1970s >> 1974 >> no-834-february-1974

A Good Old Family Business

Sainsbury’s is a famous chain of grocers’ shops. Last year, after a lifetime of family management, they became a public company. The change was half-bewailed; put down to “progress” but signalling the end of old-fashioned shops where every woman was Madam and the assistants weighed things out. Their shops now are on the supermarket plan, where trolleys are wheeled down stacked-up avenues of tins to conveyor-belt checkout desks.

Sainsbury’s were paternalistic shops, full of cleanliness and service. How easy it is to lament the passing of all that, as if it were a golden age! The “niceness” for the customers was accompanied by low wages, and obtained by a regime of petty and not-so-petty tyrannies and humiliations. To work for Sainsbury’s was to be a slave. I know.

I was employed as a porter, quartered in the warehouse behind the shop. The porter’s job was to hump things and clean things, and at the outbreak of war the wage was thirty shillings a week. They made a fuss about employing you. There was an interview at the head office: references, good character, honesty and industriousness were essential. Once engaged, you were addressed by surname only like a soldier, and like a soldier called your superiors “Sir”.

The porter’s day began with sweeping the floors and washing the windows, and ended with scrubbing the long mosaic shop-floor. There was a daily schedule for cleaning — marble fascia, metal rails, the butchers’ blocks, the brass weights, the lavatories. To the warehouse walls were fixed enamel plates with paternal proverbs on them: A Place for Everything and Everything in its Place—J. Sainsbury; The Man Without a Cheerful Face Shouldn’t Run a Shop—J. Sainsbury : as might be seen elsewhere All Hope Abandon Ye Who Enter Here.

The cleaning schedule in practice was carried on between the humping. Vans of groceries and meat arrived every day to be unloaded and their contents stacked and hung. But besides them there was the daylong carrying into the shop. Sainsbury’s did not let the assistants leave the counter, for fear they should do so with something from the till. As they wanted fresh supplies, they bawled towards the warehouse: Side of bacon ! Cheese ! Box of butter ! — and the porter entered like an extra in an ill- rehearsed play, burden on his shoulder and the manager behind exhorting him to hurry.

The porter wore a blue-striped coat like a convict’s, and the manager a dark jacket with a snow-white apron. Everyone else wore a white tunic and a long white apron. In that uniform, however, a hierarchy was shown. The “first hand”, the leading assistant, had red buttons on his tunic. The others’ buttons were black with numbers marking their standing in order. Only the juveniles had no numbers, signifying that they were nobodys at all.

The discipline was stringent. White collars and black shoes were compulsory, hair had to be short- back-and-sides. The highest virtue was to be “quick”; all were urged obsessively into a brisk demeanour and scurrying movements. Mistakes were unforgivable. Sainsbury’s employed “samplers”, people who went in shops anonymously to buy and look out for inaccurate weighing and other errors; assistants could be carpeted and sacked without being able to identify or contest the complaints against them.

Everyone was sent to the firm’s headquarters for training. There were courses in grocery, butchering, poultry-trussing, etc. On the course — usually a month — the trainees were lined-up for inspection by a head man, often one of the Sainsburys, every morning. Personal appearance was scrutinized, and the most dreadful condemnation was: “That’s not Sainsbury.” The courses were for conditioning as much as for teaching the trade. Assistants learned moronic jingles to chant as they knocked up the customers’ butter: “This is the shop, Built upon a rock.”

There was a voluntary superannuation fund, and at Christmas a double week’s wages was given. That week, the bike-boy had twenty-five shillings instead of twelve-and-six, the manager sixteen pounds instead of eight. After the war began this bounty was replaced by what might be seen as the acme of unwelcome paternalism. Employees were advised that because of wartime conditions the double wage could not be pursued; instead, every single one would receive what he would undoubtedly appreciate just as much — a signed picture of Mr. Sainsbury.

Why did people stand for it: the regimentation and conditioning, the skinflint pay, the contemptuous pretence of benevolence? The answer, of course, is unemployment and the fear of it. Sainsburys’ empire was founded on young men having to hunt and be grateful for whatever job they could get.

The abiding terror of all Sainsbury shops was “short stocks”. At the regular stocktaking every penny had to be accounted for, every empty carton and cracked egg. If it was not and a deficiency was shown, the shop took stock every Saturday until the cause was found. It might be inefficiency or waste, or it might be somebody pilfering. Whatever it was, it brought everyone under suspicion.

Ultimately, the manager might lose his job and be relegated to an assistant in some distant branch. So the manager hunted a culprit; if he became desperate, traps could be laid. The manager and his supervisor interviewed assistants, asking if they smoked or went to the greyhounds and how they could afford it on what they were paid. The search was facilitated by the fact that many assistants “lived in”, in accommodation provided over Sainsbury’s shops.
Curiously enough, systematic pilferers were seldom found out. I kept the egg-boy’s secret as to his method, when the management were frantic. Sainsbury’s wanted young men who “could use their brains”; perhaps they got, in this connection, what they were asking for.
It was not all that long ago. Some of the brisk young men of my own generation are still in Sainsbury’s shops. That kind of training commonly qualifies people to do nothing else, so they are condemned until retirement brings merciful release of a kind. It has been possible also to observe the progress of Sainsbury himself, the “Mr. Alan’ who inspected us and sent everyone his picture for Christmas. He was made a Labour Party Lord: a putative friend of the working class who feels strongly, no doubt about social injustice.
This is the commerce of capitalism. The necessities of life are produced as commodities to be sold at a profit, and fortunes are made in their distribution. The multiple store which presents itself as a nice old-fashioned family business has exactly the same objective as the huckstering new one; both can live only by the exploitation of the workers who produce and distribute. It is a system we shall do well to get rid of.


Robert Barltrop