A Christmas Carol

A minor disaster hit the shop this week. I’m not talking about the weather decimating sales or our selling out of faux fur hats and Steiff mini bears. No, much worse, our CD player, after many years’ hammering, finally threw in the towel. It probably couldn’t face playing Bert Kaempfert’s Tijuana Christmas for the zillioneth time.

Consequently we had to resort to putting on the radio to entertain our customers. As it turns out, I found our local independent station offered a very nice mix of music, until that is I heard it advertising a rival Winchester gift shop. It was at that moment I really found myself missing our Christmas CDs. But then I love Christmas songs- both carols and secular. I even find myself singing them in the middle of summer until I’m told to shut up (although that happens whatever I’m singing).

For me, the best Christmas crooner is Frank Sinatra. He makes the worst Christmas song ever sound good. The song in question being the one that begins ‘Oh by gosh by golly, it’s time for mistletoe and holly’ and proceeds to throw in every Christmas cliche you can think of. To me, it’s even worse that Cliff Richard’s Mistletoe And Wine. And no, I don’t have a thing about mistletoe, some of my best experiences have taken place under it.

Until I heard Frank’s Christmas album, I was never that keen on what seemed to me to be a weak, slightly off-key singing voice. So it was listening to Jingle Bells rather than My Way that suddenly I got what it was that people love about him. His art is in making what he does seem so relaxed, easy, almost louche but at the same time not entirely effortless, so the slight strain makes you feel he could be you attempting to sing- if only you had his phrasing and his sense of rhythm. So, thanks for a Merry Christmas, Frank- and Merry Christmas to you too.

Your Life Your Style’s Favourite April Fool Jokes

Today’s the day when we all read our newspapers, watch our news programmes and look our emails with a little more care in case we’re been tricked by an April Fool joke. We no longer believe something even when we’re being told it’s true by a figure of authority or a serious paper.So it’s been hard to find an April Fool in 2011 that isn’t obvious. (OK, I accept there may be a brilliant one that I haven’t even realised is a joke.)

The Guardian’s creation of a live blog on the Royal Wedding was well done but wouldn’t fool anyone. Unicorn bones at the Tower Of London? I don’t think so. 3D radio? Even John Humphrys couldn’t convince me of that. My favourite this year is the BBC’s report of a protest by an organisation of dads at being discriminated against by Mumsnet because the best April Fool jokes have to be believable but contain the clues that would have prevented us from being fooled if only we’d spotted them.

That’s probably the reason one of the most famous tricks of all time worked so well. Back in 1957, no-one expected the authoritative broadcaster Cliff Michelmore on a prestigious programme like Panorama on a respected channel like the BBC to lie. So when he claimed that the spaghetti harvest was doing well that year and showed it growing on trees, who wouldn’t believe him? Unless you realised spaghetti was made from flour.

The other criterion is that the victim has to have been taken in by the prankster. Amusing as it was, I don’t think readers of the Veterinary Record believed its story in 1972 that there needed to be more research into the potential threat to public health of the pet animal Brunus edwardii, since it was found in over 60% of households. I’m sure the many readers who offered serious responses were just joining in the joke. In case you’re worried as a non-vet, it’s Latin for teddy bear, so you’re safe to buy one of the new Made In England Steiff bears from our shop Your Life Your Style.

My favourite from last year also doesn’t qualify as an April Fool by my own criteria but it was funny. It involved the interminable Terms & Conditions that seem to accompany every internet purchase. Gamestation, knowing that most of us just tick the box without reading them, introduced a clause that said ‘By placing an order via this Web site on the first day of the fourth month of the year 2010 Anno Domini, you agree to grant Us a non transferable option to claim, for now and for ever more, your immortal soul.’ It seems 88% of purchasers or around 7500 people that day unknowingly signed away their souls. The site went on ‘We reserve the right to serve such notice in 6 (six) foot high letters of fire, however we can accept no liability for any loss or damage caused by such an act.’ It’s funny but I don’t think it can count as a proper April Fool if the people weren’t presented with a story to believe that contained within it the clues that would make them foolish if they did. Still, great PR.

That’s why the all time best public April Fool remains one of the earliest newspaper pranks. Back in 1977, The Guardian ran a supplement about the holiday destination San Serriffe with its idyllic islands Upper Caisse and Lower Caisse and its capital Bodoni. Who wouldn’t believe a serious paper like The Guardian? Yet the clue was there all the time in the use of printers’ typographical expressions. Perfect.

Of course, it is the first of April so maybe you shouldn’t believe all of the above really happened.

A version of this article appeared on the Southern Daily Echo website and on Blogger.com

How A Business Principle Can Help You Sort Out Your Wardrobe

The Pareto Principle can help with more than business problems

Quite a bit of my time lately has been spent working out which products are the bestsellers at Your Life Your Style and which should be dropped. It’s a bit like clearing out your wardrobe. No really, there’s a scientific theory that applies to both business and your personal life.

The Pareto Principle says that 80% of your sales come from 20% of your customers. Looked at from the other side, it also states that 80% of your sales come from 20% of your stock, which is what I’ve been working on. Where does your wardrobe come into this? Well, it’s a theory based on human activity, not only shopping. So Pareto would say 80% of the time you wear 20% of your clothes.

This 80/20 rule doesn’t stop there because, if you analyse the 20% that are your best customers, best selling products or favourite clothes, you’ll find they break down into 20% being responsible for 80%. And if you analyse that 20%… well, you get the idea.

I admit you may not have enough clothes to get beyond the first 80/20 analysis. Unless you’re Victoria Beckham, you’ll end up with a jumper and a pair of jeans. However shops have thousands of products and customers. So how should we apply the Pareto Principle? We can’t just dump the 80% of poorer sellers and then analyse the remaining 20% and cull 80% of them. We’d end up with 20 products and a lot of empty shelves.

There are other factors. For example, people who want to buy Dora Designs products visit the Your Life Your Style website because we have the largest selection in the country. Similarly people in Winchester who want glassware or candles, for example, come to the Your Life Your Style shop because they know we have a great choice. If we only had the top twenty products, many would go elsewhere.

It’s a bit like if you were to throw out all your clothes barring the 20% you wear most of the time. The next day you’d be bound to need that discarded sweater that would have gone perfectly with your new trousers. That’s known as Sod’s Law, not as scientific as the Pareto Principle but true nevertheless.

I also don’t recommend a shop telling the 80% of its customers that only bring in 20% of sales to push off because it has more important people to serve, although I have been in some upmarket boutiques that seem to adopt that approach.

Where the Pareto Principle helps businesses is in telling us that it is worth identifying your key 20% of customers and products and then concentrating marketing resources on them. We’ve found that certain ranges such as Dora Designs animal doorstops, Dartington Crystal glasses, Steiff bears and Ashleigh & Burwood fragrance lamps form part of the 20% that are giving us 80% of our sales. So we will be specialising more in these kinds of products in the coming year.

As for your wardrobe, I suggest you clear out the clothes you never wear but don’t get rid of them. Put them in a box in the loft. If you haven’t needed them a year later, then give them to the charity shop. And when you look around at their stock, you’ll know that’s the 80% that only accounted for 20% of other shops’ sales. Maybe that’s why they get an 80% discount on their rates.

This article also appeared on the Southern Daily Echo website

I’m A Celebrity, Steiff Bears & Record Theatre Audiences

Last week London’s West End reported an attendance of over 14 million in 2010, missing last year’s record by a whisker. A BBC report desribed a ‘golden age of theatre’.

So why are we living in this golden age? Partly it’s the quality. If you provide cheap production values and lazy content, audiences stay home. By contrast, last year’s West End’s hits are challenging plays and intelligent musicals. But the main reason is, I think, to do with it being live. We’re all aware nowadays of how packaged and mass produced so much of what we consume is, including entertainment. Consequently, there’s an appetite for things that are or appear to be authentic.

At one end of the spectrum, you see it in the popularity of ‘reality’ TV shows and a desire to see behind the celebrity masks. Elsewhere it’s the trend towards naturally produced food or, as I see in my shop Your Life Your Style, the demand for handmade products like Steiff bears and Dartington Glass. A theatrical performance, where we join a live audience to share in the real emotion communicated by actual people, is the organic wholemeal loaf of entertainment.

Whatever the reason for this golden age, it may soon be over. Cuts to arts funding are threatening many great producing theatres, local and national. So, enjoy it while you can.

This post also appeared on Blogger and in an extended version on the Daily Echo website

Paul Lewis owns the shop and online retailer Your Life Your Style