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Friday, 13 September 2013


I started in retailing when I was nine years old, delivering groceries on a bicycle not dissimilar to David Jason’s "Granville" contraption in the TV comedy “Open All Hours”.  I am taking you back to the early 1960s and, contrary to what you might be thinking, this was no child labour exploitation.  I opted for shop work because there were no vacancies for chimney sweeps' assistants at the time.  I was employed after school and on Saturdays at the Mace supermarket in the Belfast suburb where I lived.  I performed several duties apart from deliveries, including shelf stacking, serving on the fresh meat counter, manning (boying?) the till and sweeping up.  I loved it and I have no doubt that this experience sowed the seeds of my desire for a retailing career.  This was the era of simple retailing, with no frills, no hype, no unnecessary hassles, no price wars and a regular customer flow of loyal punters who came in, did their shopping, had a little chat and left generally happy and untroubled.  It was unfussy, straightforward trading.

The reason I remember my age at the Mace is because I can answer that question “Where were you when JFK was assassinated?”  On one of my delivery jaunts, I remember very clearly that I overheard a passing pedestrian tell someone else what had happened.  I knew it was fairly important news but my mind was preoccupied by the yapping dog behind the railings of a house in Fruithill Park. 

I was scared stiff and could not pluck up the courage to open the gate.  Luckily, after about ten minutes of terror and sweaty armpits, the woman of the house stepped out, called the dog off and beckoned me up the driveway.  I delivered her box of groceries, she gave me a half crown tip – big money in those days – and I scarpered before the dog was let loose again.  Unlike the poor President, I had escaped with my life intact.  It is experience like this as well as being a jack-of-all-trades in a shop that can shape a person and even now I draw on those days occasionally to help me think through business problems or advise students on the nuts and bolts of retailing.  I still give dogs a wide berth too.

It was hard work and fun, a vital combination to maintain interest.  It gave me an appreciation of team working and a clear lesson that getting stuck in was part of the deal.  On one occasion, one of the Mace owners told me that if his white shirt was not grubby at the end of his working day, he had not worked hard enough.  .

Being a delivery boy was an adventure in those days and all sorts of pranks, escapades and dangers made it fun, most of the time.  Some customers were wonderful and generous, others were abrupt and a bit rude and a few were scatty and bonkers.  Of course, they were always right.  But I never wore a tank-top like Granville – honest!

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