At 21 I was in the east end of London running a hanging garment depot (the first in the UK). It might sound rather grand but most days it was terrifying. I had been pulled off a management training scheme having had only six months of training, largely because I was a trainee and had no experience of saying “not me thank you”. The depot was on the bank of the Thames at Woolwich squeezed between the Hayward’s Pickle factory and Tate & Lyle. I lived in Northwood so it was three tube journeys and a train ride away; two hours on a good day with the wind behind me.
Of course I was thrilled to be selected to do it; I was proud of what we managed to achieve (more by luck than judgement); and I grew to love my little empire.
Each management job after that was easier, I knew a bit more about what I was doing; more about how to get the best out of people; more about what the stake holders wanted; and mostly that whatever I did it was unlikely to be enough but likewise, it was unlikely to be the end of the world when it wasn’t enough.
Now, 40 years on I find myself managing a charitable enterprise. You know how it happens – there is something you believe in and no one is stepping up to the plate – if you don’t do it, there is no one else. So suddenly I am in the lead seat of a Fairtrade shop previously generating £25,000 a year. There are volunteers: not enough, some hugely committed and some great…..every five weeks…… for two hours max. There are all the demands of retail: attracting customers, building customer relationships and loyalty, obtaining the right stock, maintaining stock levels, anticipating peaks in sales at the right time.
We recently had our Christmas Spectacular – in October. We had our doubts about that. We had our doubts about lots of things.
Its clear that everything is driven by the seasons and what customers want. Finding a customer is hard work so it is incredibly important to hang on to the ones we have; if they want to think about Christmas then we have to……… and so in July we started to think about Christmas. In August we went to look at the new Traidcraft stock. There were five of us in the Free Church in St Ives on that sunny August, day knowing we had to buy stock for Christmas presents. Each of us with a particular mission. So we shopped; we tasted new chocolate flavours; we shopped; we listened to fantastic presentations about the producers and the difference buying fair trade products makes and we shopped; we ate lunch and talked about what we had seen; we shopped: these socks, that hat, would 150 packs of Fairtrade Christmas cards be enough ……..at 5pm we were still there, the last party standing but we had formulated an order.
Then for two months we worried: had we ordered the right things? Had we ordered too much? Had we ordered too little? Where we going to put it when it all arrived? How were we going to deal with pricing everything? Were we spending other people’s money responsibly? Would anyone come? Would we sell it all on the first day?
I worried about rotas – to be honest, I was consumed by rotas night and day, asleep and awake. We had eight shifts to cover and I needed ten people on each minimum but it wasn’t happening.
By then we had a visual merchandiser on board who was used to working on a big stage; but at our level, every penny counts and the thing about volunteers is that they have all opinions but they do not all agree. Back in the east end I was the boss, once I had decided then it happened. It has not been quite like that in the last few months. Sometimes it has felt like herding cats; nice cats, willing cats, amiable cats but independent, capable cats who let me know their thoughts on decisions made and whether or not they agreed, regularly and without reservation.
Our October sale is now behind us and the punters have passed their fairtrade advent calendars on to their excited children, grandchildren, nephews and nieces. They have hidden their carefully chosen presents in the back of a cupboard (they do hope they will remember where they are when the time comes). My team of chaotically herded cats was heroic and it was a fantastic event. About 250 paying adults attended and lots of children; 28 volunteers helped in one way or another; £4972.98 (important that 98 pence) was taken. So we achieved what we set out to do.
The October Christmas sale reminded me that the voluntary sector is fantastic and makes the UK what it is. This blog post gives me the opportunity to thank my team for all they do and to thank them for taking me back in time to the days of my east end depot forty years ago. I thank them for reminding me how wide-eyed (not to mention wide-brimmed) I was in my quest to achieve something sustainable. I thank them for reminding me how to play to individual’s needs and keep everyone happy (while achieving my own ends). And I thank them, most of all, for reminding me that – more often than not – winging it still works (fairtrade chocolate incentives are also very useful)!