Bob reflects in his bath. His bath plays a large part in his life. After his wife and children the bath comes a close third in his personal list of very important things. Some days it overtakes the family and leaps into first place.
While some people go to Church on Sundays, Synagogues on Saturdays or Mosques on Fridays, Bob bathes on Sunday mornings. He put a religious level of enthusiasm, dedication and preparation into his bath-time routine. If we were to peer, shy and embarrassed, into his sanctuary we would see, arranged in an orderly manner the following items: coffee in his favourite cup, sponge, plastic duck and soap, the correct brand of newspaper and the radio suitably tuned to BBC Radio Four. All these items are correctly placed and, like the paraphernalia of any religious occasion, vital to the Sunday morning ritual.
Bob Sherunkle is the grandson of a Ukrainian immigrant and his build shows his Eastern European ancestry. His jaw is firmly chisel-like and his still dark hair shows the early signs of the pattern baldness which will one day leave him with a short curtain of hair around the rear of his squarish head.
His dark brown eyes are a little small for his face and a little close together. His head is a little small for his large and very fit frame.
His mind is fast to the point of being quixotic but only while relaxed in his favourite way does he feel that his mind is in top form. CEO. Chief Executive Officer, he muses. He likes the sound of that a lot. He is not overtly ambitious but he was almost as pleased as his much more ambitious wife had been when was headhunted from a smaller, specialized retail group to land his new job. He thought long and hard before accepting his new job as Chief Executive Officer of the only slightly down-market supermarket chain called SpendItNow.
He started work in his own off-beat style by visiting a number of stores anonymously weeks before he actually joined the company. He knows that the management and especially the head office employees of such companies are often very inward looking.
He had been heard to say in his previous job: ‘They spend far too much time playing internal politics, staring at their own navels and protecting their oversized rear ends’.
He also knows that most people spend at least half of their time at work seeking personal power and respect, neither of which help the company forward.
Bob knows that the stores are the only places where money, the life blood of all commercial organisations, flows into the company and that everything should be subservient to the stores. So he started by making his shop visits and liked what he saw. But now he is in post and wants to make a mark on the organisation, to do something that would improve the company, get his name welcomed and respected around the business and make a difference.
Today nothing anywhere near good enough comes to his mind. So after the soak, coffee, a failed attempt at a too difficult crossword and a boring episode of the Archers he gives up, stands up, dries off and dresses.
‘Answers’, he says to his mirror, ‘are easy. Good questions are hard to find.’ His mirror reflects on this statement but wisely decides not to join in the argument.
So he tracks down someone whose opinion on many things he respects and asks Anthea, his wife, what she sees as the best and worst parts of supermarket shopping.
Anthea is as usual distracted. She is nearly always flitting from activity to job to assignment. Anthea is petite, brunette and from an old Scottish family. So old is her family that they all speak with a far back English public school accent. So old is her family that Bob was not at all the sort of person she was expected to marry, a factor playing a large part of the reason for her choice.
She answers Bob’s question with half a mind: ‘with your new job, the best bit is being able to afford almost anything I see and the worst bit is being forced to now shop at SpendItNow in case a journalist sees me being disloyal in a decent store. I’ve got friends secretly buying nice things for us at M&S’.
Bob presses her to really think about the real question and explains why he wants her views. Anthea takes a break from important but not urgent matters such as emptying the dishwasher and finally getting round to cleaning the potatoes for lunch and gives the matter some thought. After a few more half-hearted peelings she says the most tiring, time consuming and generally irritating part of the whole process is the check-out and especially the queuing at check-outs. ‘Can’t you get rid of that somehow?’
Bob sits in his bath exactly one week later and during Desert Island Discs dreams up the e-Trolley. It seems perfect for him: he needs to make a mark in his new job, he needs to get to know people and he wants everyone to know about him. This e-Trolley might also set his company above all the others or at least level with the major competitors.
Later, now dressed, he outlines this to his wife over breakfast.
‘So here’s the idea. You have a trolley with a built-in barcode reader. You, the customer, scan the things you pick up and a little display tells you what you brought, how much it costs and how much you’ve spent so far. When you go to the check-out the trolley already knows what you have and you can simply pay and go. You don’t need to unload everything so you could pack your stuff straight into bags or boxes of whatever and lift them straight into your car.’
Anthea stops with one hand on the fridge door and the other on a bottle of milk. She considers for a moment and comes out with a typical slightly class-ist understatement. ‘That sounds good but we are talking about SpendItNow – might there be the slightest little problem with theft? Aren’t people going to scan half the items and just walk out?’
Bob is ready for this. ‘Ah yes. The polite term in the retail arena is ‘shrinkage’. This 21st century trolley is going to weigh the contents and check that your purchases tot up to roughly the right weight. We tell everyone that if the weight is wrong they’ll be asked to check out in the normal way – we’ll explain that something could have been scanned twice and we don’t want them to pay twice for anything. Actually this should be enough of a deterrent to keep shrinkage to about the same levels we have now. Also we might add RFID tags to the produce. What do you think?’
Anthea’s butterfly-like mind is already off on other matters: ‘What for heaven’s sake is a retail arena – a place they stick tails back on circus lions? Boiled or poached for breakfast? And what is RFDI?’
Bob explains that RFID, not RFDI is a small gadget, cheap enough to get fixed to almost anything that can be scanned by a bigger device. ‘It’s usually an RFID device that checks you as leave a store between those metal gates.
You can’t hide things in your bag or your knickers, the RFID system works through clothing and bags, the ‘R’ stands for Radar, I think.
Thanks to Geoff Reiss for contributing this book