I Want Your Job: Market trader
'If you get it right you're quids in'
Thursday 23 July 2009
Christopher Hutchinson, 50, is a wholesaler of fruit and vegetables at New Spitalfields Market in Leyton, east London, which is run by the City of London Corporation
What do you actually do?
My company is a wholesaler of fresh fruit and vegetables. My grandfather and father were in the business, and now my son works with me, so that's four generations. I specialise in salad – cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers and aubergines. We get large quantities of produce from the UK, Holland and France in order to supply greengrocers, secondary wholesalers, street traders, and the catering trade. The City of London Corporation, which runs New Spitalfields Market, gives us one of the 130 leases in the market, so we have a fenced-off area with our own stands.
What are the hours like?
I leave the house at 1.55am and arrive at work at 2.20am, six days a week. The market opens at midnight, but we'll receive produce from 8pm. The night porter opens up, begins unloading from the lorries and setting up the display. We start selling at 2.30am. We open so early because secondary wholesalers need to drive back to their customers before the rush-hour starts. The prices vary hour by hour, depending on demand. By 10am, it looks like a bomb has hit the place – trading can get quite frantic. We tidy up, do our stock and fax the day's prices and returns back to our suppliers, to let them know how the sale has gone. By 12.30pm or 1pm, we're ready to go home.
What's the best thing about it?
I've been doing this job for 32 years, but things still surprise me. You're constantly trying to judge the market and predict which way prices are going to go. If you get it right, you make money. It's an interesting challenge. I also enjoy the variety of people we meet. We have up to 3,000 visitors to the market every day, and it's very multicultural. There's a marvellous atmosphere and a lot of humour – it's almost like theatre.
What's not so great about it?
The hours are quite long, so it can be tiring. Many times when you get up at 1.30am, you can't wait to get back into bed. Winter can be hard. We're outside, so it gets really cold if the wind is blowing and, apart from making you feel rotten, trade is worse too.
What skills do you need to be a fantastic market trader?
You need to be able to add up, multiply and subtract quickly in your head, which is a matter of practice. Knowledge of your product comes with experience – if you're selling salad plants all day, you soon learn the secrets of how they behave. You also need to be able to drive, but the most important thing is people skills. You need to get a person's confidence, so they trust you're giving them a good deal. You need to be able to talk with authority to people, and tell them where you think the price is going, so they know how much to buy. Building relationships with your customers is vital. We hope to see our customers again at least once a week.
What advice would you give someone who wanted your job?
Be prepared to throw yourself into the business and do every job within the wholesale industry. You can't be half-hearted about it. I'm still not too senior to sweep up. You should listen and learn and be open to advice from the porters, the customers – every person involved in the trade. Apprentices often come through families and friendships – it's very informal. I started as a Saturday boy when I was 14.
What's the salary and career path like?
Apprenticeships are fairly few and far between these days, but we do encourage them. We're trying to get more youth into the industry, but the hours can be a deterrent. You might start on £10,000 to £15,000 as an apprentice, but if your face fits, you can be a salesman within two or three years and the wages go up considerably. You might even end up with your own business.
For more information on working as a market trader, visit www.cityoflondon.gov.uk/ spitalfields; the National Market Traders' Federation at www.nmtf.co.uk; or The Trader magazine at www.thetrader.co.uk
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