Selling Yourself: Part Four

The reason the interview for my next job was on a Saturday, was because the staff started far too early, to allow for a weekday interview process. After less than seven days, technically unemployed, but paid until the end of the month, I was taken on by this new company, following the most basic meet and greet, and a quick driving assessment. They were so short of staff, even the top managers were out doing rounds, so as long as I could read, write, and drive, I was certain to be employed.

I was back on van sales once again, this time for a bread company in the Medway area, Betabake. Knowing that they had little hope of competing with the brand leaders, like Wonderloaf, and Sunblest, they concentrated instead on the neglected ‘personal retail’ market. This was a posh term for door-to-door selling and delivering, something like a milkman, but with bread and cakes. I was given a company overall, a cash bag, lists of prices and products, and a card index, containing the details of the hundreds of calls I would have to make. I didn’t get to keep the van outside of work, and I had to be in by 4am daily, to get my quota of freshly-baked goods from the factory. If I did well, and avoided traffic, they told me that I should be finished by 2pm. That still seemed like a hell of a long day to me. I also had to go out on Saturdays,  primarily to collect the money owed, as well as shifting anything that I had left. This was far from being a job I would normally have chosen. A large element of the salary was tied up in commission, or performance pay, and with the very few exceptions of some small local shops, all the customers paid in cash, a week behind. This involved banking, which always took a chunk out of your day, as it had to be done before 3.30pm. It also meant that you had to carry a reasonable cash float, and lots of change. I had two days with a trainer, showing me the ropes on his own round. Of course, he had it sorted, and it ran like clockwork, so didn’t seem too bad.

I started the following week, responsible for some notorious estates in the area around Strood, in Kent. Chatting to guys at the depot, it seemed that this round was a veritable salesman’s graveyard, and had seen at least four others off, in the last year alone. Having got up at 3am to be at work before 4, I was tired by the time I had loaded and checked my van, and I still had all day to do. The first few days were chaotic. People cancelled their orders, or increased them; some told me not to call again, and others approached me, asking me to add them to my rounds. Schoolkids stole stuff from the van as soon as my back was turned, and I had to resort to the tedious procedure of locking it all the time. Existing customers constantly argued that I was arriving too late, and their breakfast was already over. I couldn’t interest anybody in the special offers, or promotional goods, as I rarely got to actually speak to anyone, unless they waited in to complain. I was constantly running late, and was always the last one back to the depot, to the annoyance of the manager.

Back at home, still sharing with my friends, it was impossible to go to bed early enough, to get sufficient sleep before leaving again. So, I treated it like night work; stayed up as long as possible, then slept during the late afternoon, before the others got home. This meant that I was always flat out on the sofa all evening, half asleep, and getting irritated. They were getting pretty fed up with it, and so was I. On the plus side, I provided us with unlimited bread and cakes of course, so we were never short of stodge. I began to see another side of human nature too. Many customers constantly avoided me when it was time to pay. If caught in when I called, they would offer all sorts of lame excuses for being unable to pay, or send small children to the door, to tell me that ‘mum was ill’, or ‘mum had gone to the shops’. I had only one sanction available, to issue a note demanding payment, with a threat to stop delivering, if they failed to pay. This had to be agreed by the debt recovery department, as it rarely involved enough money to make it worthwhile taking proceedings to recover the amounts owing. I would normally be instructed to continue supplies, with the increasing debt ‘charged’ against my account, as a debit balance. These debit balances affected my commission, and any bonuses due during promotions. If the company could not get the money from the defaulting customer, they took it off me instead.

Wandering these estates with my outdated baker’s basket, the laughing stock of serial fraudsters, was hardly a satisfying employment experience. One day, I arrived at the door of a customer who owed a month’s bill, to find a note in the window of her front room. ‘Cannot open the door, as chickenpox in the house. Two extra white sliced please’, It read. I decided to take matters into my own hands, and did not leave anything, save a note telling her that she owed almost £20. She complained to the depot, and I was forced to drive all the way back, to leave the bread outside her house. The extra debit was charged against my account, and I got off work really late. The funny thing about all this, was that I was actually sympathetic to the plight of most of my customers. I was aware of the situation of single parents, struggling to make ends meet, buying my unhealthy food to feed their family. Old people at home alone, would enlist my help in collecting prescriptions from a local chemist. I once gave a lift to the station, to a customer who could not start her car one morning. I even purchased vegetables from a mobile shop, on behalf of a disabled client, who was unable to go to the meeting point to use this shop. I wanted to do some good, as well as selling them buns, rolls, and bakewell tarts. I saw myself as part of a community, something that was already dying out, even then.

Regrettably, the majority of my customers saw me as little more than a mug, to be exploited, along with the local milkmen, window cleaners, and other door-to-door services. They knew just how far to push things, and minutes before being refused service for good, would offer to pay £5 off their bill; just enough to allow them to continue to receive supplies. They could be downright nasty, and on one occasion, a woman who appeared at the door in her nightdress, told me that she would say that I had sexually molested her, if I refused to leave extra bread. I had dogs set on me, and angry boyfriends or husbands would be sent out to argue with me, offering violence in lieu of payment. It may be fair to assume that this was a minority of customers who dealt with me in this fashion; sadly it was by far the majority.  Years later, when I heard pundits lamenting the demise of this type of personal delivery service, I would always remark that they only knew half the story.  I was getting really fed up with all of this, as well as the incredibly early start times, and always feeling tired. I resolved to have a showdown meeting with the depot manager, and tell him how upset I was.

It was immediately obvious that I wasn’t telling him something that he did not already know. Previous operators on this round had come to him with all sorts of horror stories, and there were even tales of sexual favours being exchanged for trays of ring doughnuts. The debit balance had always been bad, I discovered, and had been written off three times in two years, as too difficult to collect, and not worth the trouble. Yet they persisted in this loss-making delivery method. I never received a really satisfactory answer as to why they continued to do this, just some vague stuff about getting the brand recognised, and being the market leader in home delivery of bread and cakes. He could see that I was stressed by it all, and offered me a change of scene, for a while at least. They would pass the round to a supervisor, who would attempt to use his experience to get the debts down, and to weed out the worst customers. In the meantime, I would be allowed to drive the larger trucks, that delivered bulk loads of bread and cakes, to both wholesale customers, and other Betabake depots. As there was no restriction on driving a lorry at that time, it would not be a problem. I would have to start even earlier though, but would receive a slight pay increase. to reflect the unsocial hours involved.

The next night, I arrived at the larger depot, attached to the factory further down in Kent. I first had to load the very large lorry with huge cages full of of sliced bread, as well as wooden trays of unwrapped cakes and buns, slotted into special racks. I then received a list of deliveries, with each tray coded for the customer, or receiving depot. In the early hours, with little or no traffic, this was a much easier job, and the nature of the bulk deliveries, with no cash and minimal paperwork involved, seemed like a holiday to me. Being based at the factory, it was simple to help yourself to any amount of ‘free’ bread and cakes that you wanted, as stock control was non-existent at the point of manufacture. Getting up early, then working quite hard, made you feel very hungry, and it was not unknown for each of us to polish off a six-pack of fresh jam doughnuts, before leaving to do our deliveries. Once again, I was working somewhere that was enabling me to eat free of charge, albeit very unhealthily.

Just as I was settling into this nocturnal routine, and becoming one of the ‘wholesale gang’, I was approached by management, who told me that I had to return to the retail depot in Dartford. They were adamant that my round in Strood had been sorted out, and I was assured by the supervisor, that he had everything under control. I wasn’t happy, but they had told me that my move was only short-term, so I couldn’t do much about it. I was so desperate to stay where I was, that I even offered to do the unpopular job of shuttle driver, which involved driving around, collecting empty cages and racks, from the different wholesalers. This was an early start, late finish job, for basic pay, with no extras. I would sooner have dropped down to this, than gone back to my bleak housing estates. But I had been employed as a salesman, and they insisted that I go back to my previous role.

I had a bad feeling that they were not telling me the whole truth, and this proved to be the case. Back on the round, I soon discovered that most of the debts had simply been written off, with little or no effort to collect any of the money. All the worst customers were still there, and I had even lost a lot of the better ones. More annoying though, was the fact that the company had increased my commission ceiling, based on the fact that they had ‘cleared’ the debit balance. Once again, they were essentially getting the salesman to pay for the fraudulent behaviour of the customers. I was back to the same old grind, with less chance of earning any extras above the basic pay, and the same old defaulting customers, ready to increase their debts once again. I knew it couldn’t last, but I had to find something else first.

When it did come, it gave me the chance to get out of the bread game, and into something a great deal more civilised, and interesting. I have already covered it at some length here; https://beetleypete.wordpress.com/2013/04/27/the-rizla-experience/ .  After that, I began to work as a taxi driver, also dealt with in a long post here; https://beetleypete.wordpress.com/2013/03/11/did-someone-call-a-cab/

Part five of this story starts after those episodes in my employment journey ended.

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8 thoughts on “Selling Yourself: Part Four

  1. Pete: I remember those days well and the concomitant stress of a ridiculously arduous job. As you know, I lived in Strood for a time and can confirm that it is, indeed, a dump. BPC.

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  2. Thanks Sue. That sounds a lot like my youth, except for the Police House. There was a man with a horse and cart who sold milk from churns, and numerous rag and bone men, similar to those portrayed in ‘Steptoe and Son’. The ‘Corona’ man delivered fizzy drinks, and we had to keep the empty bottles to return the next week. There was a man on a converted trike, who sharpened knives, and even a French onion seller, who sold strings of onions from a heavily-laden cycle. It seems like something out of a Catherine Cookson novel, but was actually Central London in the late 1950’s! Great days. Regards as always, Pete.

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    1. Talking of ‘pop’ bottles reminds me that we used to take the empties back to the corner shop and get a few pennies for returning them. This was a great incentive to recycle glass bottles and I forget when they stopped doing it. The bottles were re-used back then; now although we put them in our recycling wheelie bin and the council collects them they end up God knows where.

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  3. Fascinating stuff, Pete! You could easily write a TV drama out of these stories.It would beat what’s currently on offer hands down. When I was a kid in the fifties and sixties my dad was a policeman and in those days bobbies like him lived in ‘police houses’ which were usually situated on council estates in among the people they policed. Ours was one of these. There were all kinds of delivery vans ranging from the ‘pop’ man to the mobile grocery/green grocery van. There was also a rag and bone man with a donkey and cart and when we first moved in the milkman was a local farmer who came round in a horse and cart! I was most disappointed when he replaced old Bob the carthorse with a shiny milk float.

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