More 18th century retail techniques – tea, anybody? Plus, old books & Len Riggio

Sometimes I wrap my head in wet towels and stare at the suburban landscape in a fever of uncertainty.  EVERYTHING IS CHANGING!  OLD PARADIGMS NO LONGER APPLY!  How can any of us prepare for anything in an uncertain tomorrow?

I turn to my favourite old management books (Robert Townsend’s Up the Organization still #1 after all these years) and I calm down, reminded of a salient fact.  Technology may change, but human nature remains fundamentally the same – sure, perhaps we have shorter attention spans in this generation, or the population is carrying more poundage round the middle than it should, but, beneath all the neophytism, is good old human nature.

So, as it’s Friday, let’s return to the eighteenth century, once again courtesy of Judith Flanders.  Today, our subject is tea, which was once as exciting as smartphones and windpower, and caused a far-reaching ruckus in Boston harbor – in the 1770s, around 10% of all expenditure on food and drink in England went to tea and sugar.

Tea had not conquered the market on its intrinsic worth alone.  From the late eighteenth century, it was heavily advertised… [with] many advertisements centred on competitive pricing: one merchant was “determined to sell tea at such low prices as the public have a right to expect”, another, heroically, aimed “at profits only sufficient to defray expenses, wholesale and retail”.  Many claimed to be selling tea more cheaply than anywhere else; others advertised reduced prices for bulk purchases…

Some used the “loss-leader”, selling sugar at below-cost prices with the purchase of full-price tea; others gave a lottery ticket free on the purchase of a pound of tea; some offered customers “a new treatise on tea”, available, not by coincidence, with the purchase of tea; still others advertised money-back guarantees if the customers were dissatisfied; some promised to match wholesale prices, or even to undercut them…

Edward Eagleton of the Tea Warehouse in Cheapside advertised reduced prices, fixed prices for cash, mail-order sales… and sold entire chests of East India Company tea to small shopowners with only a 1% mark-up…  Tea was packed and marked with the “Sign of the Grasshopper”, with a money-back guarantee and the motto “Taste, try, compare and judge”.

Tea 18th centuryImage from

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Back to the twentieth (yes) century… the Guardian  carried a farewell to second-hand bookshops on Wednesday.  A profound change has taken place to our towns, mostly unremarked, mostly on the margins, and greatly missed.

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And (finally) back to 2011, and Len Riggio’s keynote speech to the AAP.  An address both upbeat and uplifting, he makes the interesting observation that, if the mass market for fiction moves markedly to digital formats, mass merchants will “downsize or abandon their sale of books”.  Books are no more “core” to Wal-Mart or Tesco than VCRs or Walkmans, and if the profit-per-shelf-metre on books drops below a critical level, supermarkets’ commitment to books will fall exponentially.

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I am reading: Consuming Passions by Judith Flanders (Harper Perennial) – link above

I am listening to: Shostakovich Piano Trio No. 2

I am watching: the Japanese tsunami, suddenly and shockingly, as I write this

Quote of the Week: Uncertainty about the economy has left Britain like a “country waiting for its exam results” – Charlie Mayfield, Chairman of JLP