Telling the truth about SME life today

“Computers turned our employees into robots!”

In my first job as a shoe shop assistant, I would wrap each customer’s purchase with paper and string and complete a sales docket that went on a spike by the till. On Thursdays, I listed the week’s sales and counted the stock so my manager could write out his order and post it to the warehouse.  

In December 1960, we bought a computer and the traditions of a lifetime disappeared. It didn’t like letters or names – everything and everyone had to have a number.  Great grandpa’s original branch, affectionately known as “A” Shop, became 250. And the policeman’s boot (previously 15E) became 111-111.

We discovered the computer wasn’t perfect. Punched cards were put in every shoe box and sent to head office when a sale was made. Over ten per cent were in the wrong box and two per cent got lost in transit. Next, to improve accuracy, we recorded sales on a special form with a graphite pen. Computer error leapt to 21 per cent.

For the following five years, hand-written dockets were sent to head office where 35 girls converted them into punch cards. Computer error dropped to three per cent and everyone was happy.

Then we introduced EPOS (Electronic Point of Sale) – a £1m till system that telephoned data straight to our computer. It sounded fantastic but there were snags. Modem difficulties and missed connections pushed computer error up to 12 per cent.

It took three central computer changes and two new EPOS solutions to get discrepancies down to two per cent, by which time branch stock was controlled by an automatic replenishment system. When I sold our shoe shops in the late nineties, the computer was running the business.

Our 150 shoe repair outlets missed the EPOS revolution but, in 1970, the uncomplicated world of cobbling diversified into key cutting, using more than 1,000 different key blanks. A stock control nightmare. We decided that the guy doing the key cutting knew best: we ignored computers and let shop colleagues send manual orders to our warehouse – and it worked.

In 1995, we bought a business called Automagic, a rival shoe repairer using EPOS.“It’s been a disaster,” said one manager. “They sent shoe whitener in the winter and woolly insoles in the summer. I told them but no-one listened. The computer was always right.”

We found the same thing in 2003 when we bought the Mr Minit chain. Its computer not only distributed the wrong stock, but also fed head office false information. A marketing team studied the figures to fine-tune its performance, while the company lost £120m in four years.

In both Automagic and Mr Minit, we threw out EPOS and improved the business. Their systems had given all the power to head office and turned shop staff into robots. I’m now paranoid about EPOS.

I silently curse at Crewe Station while the WH Smith girl waves my Telegraph across the bar-code reader. I was baffled after a barmaid in Edinburgh sold me two lagers for the price of one (“it’s happy hour”), then said: “Sorry,” as she brought over one drink instead of two. “The computer shows 7pm – it won’t let me serve the second drink.”

Timpson is out of step. Today EPOS is everywhere, after all.

“How can you live without it?” I’m asked. “How do you control the business?”

“Easily,” I reply. “Ask the colleagues in our shops.”

A Mr Minit manager once told me: “When you threw out EPOS, I knew you understood our business.”

We’ve bought two companies in the past year; 40 dry-cleaning concessions in Sainsbury’s; and 187 photo-processing shops trading as Klick and Max Spielmann. We’ve improved both businesses by getting rid of EPOS.

It isn’t always right to copy everyone else – just ask the banks. We have grown from 150 to 820 shops by giving our colleagues freedom to order their own stock and look after customers the way they know best. It’s exactly what my grandfather did 49 years ago.

Picture: source



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