Like most people, there are some aspects of the world that I find very difficult to understand. One of these is the laws of physics as expounded by Albert Einstein. In particular, the idea that time is not fixed is something that I can sort of understand when it is explained to me but 10 min later my comprehension gradually slips away, until I return to my usual state of befuddlement.
However, at a less exalted level, I can understand how this sort of works in the real world. Many years ago, when I worked for a major supermarket chain, our managing director used to spend Saturdays going out and visiting stores on an informal basis, arriving unannounced at a store, much to the panic of the store manager, and then spending time talking to managers supervisors staff and customers to get a real feel of the business. This was an excellent practice but one that those of us in the marketing department learnt to dread. It meant that he came back into head office on Monday morning with a list of proposed changes, all of which needed to be implemented in several hundred stores by the following Friday ready for the following weekend’s trading. That was the timescale we work to.
By contrast, I was in a rural shop the other week where the lights in the upright freezer had not worked for about two months and they still had not been fixed. It is hard to quantify how many sales of frozen food had been lost as a result and the impact on the overall image of the store – a dark freezer does not look terribly inviting. Of course the proprietors of many small shops would have treated this issue with the urgency it demands. However , the difference between these two attitudes does highlight the importance of professional management even in very small stores.
Government and the civil service often seem to operate on both timescales. A sudden crisis can often lead to a panicked response, whilst conversely other decisions are not just kicked into the long grass but booted deep into the impenetrable jungle. A classic case in point would be the decision on London airports, which has been bubbling along (without exaggeration) for about 50 years. So where does this leave rural shops?
The introduction of the national living wage from 2016 will be increasing staff costs for many small rural shops every year at least until 2020. My fear is that many owners are telling us that their response will be to work even more hours themselves behind the counter. This is worrying. If the manager is working long hours effectively as a shop assistant, they will not have the time or energy to manage the business day-to-day. This means that basic problem-solving, such as replacement of dead bulbs in refrigeration, does not happen. Even less is there time to actually sit down occasionally and plan the future of the business.
Albert Einstein’s theories tell us that time is not constant, it is something that we can influence by our actions. Active management is something that retail business can survive without for years. However, to thrive it does need the weekly fine tuning that I experienced in the supermarket environment.