When I was a fresh-faced 16 year old (actually, I don’t think I’ve been “fresh-faced” since I was a toddler), I started a Saturday job at Waitrose. It was the first job I’d ever had, but it wasn’t surprising that I would start off my career by working at Waitrose; the number of my relatives who worked there was bizarre – my mum, two of my aunts, one of my uncles, and four of my cousins. Perhaps I’ll see if my son wants to work there when he is sixteen, just to get another generation involved. I’ve just suggested that to him (he’s 10), and he’s looked at me like I’ve grown a second head.
The interview process wasn’t overly hard, I seem to recall. I met the checkout manager – I’m not quite sure why it was decided that I should work on the tills, but perhaps they saw me trying to carry fragile things when I used to come in shopping with my dad and didn’t want to risk me destroying half the stock – and then I started the following weekend.
I collected my uniform (a scratchy one-piece brown jacket that went down to my knees), my mum bought me some shirts and ties, then I was off. Working on the checkouts was comparatively easy; the customers all came to you, and this was in the days before self-service tills, so we didn’t have to run around as disgruntled customers waited for help with the “unexpected item in the bagging area” (I should know, I’ve been one of those disgruntled customers on many an occasion – mostly in ASDA, where they need to sort out their customer service before I lose my temper and rip the machinery out of its socket).
Waitrose has always prided itself on the quality of its customer service, and that was drummed into us from day one. Once, a lady complained about me because I sneezed (into a tissue, I might add), carefully sanitised my hands, and carried on scanning her shopping. She was more annoyed, it seemed, that the sanitiser might leave a slight whiff of alcohol on her carrots, but that’s by the by. It’s odd that I can remember her annoyance and frustration twenty years later; more odd, perhaps, that she waited until she arrived home, called up the shop, and expected the manager to fire me over it. My boss just sighed, mentioned it to me, then we carried on as if nothing had happened.
I liked my manager; she knew what she was doing and never took any nonsense. Being plain-spoken is a positive thing when combined with empathy, and – from what I can remember through the mists of time – she had both in spades. She didn’t mess about, but she also didn’t mess you about; that was my first experience of ever being managed by someone other than a teacher,, and that first experience was really important. If your first ever manager sets a good example, then you know what to expect in future jobs – especially if you have a bad manager, and boy have I had a few of them.
I earned £2.96 per hour for working on the checkouts; this was before a minimum wage was introduced, and I thought I was rich. I’d work ten hours every Saturday, and I was flush with money at 1997 prices. When I started working occasional Sundays as well and got double time, I was practically a millionaire, or so I thought. When the minimum wage was introduced and my salary went up to £3.16, I was quids in.
These days, my weekends are precious; I get to spend them with my son, and I would only work on a weekend if I absolutely had to. But during my teenage years, I didn’t give it a second thought. It was just normal, going to school Monday to Friday and then working at the weekend. Interesting how our perspectives change.
I never had any ambitions to work in retail for my entire career, although I worked with full-time staff who did. I respect people who work in this field, with the shifts and hours being what they are. Now we see their worth – at least I hope we do – due to the 2020 pandemic; why are we so surprised that it’s an essential service?
But one area I was intrigued to at least try working in was the alcohol department. Not, I hasten to add, because I had any particular desire to drink the store dry, but because it gave me a bit more freedom than sitting behind a till – and after two years, I was getting a little bored, it must be said. I hadn’t realised how much I would eventually crave some movement; the times when there weren’t any customers, or when the queues snaked throughout the store (Christmas in particular), dragged and were exhausting. I wanted a bit of variety, and I had precisely that opportunity during my last three months (after I turned 18) – the laws being very strict about what I could and couldn’t sell.
So I then spent some time working with the booze team, who clearly knew their stuff. Waitrose is seen as a shop where you buy quality goods, and the alcohol department was no different. I can remember one occasion when Waitrose introduced a £100 bottle of champagne, and I exclaimed to my colleagues, “No-one’s going to ever buy that!” They just smiled knowingly and stocked up the shelves. That same day, a lady came in and asked to buy five of the bottles, paying me in £50 notes. I was rather struck dumb, and was again when she came in again the following week – one of my last days in the shop – and bought another five.
Having a Saturday job was rather fun; it introduced me to the world of work, earning money, and how people should act in the workplace. Waitrose had a lot of Saturday staff, so there were a lot of teenagers all of a similar age, and it was nice to be on a level playing field with them. I had been an introverted, nerdy child at school, and still was as I studied for my A-Levels, so it was nice to meet new people – I wasn’t going to meet people any other way.
My Saturday job was a lot of fun, overall, and taught me the essentials of work; I still had no idea what I wanted to do with my life, job-wise, but at least I knew I could hack it in the workplace.