Thursday, 17 November 2011

Thoughts on the first Fortnum and Mason protesters trial

This is a subject that I've been thinking about for a while.  Whether UKUncut are correct about their reasoning for occupying Fortnum and Mason, today's sentencing of the protesters for doing little more than standing about in a shop seems wrong to me.

One of the things that interested me in the reporting was that in an article from the Morning Star, the Metropolitan Police Chief Inspector in charge of the operation confirmed that the only people he had not arrested "were women and children carrying shopping bags."  

This raised two questions for me:

  1. Where any men carrying shopping bags amongst those arrested?
  2. What would have happened if the protesters had all bought something?

To be fair, I'm not that interested in pursuing the first line of enquiry, although it might be something that the next group of people arrested might like to ask Chief Inspector Graham Dean when/if they have him in the stand.

The second question is the one that I'm far more interested in.  

It sounds like a silly idea, you're in a shop, which you believe has failed to pay the appropriate level of tax, why on earth would you want to buy something, and thus support the very shop that you're protesting against?

I have a hunch that it may be possible that small value transactions may actually cost a shop money.  My quick workings are set out below.  Please feel free to have a look and try to pick holes in my reasoning, and let me know where I've gone wrong!

So, let us imagine that you've picked a small piece of fruit or veg from the lower ground floor of Fortnum and Masons.  It's cost per weight is likely to be high, compared to a normal supermarket, but remember, that bit of fruit ins't like any other supermarket piece of fruit, its got to be better than one from M&S at that price right?  So, we'll assume you've picked a banana, I can't find a price for M&S banana's, but a Sainsbury's Fairtrade Organic Banana will set you back £1.50 for 5, that's 30p per banana.  I'll assume for the purposes of this calculation that Fortnum and Masons bananas are twice as expensive as Sainsbury's ones, which would make them £0.60 per banana.

Fortnum's will have to pay to buy in the banana's, and get them to the stores, and to put them on the shelves. Given that they are unlikely to pay more than Sainsbury's per banana (they're the same product remember, just more expensive in F&M due to their name), from a bit of digging about on the web, it seems that Organic Fair Trade bananas cost about £0.37 per kilo when bought from the farmer, there will be some shipping charges, and other fees in there too, so if we round that up to a price of £0.50 per kilo to F&M, we might not be that far off.  If each banana weighs in at around 125g, that's 8 bananas per kilo, so each banana costs them a bit more than £0.06 each.  Their profit margin having just paid for the banana to be at their store is now only £0.54.

They then have to pay a member of staff to put those bananas out onto the shelves, lets assume that they are quick at this, and it only takes them 30 minutes to unbox all of the bananas, say 600 bananas.  If that staff member is on minimum wage, the cost to employ them is £6.86 per hour.  So, each banana put on the shelf takes off about a penny of the stores profit, leaving them with £0.53 per banana.

Now comes the fun bit, if each protester can tie up a member of staff for a minute or two, with a serious question or two, e.g. where is this banana from, what percentage of the price goes back to the grower, do you only sell fairtrade/organic fruit? etc. that has a cost for the store.  Per minute you spend with an employee, you cost the store £0.11.  Lets assume you only manage to tie them up for a minute, that's the stores profit down to £0.42, and that's before you've even got to the till to pay.

Once you get to the till, be polite, make small talk, ask the cashier how their day's been, etc.  Talking to people slows their reactions, makes the transaction take longer, and that's what we're interested in.  Make sure that you're not ready to pay.  Your wallet's at the bottom of your rucksack, and you've got to dig it out? Oh dear, that takes time, time is money.  How much money? The same £0.11 per minute we established earlier.  It shouldn't be too hard to drag the time that you spend paying for your banana out to a couple of minutes, that costs £0.22 for 2 minutes of staff time remember?  Now they're down to £0.20 profit on that banana.

Now we need to pay for the banana.  We're not looking to make things easy for the shop here, but we do want to give ourselves options.  

For highest cost impact, pay on a card.  Card transaction fees are apparently the second highest cost a business has, after staff costs.  The most expensive way for you to pay is to use the magnetic swipe part of your card, it takes longest, and costs them most, chip and pin is the next most expensive, with cash the cheapest.  Typical costs are about 2% for credit cards and a set fee debit cards.  For small transactions pay on debit cards, that fee can be as high as £0.20 per transaction.  If we assume that its half of that cost, that makes the profit on the banana £0.10.

If you'd rather not be tracked, you can pay with cash.  For this, you want to pay the wrong amount in the oddest set of coins you can, pull out a handful of change, root through it, hand over shrapnel in batches so the cashier has to count to check your maths are right.  Pay slightly too much, so that they have to work out the change, and you should be able to waste a bit more time.

Now, remember what our friend Chief Inspector Graham Dean said?  He released people with Fortnum and Mason bags.  Don't forget to ask for yours!  Yes you have a rucksack, but you want a souvenir of your time there don't you? That bag also costs Fortnum and Mason money to give to you, they're pretty shiny bags, and whilst Fortnum and Mason can buy them in bulk, they are unlikely to get the cost down below about £0.05 per bag I suspect.  If we go down our card route, we are now left with only giving the shop £0.05 for your transaction.

In return for this, you've got a banana, a nice paper bag, caused the police problems with wanting to charge you, as are you a protester or a shopper, or both?  you;ve also blocked the till for a genuine customer who was going to spend far more than you were, all in all, not too bad for £0.05.

If you can now have a chat with another staff member, maybe ask a question about the building, or enquire about the cost of the teas in the restaurant, or how far in advance you need to book... That took you another minute? Now you've stolen that last £0.05 back from them, costing them money, just by being there.

Now I know that a lot of this is factored into the prices, but it's worth a thought for future demonstrations.  Can you be a customer and cost a shop money to serve you? Of course you can, if you think about it.  Shops like Fortnum and Mason rely on customers having a high value per transaction.  If the opposite is true, they start to feel the pain quite fast.

Would UKUncut have been better off doing things this way?  I think that they might have been, it would certainly have made the court case more interesting.  Aggravated Trespass charges against customers? What shop is going to want that?  And how would the police deal with it?

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