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Working On The Checkout


I want to talk to you about working on the checkout.

For those who know me and follow my content, you know I’ll make reference, occasionally, to the most influential person whom I’ve ever had the pleasure of working for, working with, and that’s a gentleman called Bill McGrath.

Now, Bill McGrath, he was a serial FTSE 100 chairman, or he was in his day.

Non-food sales and market director at ASDA, the supermarket chain, managing director of Comet, the electrical retailer in the ’80s, been on the British Gas Board, and later on, various sort of enterprises, Pentax in the UK, in Europe and the States.

Also finished his career up and he went to Wickes as the chief executive, the DIY chain.

So, serious serious high-level FTSE 100 chair guy and executive.

I was fortunate enough to work for Bill the years 2005 to 2007.

So it’s a good 10 or 11 years but the impact that he’s had on my business, the impact he’s had on me has been tremendous.

Even though I’ve been through a couple of exits by then before I met Bill, and I thought I knew the businesses.

I didn’t really know anything until I met Bill and he really sort of helped me shape my knowledge and apply it for maximum impact.

So I just want to say a big thank you again for Bill and the story I’m going to share with you today is one Bill shared with me.

DIY Suppliers

So it’s not one I’ve sort of experienced myself but it’s such a touching story that I want to share it with you.

Then I want you to get you to think about how you can do this in your business to better improve.

And it’s all about understanding your customer audience.

Now, I mentioned earlier that Bill used to be the chief executive of Wickes, the DIY chain.

Now, I don’t know how many stores Wickes had in the late ’80s, early ’90s, maybe it was 100, 200, but you can understand the size of that enterprise.

In today’s economic sort of size, you’ve still got Wickes, you’ve got B&Q, you’ve got Homebase, it’s that type of business.

Bill shared the story about every month he used to go out to a specific store, maybe it was underachieving, maybe it was doing really well, and he physically used to sit on the checkout.

Now, I’m not quite sure, I don’t recall whether he sat on there for an hour, two hours, four hours, or whatever, but the point is, you’ve got the chief executive of Wickes scanning bar codes.

I don’t know what the chief executive of Wickes’ salary was then.

You can imagine it’s going to be extensive in the six-figure salary, maybe even a seven-figure salary with bonuses way back then.

So, hundreds of thousands of pounds a year, if not millions a year, that people like Bill were getting paid to run those type of companies.

But he used to take a day out and he used to go and sit on the checkout once a month.

Bill then would have been in his 50s so we’ve all been there, we’ve been to B&Q, we’ve been to Wickes.

We see maybe somebody who’s semi-retired or retired, working the checkouts, stock, replenishing on the shelves.

Either they’re retired or they’re just doing it to keep busy, maybe they’ve fallen out of luck with work, maybe they’ve been made redundant, found it difficult and got into that sort of work.

You may think he is overqualified to do that type of job but it doesn’t really matter but we’ve all seen it and they’re usually the most jovial type of people.

Speaking to you, helping you, that last past a generation and usually you get a good level of service.

So I want you to picture this in your mind.

You’ve got this guy working on the checkout, in his 50s, could he be that type, is he semi-retired?

Maybe he’s ex-forces, he’s retired on a pension, maybe he’s just fallen out of luck with his job and he needs to just keep busy and earn a few pounds.

But you get that impression and there he is sliding the tins of Ronseal through the till, bleep, a piece of the architrave, bleep, with some paint brushes, bleep, through the checkout.

Bill, I said “Bill, why on Earth did you do that?

And he says, “Mike”, he says, “let me tell you.”

Bill’s Story

He gave us a story about Blue Circle cement and he went in and he sat on the till one day.

To this customer, he said, “did you find everything you wanted, did we help you today?” Blah, blah, blah.

One of these builders at the time said, “Well, no, actually, you’ve never got any Blue Circle cement.”

He says “so what am I going to do, I’ve just picked these bits up but I’m going to go down to the other place, I’m going to pick up the cement.”

Then Bill says “oh, if you picking up cement, are you picking up anything else there?”

He says “well, yes, I’ll get everything at that place, I’ll get these bits here as Id already picked them up. But I’ll go and get everything else at the other store.” “I’ll get my cement there, I’ll get sand, gravel.”

So Bill had a look at it and so, he took that data and he went back and worked with his management team.

Ultimately, what they found is that, there’s a lot of people who pick cement up the night before, load the vans up, so the stocks of the cement were pretty low in the mornings.

So they changed that around and from that intelligence, they made major improvements.

They did some stats and they looked at cement sales and they looked at all the data that these retail stores have.

They found out that yeah, it was a problem.

In that particular store, they started to replace the stocks at different times of the day.

Made sure it was that, put some fliers our that say guaranteed you will always be able to get this product before you start work.

Over a period of three months, that particular store sales went up, and I don’t recall what the percentage is and I wouldn’t want to misquote Bill or if there are any retail store guys out there who say “Mike, that’s a load of rubbish.”

So I don’t know what it was but they actually saw a positive uplift in that particular sale.

Obviously, not only did they get sales off that particular product, by listening and having that intel on the till, but they obviously sold additional products off that as well.

So, whilst I don’t have the finer detail, Bill must have shared this story with me a good 10, 12 years ago.

The point I’m saying is if you’re in a business today and you’re in the top of the tree.

I know a lot of people say you should be working on your business, not in it and if you’re already getting ahead, you’re already doing that.

I want you to take a leaf out of Bill’s book and I want you, doesn’t matter if you’re the chief exec, the managing director, the owner-driver, I want you to go and work in your business once a month at the coalface.

Take A Leaf Out Of Bill’s Book

When we were in the PLC at 360, I took that on board and I went and sat on the customer service desk.

So as the CEO, I went and sat on the customer service desk for a couple of hours, different times of day to see what happened, first thing in the morning when breakdowns came in.

Then I went and sat on the maintenance control desk to see what our drivers were saying about the cars and the service in dealerships.

Then I went and sat in the administration department, sat in the finance department and just spent some time over a day, a day and a half a month, I physically went in.

Not micro-managing, I got to be clear about that but I went in and I took the calls as the staff did.

You will be surprised at what you learn.

You will be surprised what your customers tell you and the intelligence that you can gather and get off the coalface is immense.

You can do one or two things with that.

You can take it and you can analyse it, which you should, and you can make better decisions.

Or you could say “well that’s a waste of time, and why on Earth would I do any of that?”

Then, stay as you are.

So I’m really challenging you today to go to the coalface as Bill did.

Go work on the checkout in different departments and go and do the job.

  • Go and listen to your suppliers
  • Go and listen to the customers
  • Go and listen to your partners.
  • Go and listen and see the struggles or the ease that your team having doing the job.

The insights that you get to improve systems, customer service, product development, bottom-line improvements, top-line improvements, you will be amazed.

But go and work on the checkout, you could always continue to work on your business but also, what I’m saying is go and work in your business.

I’m sure you’ll see a lot of better results and you’ll be able to get a lot better intel to try and move your business forward.

Mike Midgley

Mike Midgley is the Strategy Director at 6teen30 Digital and a dynamic digital entrepreneur, nxd, strategist, public speaker and host of TheOpenMike Podcast show & Co-Host at The Inbound Podcast. Mike has achieved successful six and seven-figure exits over a 25-year career, raised in excess of £1.6m [$2.5m] in Venture Capital and highly experienced with franchising.