominating London Road) and always clean, large loos. It used to have a great toy department and handy fabric and haberdashery section. Then it closed but the post office stayed - tucked away in a corner of the vast, empty building with one or two cashiers at the most, not a single chair for the long line of pensioners who queue even out of season for an hour or more to get served.

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?