My Biggest Mistake

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The Independent Online
MY BIGGEST mistake came in 1974 when I was working at a branch of C&A. I had just been made number two in the ladies' separates department - the first time I had been given some form of authority. I was responsible for making sure the displays were correct, that they maximised profits - that sort of thing.

Within a couple of weeks I noticed that tights, as a product, were not performing. A closer look revealed that this was because we hadn't got any. Having rationalised and understood that this is why they weren't selling, the logical answer was to get some.

C&A was in the process of reorganising so that all the buying was done centrally. I rang Head Office to find out when the replacements were arriving, and was told that tights weren't included in the new system yet, so I had to order them myself.

It sounds awful, having to be trained in ordering tights, but I'd never done it before. I was told that the forms were upstairs, all I had to do was to fill them out and send them off, which I dutifully did.

Three weeks later, at about 9am, a 40ft container lorry arrived. The store manager was off that day, and it was my turn to handle it.

Flicking through the paperwork, I kept seeing very familiar codes. After about 25 pages I realised something must be wrong; these tights couldn't all be for here, they must be for other branches.

I checked with the driver but he said no, they were all mine. What's more, he had to offload them quickly in order to get back to the depot, as he hadn't been able to load anything for Ipswich or Norwich.

After he had gone, with half of the shop filled to the ceiling with boxes, I did the obvious and checked the paperwork against the order. It seemed to be correct: where I had ordered 240 pairs of a certain style, there was a piece of paper that said 240, but how had this translated into such volume?

In desperation, I spoke to the section leader, who pointed out that the order was in multiples of two dozen. Each time I had written 240, I was actually ordering 240 X 24 . . . about 5,760 pairs. Only then did it dawn on me that the mistake was down to me.

We were due to be invoiced in two days, when the buyers would see a big blip on their computer print-out, and it would be pretty obvious to everybody what had happened. But fortunately, it turned out that my shortage of tights had not been unique. A friend from another branch complained that he couldn't get any, because the suppliers had run out. I suddenly realised I could turn this to my advantage.

I told him I had a few that I could spare - to help him out - and started ringing all the other shops. By the next day I had managed to offload most of the surplus.

I never worked in that department again. The whole thing was a terrible experience, which, thankfully, I survived. But I didn't want to see another pair of tights for the rest of my life.

That mistake taught me an unforgettable lesson about the need to pay attention to details. Ever since, I have double-checked that what is being reported is factual, particularly where legal matters or financial statements are concerned. As a result, a number of potential problems - some minor, some not so minor - have been averted.

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