This Weekend, We All Buy Marzipan

The rush on crackers is over, but the dash for sprouts is still to come. For supermarket stockists, December is a month of thrills and spills, as Jeremy Clarke discovered when he met the Young Turks in charge of Christmas stocking at one superstore
Click to follow
FIRST, I WAS INTRODUCED to "deputy ambient trading manager" Simon Anderson and "stock control section manager" Ray Savory. They had been assigned to take me around the store and explain to me how a large Tesco supermarket gears up for the Christmas rush. We met and shook hands backstage (as it were) in a "staff only" corridor, then we pushed aside a heavy rubber door and sauntered out, like actors, into the brightly lit trading area.

Before we went any further, I had to know what a deputy ambient trading manager was. Back there in the dingy corridor, Simon had seemed so pleased to introduce himself as one, I hadn't liked to ask him what it was straight away. I guessed that "ambient" had something to do with subtly brainwashing Tesco's customers into spending far more than they intended: soothing colours, artificial bakery smells, quick-tempo Musak - that sort of thing. I confronted him about it beside the hot chickens (pounds 2.39 each).

Simon explained that he had nothing to do with brainwashing at all. The "ambient" side of a supermarket business, he said, simply refers to merchandise that can be displayed at room temperature - tinned stuff etc - everything, basically, except "fresh foods". He was in charge of that side of the business. And no, they didn't waft arti- ficial smells over their customers. There was no music either, up-tempo or otherwise. Hatfield Tesco's customers don't like music. They say so repeatedly in customer surveys. I apologised for my imputation of underhand marketing practices, but Simon said he hadn't been in the least bit offended.

At Tesco in Hatfield, Hertfordshire, it seems to be a general rule of thumb that the higher the managerial rank, the younger the per- son filling it and the brighter the acne. Extreme youth, economic pragmatism and a love of Tesco are the three most noticeable characteristics of the management team here.

Stock control manager Ray, however, appeared to be a shockingly elderly exception to this rule. He told me later, privately, that he had begun his career stacking trolleys in the "old Hatfield" 23 years ago, in the "pile 'em high and sell 'em cheap" days. (The "old Hatfield" is the original Tesco store in Hatfield High Street. At the "new Hatfield" they speak of the "old Hatfield" with affectionate derision, as if it were a corner shop with wooden tills and a bell over the door.) You could say that Ray Savory is Hatfield Tesco's equivalent of an ancient and much-loved tortoise that has been in the family for generations.

Simon, on the other hand, has clearly been put on the fast track. Not only is he taller and younger (he's 25) and better-looking than Ray, he speaks fluent supermarketese - specifically, the Tesco dialect. He talks authoritatively and enthusiastically about OSC (Optimum Shelf Capacity), SBO (Sales Based Ordering), POS (Point of Sale) and WIGIG (When It's Gone It's Gone). His sentences are stiffened with words such as "volumes", "availability," "shrinkage," and, most terrifyingly of all, he spoke of the major supermarkets' current financial imperative to "lock customers in". A Tesco man through and through, you could slice Simon with a Stanley knife (pounds 4.99) anywhere on his body and see those blue and white Tesco stripes.

We stood in a managerial group beside the hot chickens, while Simon did all the talking. Occasionally a shopper would reach between us as if we were ghosts and extract a pork pie (59p) from the shelf behind. While Simon talked, he maintained tenacious and exhausting eye contact with me, as if desperate to keep Ray out of the conversation at all costs.

Determined to hear Ray speak, if only to find out what his voice sounded like, I turned to him and asked him to clarify what a stock control section manager is. Ray darted a panic-stricken look at Simon, and Simon came immediately to his rescue by jestingly explaining it was "another way of saying that if there is anything left over at the end of the week, Ray buys it and takes it home with him".

As one of Tesco's "category nine" superstores, Hatfield Tesco is a retail monster: 55,000 square feet; 29,349 lines of stock; 700 staff; 36 check-outs. (Looked at from one end, the check-outs recede towards infinity, like an image reflected in facing mirrors. The orchestrated did-dodding of the bar-code scanners sounded to me like a track from an early Kraftwerk LP.) The store "went live" about a year ago and now stays open 24 hours a day. This Christmas the staff have been augmented by a battalion of temporary workers, while the men in suits at Tesco's nearby head office are on 10 minutes' notice to put on Santa outfits and work at the check-outs as bag-fillers. During the last frenetic 48 hours trading before Hatfield Tesco closes at five o'clock on Christmas Eve, the store will be ransacked by an estimated 44,000 people. That's about the same number of customers as in a normal seven-day week.

Fortunately for Tesco's stock control managers, the British public is ludicrously predictable in its buying habits, especially at Christmas. It's frightening, really. A stock control manager can call up any product on his computer screen, glance at the sales figures for the last couple of years and (after taking one or two variables into account) he can make a pretty accurate guess at how much to order - and exactly when to get it on the shelves. One of these variables, and this applies to stock-ordering all the year round, is the sudden demand for exotic products the day after a Delia Smith cookery programme has been broadcast on TV. These days, the BBC faxes Delia Smith's recipes to Tesco's headquarters a week in advance. Another bothersome variable is the weather. A sudden cold snap inevitably means a run on soups and baked beans (Tesco's own brand - 9p). Tesco's headquarters receives thrice-weekly weather reports in order to anticipate this.

The first of Hatfield Tesco's 4,000 Christmas lines to start selling are the advent calendars - 5,000 of them. From then until Christmas Eve, the other 3,999 exclusively Christmas lines disappear from the shelves in roughly the same order and in the same amounts as they did last year, and the year before that.

After advent calendars, the Christmas cards are next to go (182,020). Then wrapping paper (8.6 kilometres), sweets (a ton and a half), Christmas puddings (15,364), mince pies (197,916), Christmas crackers (49,612) and so on, until the last few days before Christmas, when 5,415 frozen turkeys and 53 frozen geese are sold. The marzipan shelf will be stripped bare this weekend (12th-13th December), as it is every year.

One of the ambient stock control manager's problems is getting all his Christmas stuff out of the warehouse and on to the shelves. This is where your Optimum Shelf Capacity comes into its own. Miles of extra shelving are attached to existing displays; extra "mods" (display modules) are erected; "ends" (end-of-aisle displays) are stacked ceiling-high; and larger goods such as tins of chocolates and cases of continental lager are "bulk stacked" in massive columns. Because shelf space is at such a premium, aisle width is reduced in some areas, and certain items have to be temporarily relocated. This year, breakfast cereals have been moved to another part of the store to make way for Tesco's new Christmas gift range. This has drawn bitter complains from some disoriented customers.

Depressed at how predictable we all are, and with my head spinning with acronyms and statistics, I managed to get Simon off "volumes" and "availability" for a moment by talking about my sister.

"My sister places people with learning difficulties in work situations within the community," I told him, sanctimoniously. "And she says that of all the major retailers, Tesco is far and away the most sympathetic. She says you're 'brilliant'. Is there anyone with learning difficulties here?"

"Yep. Yep. We've got one in the bakery right now, packing loaves," said Simon. "She's one of our most productive employees. She absolutely loves packing bread - loves it. Gets here early every morning and packs bread until you tell her to stop. I'm telling you.

"Oh we're all down-to-earth people here, aren't we, Ray?" said Simon, turning to the hitherto mute Ray.

We both looked at Ray. Ray grinned and nodded. We kept looking at him and he continued to grin and nod. Then Simon looked at me in the same way that an exasperated Oliver Hardy used to look at the camera after he'd fallen in the pond.

In the weeks before Christmas the average ambient stock control manager's job is an anxious one. But at least his critical sales period is spread over about four weeks. For the stock controllers over on "fresh foods", though, the success of the operation hinges on just two days - the 23rd and 24th of December - when most people buy in their fruit, veg and dairy products. According to Tesco's fresh foods trading manager, Clive Binks (29), those two are the mothers of all shopping days.

Clive's job is to make sure that 6,000 lines of fresh produce will be on the shelves right up to five o'clock on Christmas Eve, when the store closes for three days. His target for this period is 97.5 per cent availability before Christmas and 96.6 per cent immediately after.

"Our job is to make sensible predictions about volumes and get the stuff on the shelves for our customers," said Clive. "We've been planning our Christmas campaign since September. People just don't seem to realise the work that goes into it."

If Clive substantially over-orders his Christmas stock, most of which is perishable, the store will be left with an excessive amount of "wastage". Take Brussels sprouts (39p per lb). In a normal, unfestive week, Hatfield Tesco sells 23 cases. Last September, Clive and his team called up "Brussels sprouts" on the computer screen, looked at the figures for Christmases past, pondered the variables, had a meeting or two, then ordered 267 cases. That's a lot of Brussels sprouts left on their hands if their prediction is wrong.

If, however, Clive significantly under-orders his fresh foods, Tesco is going to lose customers. In a highly competitive market such as supermarket retailing, where currently a kind of exhausted stalemate exists between the larger chains, customers won and lost during this Christmas' shopping frenzy will be seen by the respective head offices as significant gains or losses.

"You have to be brave enough to go to those figures, which by the rest of the year's standards are enormous," said Don Hucheson (26), one of Clive's young and enthusiastic team of stock controllers. "But on the other hand you're not just licking your finger and holding it up to the wind. By and large, if you look at the statistics you're not going to be far out. And it does seem to be the case that the greater the volume going through the store, the more predictable the pattern."

Clive and his team of Young Turks relish the challenge of whether they have got it right. "On those last two days before Christmas," said Clive, "when all that fresh food you've ordered has been got in, and it's piled up to the ceiling, and you're standing there like a captain on the bridge in the lull before the storm, you think to yourself, 'Look at all that stock!' You just can't believe you are going to sell it all in under 48 hours.

"Then the customers start piling in and it's absolutely heaving for 24 hours. It's like Bedlam in here. I'm all over the place: I'm on my feet; I'm on my knees. My jacket's off and I'm sweaty. I'm like Glenn Hoddle, moving my lads around the store in tactical formations. It's mental; but the buzz is terrific. That's what retail is all about: it's about getting that buzz and coping with whatever they throw at you."

This Christmas will be Clive's sixth on fresh foods and his ninth as a Tesco employee. Over the years Clive has formulated what he calls his "blocked drain theory" of retail.

"Your turkeys and your gammons are your blocks in the drain," he explained. "The customers pile in and they seem to be holding fire, and you begin to wonder whether it's all going to go pear-shaped this year and you're going to be left with a load of fresh produce on your hands. But once the gammons and turkeys start to go, it's like a blockage has been removed and the next thing you know, whoosh! It's all gone and the customers are in there raping the empty fixtures."

I asked Clive how he felt things would go this year. Was he confident he'd got his sums right?

"Oh, I'm really confident about this one," he said, smiling and raising himself up on the balls of his feet. "Of course the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, but I've got a terrific young team of stock controllers working for me here. See those two young lads over there?" he said pointing out a couple of young, black-haired, smirking lads who were stacking shelves with veg. "I'm really proud of them. They are only young lads - 19 and 25 years old - but this year they've been responsible for ordering about pounds 18m of stock between them. That's what Tesco is all about - developing people, bringing out the best in them ... because it's our future."

And how, I asked him, will he be feeling at five o'clock on Christmas Eve, when the doors are finally closed behind the last customer?

"Drained," said Clive, staying with the drain metaphor. "Com-pletely drained. You've had up to 10 delivery lorries a day turning up, and somehow you've got through it, and suddenly it's all over, and everyone's gone home and you stand there thinking, 'What next?' " He fell silent for a moment and stared at the floor. "It's like staring into the abyss," he said.

But then a happy thought lifted Clive out of the bottomless pit and revived him.

"And then you start thinking about Easter," he said, brighten- ing visibly.