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Tuesday, 17 September 2013


On 17 September 1973, I joined British Homes Stores as a Trainee Manager in Belfast.  In the early 1970s, BHS was seen as the slightly poorer relation to the mighty Marks and Spencer, but still a force in its own right in fresh food and clothing.  After my nine-months training apprenticeship, I was appointed department manager of menswear as well as being becoming the security coordinator, for these were dark days in Belfast, riddled with terrorist incidents including bomb scares and, worse, occasional explosions.  Stores employed security guards at entrances to search customers for incendiary devices and anything else threatening, and it was part of my job to look after this team.  It was a pretty ineffective way to stop terrorists but it was the done thing to give customers the impression that we were thinking about their safety.  It brought a whole new dimension to customer care and it was an experience that helped me to see the humanity necessary for a successful business life.  Tending to customers rigid with shock and bleeding after a bomb exploded outside our shop one afternoon was an extension of customer service that I hope I never have to get involved with again. 

But there were lighter moments.  In fact, to be coarse for a second, I can honestly say that I have shoveled sh*t for my employer.  On one of the many evacuations we endured following a telephoned bomb scare threat, the police and army contingent brought a sniffer dog to roam the store in a bid to detect explosives.  As the brave dog scrambled around and over the top of counter displays, it decided to stop on my department and do its business.  After the all clear, I grabbed a bin and a shovel and scooped the poop before customers were allowed back in.  So, whenever anyone talks about rolling up sleeves and getting hands dirty, they are talking to an old campaigner here.

One of our departmental managers’ pranks involved a mannequin’s hand.  Each afternoon, about an hour before the shop closed, our key holder would come in and tour the building to start locking windows and fire doors, ensuring a fully secure shut down when we all left for the evening.  One part of his tour took him down some stairs, around a corner and down a further flight to a fire door at the back of the store.  One day, a couple of us disconnected a hand from one of the fashion department’s mannequins and placed it on the handrail just around the corner of the stairwell.  The key holder, observed in advance by us as a handrail holder as he descended the stairs, almost jumped out of his skin when he touched the cold extremity.  He was normally a gentle plodder as he did his rounds, but on that day, he bounded up the stairs and shot out on to the shop floor like a banshee with its tail on fire.  In our privacy, we screamed with laughter for ages and he developed a suspicious eye in our company from that day on.  It is shameful, of course in retrospect, but I include it as an illustration that we were prone to a little childish fun from time to time in those days to counteract the seriousness of the business we were in.  If we had been identified as the culprits, we reckoned that our defence rested on us arguing that we were only giving him a hand.

British Home Stores, Castle Place had a strong presence of department managers from “the mainland” and several of them shared a house in Templepatrick.  They were given a company car that was transported from England and were a little nervous when they realised it was a sort of army green colour.  These were days when “the English” were not welcome in certain parts of Belfast and military-looking vehicles were targets for some organisations.  Needless to say, the car was swapped for a snappy red number.  These management imports were good people by and large with the odd one assuming that us locals were country hicks.  Any such notions were stamped on quickly by some of my straighter talking colleagues with a catch-yourself-on metaphorical slap.

I learnt many lessons in my years with the company, especially about the spirit of team work and the joys of camaraderie, both of which are not as apparent today as they were then.  This was an age of shops opening at nine in the morning and shutting at six o’clock at night, with quite a number closing on Wednesday afternoons.  Sunday opening was a no-no. There was none of the modern-day relentless 24/7 pressure and demand and it is probably the “we never close” society that has eroded the closeness and friendliness of retail colleagues in current times.  The BHS team of the 1970s would be in the local pub ten minutes after closing the shops, having fun and, dare I say without sounding too Oprah Winfrey, bonding. 

Forty years is a long time in any career and thinking about those days compared to now, changes in shops, shoppers and shopping are immense.  Today, it’s almost a non-stop world.  In my retail youth a huge emphasis would be put on employees’ appearance.  Basically, we were all expected to be well-groomed, smartly dressed with polished shoes and devoid of any bodily ornamentation.  Today, it seems, anything goes from hairstyle and colour to tattoos to facial jewellery to whacky nails and nail varnish.  The “staff managers” in the 1970s policed the handbook rules and regulations like constables on the beat.  The other big difference is manners.  In the 1970s, good manners in shops were not guaranteed but I remember clearly that there were more good mornings, pleases and thank yous then than now.  Also, respect for authority was a given.  Senior managers and directors were referred to as “Mister” (for retailing back then was a male-dominated industry) and today’s casual first name approach would have been looked on with horror.

Four decades on, I retain huge affection for those days and I remember fondly many of my work colleagues.  On a recent visit home, I walked around my old shop but couldn’t really get my bearings because of layout and structural changes over the years.  But there was enough there to remind me that, sometimes against the odds, they were good days, fun days and days that shaped me more than any other working period I can recall. 

“Retail Confidential” and “Much Calamity & The Redundance Kid” by Joe Cushnan are out now

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