Please Sir, I want some Change

A few days ago, as one of Britain’s best loved retailer reported its first rise in profits for four years (well done Marks and Spencer!), the Guardian celebrated this momentous occasion with a gallery of old photos the M&S of the 1950s and 1980s. The last photo in the collection below showing a group of school leaver recruits from the 80s, sporting the old M&S unflattering, crimplene regulation style uniform was a real blast from the past for me.

You see, I am a proud product of the M&S Graduate Management Programme, and when I joined in the 90’s, the sales uniform below, together with the St Michael label, were part of the M&S brand. As members of the management team, we enjoyed certain perks which included not wearing the uniform (thank goodness!), having special tables in the staff restaurants when I was based in the stores and having our own special restaurant once we attained a particular management grade when I moved to the Head Office! Indeed I recall that for some people, the promotion to the higher management grade was not nearly as anticipated or prestigious as the official letter of invitation that one received thereafter confirming the rite of passage to the special staff restaurant. How none of us ever saw this as archaic and elitist in the 1990’s is, with hindsight, a great wonder to me, and a sign of how much attitudes, customs and expectations have changed in the last 20 years.

School-Leavers working for M&S at the Oxford Circus branch in the 80s. All Photographs: Getty Images

School-Leavers working for M&S at the Oxford Circus branch in the 80s. All Photographs: Getty Images

I left M&S after 10 years’ service and no longer have contact with people currently there but I have a special kind of loyalty to the organisation that helped develop my career. I have some extremely fond memories such as the excellent leadership development that I received, which included the sponsorship of my University Post Graduate degree, and ridiculous not so fond memories such as having to referee numerous customer fights at the turkey freezers on numerous Xmas eves.

M&S has gone through significant changes over the years and it certainly hasn’t been easy, but they are still standing and I for one, am delighted to see it. Change always get a bad rap not least because of the natural tendency to hanker back to our selective memories of “the Good ol’ Days”. But just how good were things – really? If we had an opportunity to live in a time warp and go back to the way things were, how many of us really, really would?

Below is my light-hearted quick list of a few things that have evolved over time which has left me thinking, “Thank God for Change”:

1. “Luxury” goods which have morphed to essential items 

It’s hard to believe that there was a time when the following was not part and parcel of any home furniture :Microwaves; Washing machines; Showers (as opposed to time consuming and water wasteful baths); Personal Computers, and of course the Internet.

2. Portable / Personal Stereos

These days, we have miniature inconspicuous iPods that fit literally within the palm of a hand. Not so long ago, portable music meant having to balance your ghetto blaster on your shoulders and walk down the streets whilst trying to blend in. This was impossible, as such my “mobile” ghetto blaster remained grounded to my bedroom floor.

3. Mobile Communication

I remember when the red phone booths in London streets were used for making calls on- the-go instead of as emergency bladder emptying depositories for late night drunken revellers. When the smell of urine and the level of phone booth vandalism became too much, we upgraded to the old style mobile phones with antennas and brick-like structures that required special handbags so that you could physically carry them. There really was nothing “mobile” about these babies!

4. Navigational “extras” 

I include in this GPS and self – parking gadgets which started life as extras but are now absolute necessities for stress free driving. The former replaced the cumbersome and potentially dangerous A-Z maps (have you ever tried to turn these pages whilst driving?) whilst the latter replaced the elevated stress and utter embarrassment that inevitably arose whenever I found myself attempting to park in busy streets.

5. The 80’s Fashion

The decade that turned us all into American footballers – thanks to the obsession with oversized shoulder pads!

6. Filofaxes

For anyone too young to remember, these were leather bound loose-leaf notebooks for recording appointments, addresses and notes – a stable for any self-respecting manager. I recently came across mine (last used circa 1999!) as we were re-decorating. They have been replaced in recent times by new technology, including smart phones, tablets or good “old” fashioned Outlook.

7. Diversity Scarcity in Employment 

I had an acquaintance who, in the 90’s changed his African sounding name by deed poll to a western name so that he could get a foot in the door for a senior position in his industry and secure himself a job interview. It worked. Though there is still some work to be done to ensure that there is more diversity in the workplace, we have certainly come a long way from 20 years ago.

8. Paraffin Heaters

And if you can’t remember these, just think of a life without central heating but with devices which created partial heat and dangerous smog indoors and were fire hazards. You get the picture?

9. Three TV Channels only

Not so long ago, the TV channels in England consisted of BBC1, BBC2 and ITV only and they went to sleep at a Circa 1am. There was no Satellite TV and no choice of TV programmes. Now, we are spoilt with a classification of programming, by any genre imaginable. Whilst we’re at it, I am loving the Live Pause and Rewind Facility for so many reasons.

10. Restricted shopping hours and shopping channels

This comprised of:

  • No Sunday trading for shops – except for corner shops
  • 9am – 5pm opening hours only and late nights on Thursdays up to (gasp!) 8pm!
  • No 24 hour shopping
  • No internet / Online Shopping
  • No Home Deliveries – unless for furniture, white goods and the like

The restricted retail hours above invariably meant unhealthy and stressful crowds of people forced to shop at the same time – usually Saturdays or Xmas eves , which brings me right back to the handbags at dawn at the turkey freezers on the eve of Xmas – a season of supposed goodwill to all mankind!

So whilst some of the old days may indeed have been good, I think I much prefer now. The problem as I see it is not necessarily in the changes per se, but in our behaviours to and acceptance of, change. The sooner we change our behaviours to love, expect and embrace change, the sooner we can fully appreciate it and say “Please Sir, I want more Change

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