The Times, 1 January 2009


If you heard an extra beep on Radio 4 at midnight last night, I hope you didn’t give your drink the baleful eye, thinking this must be the dullest hallucination ever. There really was a seventh pip, because last night was the occasion of the leap second. Like February 29th, but considerably briefer and more erratic, the leap second is added to our clocks periodically, to make up for the fact that the earth’s rotation isn’t quite as neat as it could be, if it had made a proper effort. Tempting as it was to follow leap tradition and propose to my boyfriend very quickly indeed, I decided to use the leap second for resolutions. Not my own, obviously. I’m pretty much perfect already. Instead, I have focussed on the retail industry, who could use a little help. As one chain after another succumbs, there are a few things they could try to win us back into the fold.

1 Don’t sell stuff no-one wants. Was anyone surprised when MFI went under? Or did we instead remember an ugly afternoon spent threatening an inanimate object with a hammer? Did you blink when you read that Officer’s Club was going down, or did you try to recall what they actually sold?

2 Remember that you aren’t doing your customers a favour by taking their money. In many ways, they’re doing you one. So if the phone rings when they’re buying something from you, don’t answer it. The person who made the effort to come in is your priority. The only people who need to answer every call are doctors on call and drug dealers. And if you’re either of those things, you shouldn’t be behind a till.

3 Pretend, even if you’re a monopoly, that your customers have chosen you, and reward them accordingly. Virgin Trains (and don’t mutter about stopping services offering a choice. Anything that goes slower than a brisk walk doesn’t count), that means you. When I book a seat, you offer the choice of window or aisle. I understand that if everyone makes the same choice, there may not be enough window seats to go round. But without exception, every time I have ever booked, the seat is next to a wall. Often, there is a whole carriage of empty seats next to windows. A wall is not the same as a window. If you don’t believe me, try leaving by one in an emergency.

4 Stop behaving as if everyone was trying to scam you. Old ladies who can’t find their Freedom Pass at a station are almost certainly not fraudsters in an elaborate disguise. Forcing them to dig through their handbags while commuters seethe behind them isn’t ‘doing your job’. It’s bullying. Let them through, and be polite.

The economy can’t recover while we’re mutually suspicious. So play nice, and if we still have jobs, we’ll spend some of the proceeds with you. Happy new year.