Last Night's Television - I'm Running Sainsbury's, Channel 4; Mary, Queen of Charity Shops, BBC2; Meet the British, BBC4

All over the shop
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The Independent Culture

"Corporate suicide or stroke of genius?" asked the voice-over at the beginning of I'm Running Sainsbury's. Is that really the only choice, I felt like asking. Television likes to pretend that the world can be cut up into these neat either-or categories but almost invariably real life occupies the muddled space in between, tediously distant from the frissons of triumph or disaster. And even the most biddable viewer was unlikely to believe that Justin King, the head of Sainsbury's, was really betting the fate of the company on a modest scheme to encourage shop-floor innovation. Sainsbury's staff had been invited to come up with new ideas for increasing Sainsbury's sales, to be pitched to the senior executives in a kind of grocery-themed Dragons' Den convened at Sainsbury's head office. Over the next four weeks, the series will follow the attempt to implement the winning ideas, though it's already clear that Justin had the best idea of all, by somehow convincing ITV to give him four hours of free prime-time advertising, all of which nudgingly underline Sainsbury's commitment to low prices and quality products.

Becky Craze was first up to put her idea into practice. A cheery soul (when things were going right) who has been working at the Watford branch since she was 15 and is now a store trainer, a job title that seemed to involve quite a lot of shelf-stacking and till-manning and not a great deal of visible training. Becky dropped out of university and now minds the fact, and it wasn't hard to see why the executives were charmed by her, or her ostensibly sensible suggestion to pre-pack the components of one of Sainsbury's Feed Your Family for a Fiver recipes, so that people didn't have to traipse all over the store picking up the ingredients. The thought occurred here that supermarkets actually quite like people to traipse all over because that way they get more impulse buys, but perhaps it was felt to be off-message to mention it and Becky got the green light anyway.

In a Hollywood movie, this would have been the cue for rocketing sales, a belated recognition that Becky had been a bushel with light gleaming from beneath it, and rapid promotion to the board. In the tough hard world of retail it didn't work quite like that. Becky got a prized end-of-aisle "plinth" for her promotion, one with promising footfall. She got orange balloons and Tannoy announcements and a lot of positive cheerleading from her Watford colleagues. But the British public inspected her sausage and apple hotpot with cobbler topping and, by and large, passed on empty-handed. Becky discovered the downsides of her modest in-store celebrity: "You're the one at the end of it that has to deal with the humiliation at work," she said, as it became clear the scheme was bombing, "I'm finding it so hard not to burst into tears." When the time came to deliver the coup de grâce to her scheme, everything seemed to hint that Sainsbury's might be ready to pull a consolation out of the bag for Becky, a little bonus, perhaps, for her enterprise or a fast-track promotion to a training scheme. But, instead, she was just sent back to stack shelves again. I felt so bad about it I may have to boycott Sainsbury's for a bit.

I hope Becky saw Mary, Queen of Charity Shops last night, because, among other things, it demonstrated that even celebrated retail gurus can come up with bright ideas that don't work. A credit-crunch adaptation of BBC2's engaging shop makeover series, this three-part series puts Mary Portas in charge of one of Save the Children's worst-performing stores, a faintly shambolic operation in Orpington, run with great selflessness and almost zero retail nous by its aged volunteer staff. Appalled by the clutter and tat she found in the store, Mary came up with an idea encourage better-quality donations, canvassing the more prosperous neighbourhoods with little tags marked, "With love", to be tied to high-value donations. When the harvest came in it was the usual blighted crop of the ugly and the unfashionable, the kind of thing that someone buys for you in a charity shop and almost instantly returns there. Mary was almost as glum as Becky, but she quickly brushed herself off and went back on the attack, a two-pronged assault on the diffidence of the staff and the somewhat laissez-faire approach of the regional manager, a man who did not appear eager to benefit from free advice from one of Britain's foremost retail experts.

Meet the British was delicious, a compilation of government-sponsored promotional films, which presented Britain as an idyll where buses "are always punctual", where London cabbies are "cheerful" and the British policeman "is a friend to all except the criminal". Also, a country where an astounding number of young women seemed to chose bikinis as everyday wear.