Death of the salesman - Training for grocery in 1945


This blog is based on a book in our collections published by the Co-operative Union called 'Salesmanship in the Grocery Department' (women are acknowledged as part of the workforce but the book is not called 'Salespeople')  - it starts with an outline of what co-operation is and why it is different to other types of business.

The first page includes a memory from the Author on talks given by a famous Co-operator and scholar called Edward Owen Greening who used to mimic the Rochdale accent to explain why and how the Pioneers started the first store.

“When we opened eaur store we wer’ vury poor!

Vury poor!

Aw’t stuff we ad’ in’t shop, yu cud tan it away in a wheelbarra, but we were filled wi’ a determination to revolutionise t’world!”

The book goes on to explain the complex way the different societies trade and how they interact with the modern world, while still adhering to the principles which brought about a vast change in lived experience for working class people. The theory put forward in 1945 was that; having just been through a devastating war, more people would turn to working together for peace but as a better alternative to capitalism to remove material poverty altogether.

Although this did not happen, the standards of living had risen at the same time as traditional industries were less profitable. The breakdown of old communities brought better opportunities for some, but in the late 20th Century capitalist competition had more influence than ever and fewer people relied on their local co-op.

The guide covers the way a salesman should think about their own careers, and gives particular importance to training and developing young people from the age of 14 to 21, in ‘scientific’ methods to make premises and processes more efficient. The other area of concern is personality and recognising that people have different skills and tendencies and that training people according to their natural talents brings out the best of their work. The guide explains that workers should be aware of the moods of others – their colleagues and customers, and respond in different ways to enquiries, complaints and unusual situations. It says that the main reason people take their custom elsewhere is not the price of goods, but the attitude of shopkeepers and poor service. The suggestion is that a complaint should be handled calmly and without entering into an argument.

“It is seldom possible to convince the dissatisfied customer by argument. Truly, there are occasions when a salesman must be a monument of patience and tact”

The successful salesman is expected to know about the products for sale, where and how they were made, how much they cost and when fresh food is in season. There is a table at the back of the book to make it easy to look up: Lentils are harvested in February and prunes in September! The list also explains where different products come from, in 1945 Bananas were coming from Jamaica, grapes from Spain and Portugal and unsurprisingly, brazil nuts from…Brazil.

2012 Photograph of modern banana growing in St Lucia for Co-op Fairtrade label.

There is advice on the best ways to display windows, from the colour scheme (which is harder to tell in our archival black and white photographs) to the use of characters and slogans for the central ‘message’. There is a warning against too much ‘artistry’ in case the customer misses the point

“A little crepe paper can hide unsightly features but take care that the window does not become a display of crepe paper rather than a display of goods!”.

The idea of making every display the same (standardisation) though, is a very distasteful idea to Messrs Ellison and Watson who feel those with a flair for design should have the chance to express themselves. Wrong colours ‘offend the artistic senses – and the wrong red can look like a horror scene. Mr Frank Watts of Manchester University is quoted on the psychological effect of colour use and it is determined that a green jar of men’s hair cream sells better than a yellow one, because of the association of the colour yellow with danger and loose behaviour.

1930's Co-op produced goods - National Propaganda Window Display Competition 

There is a whole chapter of the book on the preparation and sale of bacon with diagrams of where to cut the meat, and which cuts to use for different meals as well as how to store it. In the first half of the 20th Century, most of the meat people ate was pork due to the ease of farming it, and salting processes allowing it to be used for a long period. Meals were made using smaller amounts of meat and animal fats, to make it go further – especially the less popular cheaper cuts like hock and flank. Today Pork is still one of the more sustainable farmed meats in terms of its carbon footprint.

In a time without mass refrigeration, there is a lot of information of the safe ways of storing and serving diary products like milk and cheese, and photographs to help staff spot when these were spoiled. After eggs have been ‘candled’ (checked with a flame or a light to make sure they are not way to make them last a little longer is to use ‘water-glass’ (a mixture of potassium silicate solution) in a cool place.

The last part of the book is all about the rules and regulations for the modern grocery industry about how long breaks should be, how many chairs can be provided (one for every three female staff members) as well as rules on overtime and half-day closing. The Shops Act of 1934 meant that all shops had to close for half a day which could be decided by the local authority and all shop assistants had to be given a half day off in addition to this. Different co-ops had different ‘half days’ but this practice for food shops died out in the 1980’s.

It was also illegal to employ young people late at night and as many young people were on co-op milk rounds, they were not allowed to start work until 5am. By this time there were national rules on health about heating and lighting in premises as well as the provision of washing facilities and places to take breaks and meals as part of a modern approach to managing a workforce. Even so - todays workplaces look and feel different - with greater attention paid to mental and physical wellbeing of employees both on the front line and 'behind the scenes'.