“If you give me a free hand to do anything I want, I guarantee that your sales will go through the roof.”
The boss of the department store regarded me sceptically. “But, Mr Grabber, you know nothing about ladies’ fashions.”
“No, but I do know about selling things. I can help you, Mr Humphries, I promise. We’re a new, vibrant company, and this is just the kind of project I’d love to get my teeth into.”
And that was how I got the first job for my fledgling management consultancy company.
Rackham’s was a huge chain of department stores with branches in all the major towns in the UK, and the manager of the Selby branch introduced me to his staff in the ladies fashion department that afternoon, asking them to cooperate with me in every way.
I spent a few days looking at every angle of the business. The staff were nice and helpful, they seemed to have plenty of stock, and I couldn’t imagine how I could boost sales, as I had promised.
And then I had a sudden flash of insight. I was sitting on one of the ‘miserable man chairs’ outside the fitting rooms, glancing at the disgruntled males beside me who were waiting for their wives and girlfriends to try on their prospective purchases in the changing rooms.
Then I knew that it was right here that something was definitely wrong.
Time and again, I would see a woman come out from the corridor leading from the changing cubicles, hand a bundle of clothes to the assistant, and shake her head miserably, while a man perked up, put away his mobile phone, jumped to his feet and whisked her away, relieved that he hadn’t got to shell out a fortune. Of course, it’s sexist to think that way: most of the women would probably be paying for their clothes themselves, but even if the husband wasn’t paying it helped if he was onside, and not making them feel guilty for their purchases by saying in exaggerated shock and horror: How much did that cost?
Next day I bought along my friend Bruce, who’s a wizard with computers and gadgets. The store was closed after hours, and Bruce and I were in one of the changing rooms, and he was staring into the full-length mirror, with his ‘I can do anything’ expression.
“Yes, I can certainly design a system to do it,” he told me excitedly. “The fairground mirrors that can make you look fat or thin are very crude. With the software available today we can do much more sophisticated things. Take away wrinkles, alter posture, make a fat person look slim, almost anything really, just as if you’re tinkering with a picture on photoshop. We can put in cameras to take shots of the lady as she comes in and gets undressed. Then we feed the information to software behind the mirrors, and the image is adjusted accordingly, so as to make her look good and buy the clothes she’s trying on.”
“Come again?” I asked him.
“Take you,” he said, his enthusiasm increasing as he warmed to his subject, eyeing me up. “If you were a woman coming in here, the cameras would assess you as much too tall, fat, with lots of wrinkles on your face and so bow-legged that you could drive a tractor between your knees! The camera would capture that information, transmit it across, and then the mirror would show you as slim, straight-legged, shorter, and ten years younger. So that the clothes you were trying on would look good, and you’d buy them.”
“But that’s ridiculous! I’m not tall.”
“Not tall for a man, but gigantic for a woman.”
“And I’m not fat, with wrinkles and bow-legged. Am I?”
“Ahem, well, as I say, I’m sure I can build this system.” He changed the subject swiftly. “And it’ll work.”
I was excited with his idea, and I asked him to go ahead. Bruce is a brilliant man, a bit of an obsessive, an eccentric geek in fact, but he really does know what he’s doing.
They closed the department for a week for all the installation work to be done.
At the same time as the changing room alterations, I had decided to increase the size of the men’s waiting area, and put up four large TV screens overhead, each one streaming a different sport or activity: football, horse racing, golf, plus a gardening programme for the non-sporting gents. I had six luxury armchairs put in, recliners so you could raise your feet, and each one had a headset that could be switched to whichever screened activity he was watching. And I arranged for a ‘bar area’, so that any waiting man could have as much free fruit juice as he wanted. I had decided that adding vodka to the fruit juice might also make the men more willing to indulge their wives’ whims.
On the opening day I was nervous, but to my delight, it all went far better than I could possibly have imagined.
After the first week, Mr Humphries was over the moon when the sales figures came in, and he told me excitedly that they’d almost run out of certain items and had to re-order several lines. He was talking about expansion, employing more staff, giving out more bonuses.
And even better, as promised, Mr Humphries recommended to his head office that Bruce and I should be employed to install the new equipment in every one of the other eighty stores across the nation.
However, sadly, that’s not the end of the story.
A month after the system had been installed, when I went back to the store I was surprised to see a huge queue at the ‘returns’ counter, and it seemed that several ladies seemed irate and were arguing with the harassed staff behind the desk there.
Feeling rather worried, I then went into the ‘men’s relaxation lounge’ as it had been christened. As I reclined on the chair I looked up at one of the TV screens. With no warning its image of the football game had disappeared. In its place were views from various different angles of a full-length view of an overweight lady in her underwear. Underneath in bold type it said: FAT. WRINKLED. ELEPHANT THIGHS. SAGGING BOOBS.
I suddenly realised that this was Bruce’s secret camera pictures, which were meant to be privy solely to the computer software in the mirror. There was clearly a glitch in the system.
Bruce had screwed up royally.
One man was staring up at the screen on his feet, red-faced, and shouting: “That’s my wife!”
The horse-racing on the adjacent screen gave way to the sight of another lady who was on the skinny side. The words underneath her semi-clad images read: SCRAWNY. KNOCK-KNEED. TURKEY NECK. NO TITS.
All the men were on their feet, furious. A fight started between two of them, and from the slurred way they were yelling I wondered if I had been too liberal with the vodka I had added to the fruit juice.
Pandemonium had broken out in the store, because somehow Bruce’s streaming of the pictures had also infiltrated the main shop’s system, so that all the huge TV wall adverts of models advertising clothing had disappeared and been replaced by the undressed women in the changing rooms, all of them with insulting captions underneath.
I left the store as the police arrived.
For some reason, Rackham’s never paid me for all my work.
I suppose being prosecuted by the police for supplying alcohol without a licence and also dealing with the many lawsuits against them by the women who’d had insulting images of them broadcast, was causing them a few little headaches.
But it’s not really fair, because I did increase their sales.
And every system has teething troubles, doesn’t it?
Does anyone out there want to employ me?
Anyone at all?
(image by Joseph Ken from Pixabay)