Monday, 26 May 2014

The Boom and Bust of Business

It was a known brand opening on a prime city centre square and no expense had been spared in adorning the building with jolly cartoon balloons to entice the punters and refitting the inside in rustic fashion. It was a proven fact that people liked a pie. What could go wrong? Certainly it seemed to do a roaring trade for the first few weeks. Yet less than eighteen months after opening, my partner and I noticed Pie Society had closed and its catering equipment was for sale.

We ourselves had only visited Pie Society once, as a break from last Christmas's crowds, to find surly staff who took an age to serve, lukewarm, so what? pies and a drafty upstairs room furnished with uncomfortable metal stools. Our hot drinks were unappealingly contained in retro (none-too-hygienic) chipped enamel mugs, supposedly evocative of the past. The loos were also pretty grim. Great as the view from upstairs was, we didn't enjoy the experience, but assumed we were not the demographic the place was appealing to and the youth of the city probably loved it.

Apparently not. The franchise really had gone feral.

As an ardent fan of Channel 5's The Hotel Inspector and Channel 4's Country House Rescue, I take a keen interest in which businesses survive and thrive and which bite the dust. Western Road has a particularly high proliferation of eateries, takeaways and cafes with almost every second premises occupied by one. They can't possibly all make a living, even in high tourist season, and they don't. In fact the national success rate for food outlets is apparently 1 in 7 surviving for up to three years, so it is is a much riskier business than the wannabe eaterie owner seems to consider when they dream how nice it would be to run their own cafe, probably imagining it is almost a failsafe business as everyone needs to eat, much like an undertakers (of whom there are also a huge proliferation in Brighton and Hove), probably assume a high and continuous demand for their services.

The Just Eat campaign has undoubtedly given the eating out and takeaway industry a boost. However eateries still need to raise their game, particularly in an area of intense competition. And sometimes they provide great food, friendly staff and a unique identity and still fail, such as the lovely vegetarian cafe Aloka, which looked more like a high-class chemist from the outside, presumably trying to ape the Damian Hirst 'Pharmacy' look. Then there is a wonderful ice cream parlour which makes all its own ice cream and cakes and has a fantastic premises quite near the seafront with a funky upstairs, but which seems to be largely empty most of the time, apart from closing off the upstairs for the odd children's party. but what is the point of trying so hard with the food offer if it is signing its own death warrant with a dearth of marketing? Our favourite toasted sandwich cafe has been through hard times but has reinvented itself and seems to be doing a little better now, but again one senses that it suffers from little or no advertising budget, no matter that the product is good and it is one of the cheapest places to eat in the city centre.

I would love to go into business myself, so am noting everyone else's triumphs and tragedies with interest and taking lots of notes, but one thing is for sure, when I take the plunge, it will not be in the catering sector. I bet many of those who go into it don't expect it to be nearly as tough a business as it really is. And let's not forget 95% of pubs now offer food (of which there also many in Brighton), making the local market even tougher.

Meantime I am looking forward to starting a new day job next week, in my professional area of expertise, the housing sector.

Wednesday, 7 May 2014

Self-love and Self-hate

In Louise L. Hay's famous self-help book; 'You Can Heal Your Life' she describes how one of the most challenging exercises for her clients to perform is to take a hand mirror, look at their reflection in the glass and repeat aloud ten times 'I love and approve of myself.' Some can't do it or burst into tears. Still others get angry and fling the mirror across the room, so great is their self-dislike or inability to look themselves in the eye.

Ms Hay was among the first self-help gurus to point out that you had to love yourself in order to love anybody else, and she didn't mean in an egocentric way - which is purely front in any case -  but in a genuine sense. Which kind of parallels; if you value yourself, others will value you, or; you have to feel full as a person in order to have enough or extra to give to somebody else. If you are a yawning chasm psychologically, then your bleakness is what people will perceive when they look at you (though you might be able to fool them for a while if you are pretty) and your vibes are likely to send them running or making their excuses to depart pretty quickly.  I saw a neat example of this phenomenon in a church hall the other day when a disheveled woman in her late 50s went up for a cup of tea after the service, was asked how she was by the kindly server and replied 'Terrible! Things couldn't be worse. I wish I'd never moved to this godforsaken town!' Needless to say the tea server quickly moved on to the next parishioner. The woman then joined a communal table but it was noticeable how she quickly dismissed all polite interest in her and concern for her welfare with almost aggressive negativity about how bad her life was and how much she hated everything. They quickly drained their cups and made their excuses to leave. She ended up sitting on her own, glaring out of the window. Strangely she wore a riot of mismatched fabrics and colours but this had evidently not done its job in jollying her mood.

The good news is that reprogramming your mind from every negative or self-critical thought can apparently alter the vibes and energy you emit, attracting similarly positive vibes and energy to come back to you as you change the course of your life to a direction you really want, though it is equally vital to forgive yourself for everything you are beating yourself up about first, or it is impossible to silence the negative chatter and rebukes in your mind, holding you back.

The self-love that results is said to be the answer to a happier and more fulfilling life. Ever the one for the short cut, I have been experimenting with self-hypnosis lately (meditation takes far too long!), though can attest that positive affirmations can be also very powerful, Much more powerful than I used to give them credit for. Last night I hypnotised my partner into the first restful night's sleep he's had in a long time (long story) using a hypnotic script I had specifically tailored to his needs.

This makes me wonder when I read tragic cases in the newspapers of youngsters who kill themselves through cyber-bullying (but who then turn out to have sent the abusive messages to themselves), whether this warped means of attention seeking/crying for help actually results in young people hypnotising themselves into suicide by repeatedly subjecting themselves to a barrage of negative messages and mantras about what a worthless waste of space they are and worse even though, on the face of it, they are replying to their 'abuser' every few minutes defending themselves. Or could they be recreating online whatever conflict/confusion is going on in their young minds about who they are and what they are worth, with the dark side tragically winning sometimes...?

The human mind is a wondrous thing but perhaps it is a tool we can take more control of than we think. So much of our reaction to life is just a state of mind when it comes down to it. A state of mind which can be caused by so many things from wrong-headed, confused or substance-driven thinking to a hormone or other medical/mental imbalance which can potentially be corrected if correctly diagnosed. In some cases even hunger or lack of sleep can give someone a psychotic or depressive state of mind and influence them to behave in ways they might not if their basic needs had been met. I do believe both sides of our brain deserve to have their say as well in any judgement, decision or dilemma and not just the emotional. Therein balance lies, if not happiness as well.

Tuesday, 6 May 2014

The Co-Operative. 1844 - (2014)...?

It all began with the Industrial Revolution. Vast swathes of subjects who had lived off the land for generations traded country life in for the attractions of the new cities and towns sprouting up, and more specifically for the less precarious and seasonal living offered by the new factories and mills. However living by the clock, rather than the season, had its own drawbacks. With only half a day off each week for most and crowded living conditions, there was neither time nor land to continue growing their own vegetables and raising their own animals. Some factories took advantage of this by paying their workers in tokens, redeemable only in exchange for provisions purchased in their own onsite 'truck shops' where workers were forced to pay over the odds, often for poor quality goods such as sugar adulterated with sand or flour adulterated with chalk. The fact that many mills and factories also built the housing for their workers enabled them to take advantage of another source of profit from and control over their employees - rent. If a worker became ill or disabled, he or she could then be evicted to make way for an able-bodied worker. Being a skilled weaver or tradesman offered no protection from this exploitation as living conditions were continually driven down for all in the name of profit maximisation.

Against this backdrop, the first trades unions were formed to campaign for basic rights and better conditions for workers and after a few attempts in various areas with mixed results, ten weavers and twenty others scraped together the equivalent of £1 each over the course of four months to form The Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers the Co-Operative Society in Rochdale in 1844, the branch that was to become the bedrock of the whole modern Co-Operative Movement. On 21 December 1844, they opened their store with a scant selection of butter, sugar, flour, oatmeal and a few candles. Within three months, they had managed to expand their selection to include tea and tobacco, and they were soon known for providing high quality, unadulterated goods. A decade later, the British co-operative movement had grown to nearly 1,000 co-operatives.

Over the remainder of the 19th century and into the 20th century, the co-op provided more and more provisions and goods until whole Co-Op department stores selling everything under one roof began to spring up and additional services such as banking, insurance, funerals and even adult education evening classes were added for those who wanted to better themselves or had perhaps left school at 12 to go into pits, mills or domestic service and had had little formal education. The Co-Op even ran social activities and had dance halls. The Co-Op were also responsible for one of the first loyalty schemes known as the 'divvy'. Each time a customer shopped at the co-op they would receive divvy stamps which they accumulated into a book until they had enough to buy Christmas treats for the family or saved towards larger purchases such as furniture, though large items were also often available on hire purchase or for rent. Later still, came Co-Op travel and Co-Op development to provide more affordable homes. The people owned the Co-Op and one membership equaled one vote.

The Co-Op first began to suffer when Sainsburys began to expand and Tesco and Waitrose emerged, often selling greater variety of food at competitive prices and then diversifying into fancy goods and offering their own loyalty cards and services.  This process has continued with additional and cheaper supermarkets joining the market with 'metro' mini stores opening on many street corners in addition to hypermarkets and now the rise of online competition. Suddenly the Co-Op seems drab and old-fashioned, Co-Op department stores are closing and the divvy stamp has gone too, though a loyalty card scheme now exists in its place.

Its food often seems pricey for what it is and the food is either very basic and bland such as macaroni cheese or there are a few products in the extra-special range such as chocolate chip cookies or luxury ice cream which are, converersely, superb with little in the mid-range quality stakes. They do however distinguish themselves by being the only supermarket to continue offering cruelty free household products and cosmetics, albeit in limited range, though they are surprisingly quiet about this unique selling point. What there doesn't seem to be is consistency, and many stores Co-Op stores are also slow to replenish empty shelves or serve at the tills when there is a queue, which are essential basics to any supermarket thriving.

However the ethical side and refusal to invest in weapons manufacturers etc kept many of us loyal and for many years the Co-Op provided the first and best ethical online bank, Smile (offering a superb 4% on my current account when I opened it over a decade ago, though this has now eroded to nothing as with the other banks).

Then over the past decade the scandals started to hit after disastrous decisions to try and expand the Co-Op empire with the (failed) acquisition of Summerfield supermarkets, the take-over of Britannia Building Society and the (failed) takeover of part of Lloyds banks. At the helm of the Co-Op bank during the latter mistakes turned out to be an inept banker and drug-addled self-styled methodist minister. Simultaneously a scandal erupted in the Funeralcare side of the business when it was revealed that bodies were unceremoniously stored in vast central warehouses, having to be transported back to the relevant towns and villages as required for cremation and burial, rather than reposing in the local funeral homes prior to the funeral as their loved ones imagined they were and had paid for to be the case, carrying with it, considerable risk of mistaken identity in transit, aside from the indignity of such treatment of the dead.

So instead of pouring its resources into turning its own fortunes around by sorting its own house out first and making the best of its assets and unique selling points, the Co-Op, without any recourse to its members/owners by way of a ballot, or it now transpires, the advice or direction of top industry experts, decided to look outwards to a disastrous programme of expansion and behaved like a corporation instead of a co-operative.

Consequently its members are disgusted, its ethical principals are in tatters (and the Co-Operative organisation had previously received high praise in many quarters including from Kofi Annan) and parts of the business such as the bank are in financial crisis with a 'black hole' of £1.3bn, to the point the bank at least, is unlikely to survive.

The Rochdale Pioneers would be turning in their graves.