David Butler stood nervously in the glass foyer and waited. Outside, snow was falling in darkness. Automatic doors opened and closed behind him as people came and went. Michael Buble sang Christmas songs over the tannoy inside, where the glare of the supermarket lights formed a blinding, blurry mist. He patted his pockets absent-mindedly but his glasses weren't there.
David was nervous. Managing the store had been his life's work. His grandfather had founded Butler's, but in the past year it had been bought, and today he was meeting a representative from the new owners. Tomorrow the shop was officially changing hands.
An overweight man in a suit strode into the foyer, brushing the snow off his shoulders. "David? David Butler?" it said.
"Mr Dry, is it?" asked David, shaking a sweaty hand. He wished he had his glasses. The man was just an unfocused blob.
"Call me Crispin, please," said Mr Dry. "Shall we?"
David followed him inside, past the Christmas tree on which hundreds of fairy lights glowed in unfocused circles.
Mr Dry picked up a bag of tangerines and examined them critically. He groped each one like a doctor testing for lumps. "What do you notice about these tangerines?" he asked.
David took them and brought them close to his face. "They all look fine to me..."
"That, David, is the problem," replied Mr Dry. "You buy the tangerines by the crate, and bag them up in store, yes? Well from now on, we're going to put one of the fruits that are past their best - a bit watery and squashy - into every bag we sell."
David was taken aback. "But sir, we usually just throw them away!"
"It'll save us money, David. It's good business."
"Surely people will notice, sir! A bad tangerine in every bag? They're bound to pick up on that!"
"You'd be surprised," said the fat, blurry shape. "You'd be surprised. One week the husband will get the bad one, next week the wife, next week little Johnny. They won't pick up any pattern. And even if they do, they don't do anything about it. It's just business. Now, what have we got here?"
"Dry roasted peanuts, sir."
Mr Dry strode up to the nearest till and poured them out in the bagging area. "What's missing from this picture?" he asked.
David scooped up a handful of peanuts and peered at them.
"No dust, David. Where's the peanut dust?"
"The waste produced by the dry roasting process? We throw it away!"
"From now on, we're going to remove a couple of peanuts from every packet and replace them with dust. It'll save money. There's money in waste products, you know. It's good business."
David was beginning to feel very uncomfortable.
"And I'll tell you what," Mr Dry continued, "after a while, people will expect the peanut dust. They'll feel ripped off if they get a bag without it. Get someone to clean these peanuts up, will you?"
David quickly cleaned the peanuts up himself and scurried after Mr Dry, who had picked up a sack of potatoes.
"Now what about these? Can you see anything wrong with these potatoes, David?"
"No, sir! They are of the highest quality! Very popular with the customers!"
Mr Dry pointed to the little printed label that said where the potatoes were from. It said 'ROMANIA."
"Romania is a problem, sir?"
"No, no, of course not," he replied, "cheap as chips, I'm all for it. But from now on, we don't tell people things come from there. We say 'grown in the EU'. That way they could have been grown in Italy or France. More romantic. And we can bump the price up a bit. Everyone knows a possibly-grown-in-France potato is worth more than definitely-grown-in-Romania potato."
David's head was spinning. "Sir, is this honest?"
"There is only success or failure, David. There's money or no money. This isn't bad - it's good! Good business! You see?"
"Not at all."
"Tell me David, when did you last rearrange the store?"
"We never do that really, sir," David replied, trying to keep his voice steady. "People know where to find things. It works great, just the way it is."
"Right, well from now on, we're going to be moving everything around. One month we'll move all the eggs. Then another month we'll move the baby products. Then the sauces. Then something else again after that."
"Sir, we have always tried to be considerate towards both our employees and our customers. This sounds... for lack of a better word, disrespectful."
"It's good business, David. Rearranging will force people to search all over, exposing them to all the products and displays they might miss out on in their usual shopping routine."
"Sir, there will be complaints if we keep arbitrarily rearranging the store."
"Complaints are good, David! If a customer cares enough to complain, that shows they are beginning to feel a sense of ownership in the business. They are beginning to feel it is their shop."
"People already feel that, sir!"
"And besides, complaints won't cause any real trouble - the customer service team can simply blame Head Office. Everyone knows that wherever you work, Head Office can neither be reached nor reasoned with. Easy to blame, and impossible to actually get hold of. Damn good system, if you ask me."
"In what possible sense is that a good system, sir?"
"In the sense that it's good business."
"I thought you might say that."
Mr Dry wandered over to the hair care products and stared at the shelves. "Now," he said, "tell me about the people of this town. Are they wealthy?"
"Not wealthy, no," replied David, "but not poor either... middle class, I suppose. Families who want the best for their kids."
"You see these products? You've got the very cheapest shampoo, then some stuff priced in the middle, and then the expensive name brands. We need to change this."
"I - I'm sorry?"
"We'll discontinue the stuff in the middle. Make 'em choose between either the bog-standard cheap rubbish or the name brands. Just you watch - they'll go for the name brands every time - these middle class families - they'll feel like choosing the cheapest stuff is letting their kids down. So only leave 'em one other option. The most expensive one."
"Sir, that is immoral!"
"Not at all, not at all! We're doing them a favour, can't you see? We're giving them pride. They'll realise they can afford the best! Imagine what that does for your self-respect, David!"
David sagged. "Mr Dry, if you don't mind, I have left my glasses in my office, and must go and find them." And without waiting for a reply, he left the shop floor and fled upstairs.
He found his spectacles in his office amongst the stock reports. As he slipped them on, the world came back into focus. He had known his last day at the store was coming, but he hadn't realised until now that it had already come. He watched Mr Dry wandering the aisles on the CCTV monitors. Tomorrow it would all change. It was already changing.
He made his way back downstairs and approached the meat counter. "Mr Rodgers. Come with me, if you would be so kind."
Mr Rodgers laid down his meat cleaver and followed Mr Butler into the dairy aisle, where Mr Dry was examining a bottle of milk.
"Mr Rodgers, this is Mr Dry." Mr Dry looked up. "He came in a green BMW which is currently parked outside in the disabled space. I'd like you to let his tyres down, please."
Mr Rodgers looked confused.
"Is this a joke?" asked Mr Dry, one eyebrow raised.
David was not smiling. "We have pressurised air available in the garage forecourt, sir - a pound a go. Good business. And Mr Rodgers, I seem to remember a length of spare tubing out in the warehouse? Please take it and siphon off his fuel."
"What do you think you're playing at, Butler?" said Mr Dry, a warning in his voice.
"We also have petrol available in the forecourt, sir. Shall I call Eileen the cashier and ask her to put up the price?"
"Put up the price? What for, man!"
"For when you get there with an empty tank, sir. Remember, there is only success or failure, Mr Dry. There's money or no money. This isn't bad - it's good! Good business! You see?"
"You are asking to be fired, Mr Butler," said Mr Dry, but David was already walking away.
He stood in the foyer for a moment, the doors opening and closing behind him, and took a deep breath. Apparently, the principles of good business only worked in one direction. When they were turned around, they became gross misconduct. With a sigh, and without saying goodbye to anyone, he walked out into the falling snow, got into his car, and drove away into the night.
Mr Rodgers the butcher didn't know what was going on, or why the new boss was glaring at him. But it was obvious that old Mr Butler hadn't liked him very much, and old Mr Butler liked everybody. As he made his way back to the meat counter, he mused on the notion that everybody liked Mr Butler too. Respectful, that's what he was. Made things easy for the staff, and they made things easy for him.
"New boss is here, Doreen," Mr Rodgers said, as he picked up his cleaver again. "Don't like the look of him. Only been here five minutes and already fallen out with the old man."
Doreen listened greedily to the whole story, and then scurried off to the alcohol aisle to gossip to Shannon, who, Mr Rodgers knew, would invariably tell everyone else in the store. He paused in thought for a few moments, and then grinned as his cleaver fell on the meat. Mr Butler knew how to make life easy for those who worked in the store. Apparently, he also knew how to make it hard.