Coin Boy

Flax Plant (Six Branch)
Flax Plant (Six Branch)

Market stall traders have a dubious reputation which can be traced back to the days when they cared not a fig for the customer. Profit ruled every minute of their day. I know a few and I would wager their night-time dreams are still dominated by scams and dodgy deals. Money, profit, business and ‘the good old days’ is all they talk about. In certainty the old time stall-holders were wealthier than the customers would have believed, half million pound homes with Mercedes sports cars or new Range Rovers parked in the garages were not uncommon. I once knew a man who sold white handkerchiefs who lived in a seven bedroomed country house and took two first class cruises a year.  To give the reader a further insight read this bizarre and factual story of a man who sold dress making materials. Every three months he deposited many thousands into a Swiss bank account believing it to be safe and secure, a tax free hoard of happiness.  One Saturday evening whilst drinking a well deserved glass of ale after a fourteen hour day he was felled by a massive heart attack, the last thing he saw was a damp and filthy beer stained carpet in a bar full of losers.  The money is still safe in the account, Ken failed to record the password in his will. His family discovered statements showing the balance. Anne his wife cursed him until the day she died, having made no secret of the disaster… Three hundred and sixty-thousand pounds and unable to touch a penny as she could not prove it to be hers.

Markets were seen as places to find a bargain, now many are tourist attractions, Camden, Portabello, Petticoat and Brick Lane just four old sites which are visited for the spectacle more than the desire to find a bargain.  In the old days meat, fish, fruit, vegetables and basic but good quality clothing were the trading stock. Today a more varied choice of goods and services has changed the atmosphere. Eyebrow stringing and mobile phones have become more popular than a pound of apples. Its all changed, if the trader does not look after the customer he’s going to fail and the chain store supermarkets have all but finished the weekly or temporary market venues. It can be tough for anyone who wishes to start a new business, twenty years ago a man could buy his stock and struggle to get a temporary pitch as the demand was so high, today he will get a pitch without a problem and struggle to sell his stock because fewer customers attend one day markets.  The full time indoor markets are the way to go. Trouble is with little profit on fruit, vegetables and meat (the three mainstays) the inevitable empty stall syndrome makes the covered markets look neglected. Unique and specialist one man or woman operated service providers could take advantage of the low rents, if they have an entrepreneurial attitude and can see the potential. Hairdressers, nail bar, barber shops, even opticians are seeing the opportunities available. If I were an insurance broker, I’d look for a market stall! I write of this so the reader understands the market trader is far from being just a ‘humble’ small business.  Their environment is tough, changing and difficult, those who survive are real winners.

This stall is owned by my partner who sells items that although are off the main stream, have proven to be popular. Tarot cards, crystals, esoteric books, essential oils and incense sticks are the main sales lines. It’s the sticks which are the staple diet of the stall.  Indian or Japanese are the most popular choices.  There are two principal types of buyers. For type one the price is secondary to the quality.  For type two the quality is secondary to the price.  This is where my partner wins, the prices are the best in the city and there is no compromise upon the quality.

For me this market stall is an excellent observation platform of human life.  A wealthy artist buys twelve boxes of Nag Champa incense each month “I would like two of each of the fragrances please.” He then asks for a small discount and receives the same reply every time “Sorry we do not discount, the prices are already the cheapest in the city.”  A not so well off shop girl prefers the Japanese ‘Morning Star’ brand at three times the price of the Nag Champa, after buying three boxes the comment is “You cannot beat quality.”  Students can never make their mind up, always want to know how many are in the box and like to mention the ‘last lot didn’t burn very well’ which is a hopeless attempt at getting a discount or a free replacement. Trouble is, they all try the same scam, its a cat and mouse game, my partner is the cat, and unlike Tom and Jerry cartoons the mice lose every time.

A difficult customer needs to be careful if they believe the market trader is in some way inferior to them and can be negotiated or bargained with.  The arrogant customer often thinks the trader is either a rogue or a wanderer and believes them in some way inferior or poor and as I have already written nothing could be further from the truth.  If they think they are going to ‘chip’ away at a price or do some type of ‘special’ deal, they will disadvantage themselves if they underestimate the knowledge and business acumen of the stall owners who are not fools or idiots, just because there is not the image of a swish and seemingly profitable shop does not mean they are a walkover.  Of course there are traders who ignore the certainty that it is in a wise salesman’s interest to allow the customer to believe they are king or queen. The customer must be treated with respect and courtesy, sadly there are more than a few who do not and these cast a shadow upon many honest traders.  Let me be clear though, it’s not  ‘them verses us’.  Ninety-nine percent of the time it’s a win-win mutual agreement, both parties are happy and very often customers become friends.

Flax Plant 1991
Flax Plant 1991

This is the basis of market trading and there is no real difference in the way the customers attitude is seen by traders regardless of the items they sell. Allow me clarify, the market trader is, if he knows it or not, a wizard of retail psychology. An astute trader is monarch of their realm, woe betide the individual who thinks he’ll pull a fast stroke on the seasoned stalwart he’ll become the loser even if he believes himself to be heavyweight customer fighting a bantam weight stall holder.

Today has been busy, a few moments ago a young man purchased a box of Nag Champa incense.  It’s a particular favourite of mine, a frangipani flower and sandalwood blend which smells sweet and mystical, an excellent fragrance and the number one top seller.

I watched him as he picked up the boxes smelling each one to get an idea of the fragrance of the sticks.  This is an impossible task as once one has sampled two or three differing types the sense of smell is defeated and there is no way to tell the difference between any of the blends.  One way to neutralise the effect of numbed  nasal sensors is to smell ground coffee and then go back to the original task of deciding between the differing blends, although experience guides me to write the best way is to buy two or three types and burn them in ones home to discover if they are to your olfactory preference.  As I watch him I know what is happening.  As he has become confused about his choice he’ll buy only one box, and for a moment he will hesitate.  If I ignore him he’ll put the box down and go away.  If I watch him, or allow him to think I am watching him he will buy a box.  It is the way of the stall holder, not to speak, just watch and a small sale will be made.  The psychology behind it is very few people like to be seen as indecisive and a small sale will prove the observer wrong!

This fellow is from a wealthy family.  His clothes are new and expensive, the watch is a few hundred not a few pounds, he is well groomed and I know he’ll be well spoken, he is not old enough to afford the costume which is how I know his family supports him. I’m guessing he’ll go for the blue box and he does.  Now, he does not know why he’s done this because he has not sampled the contents and this will make him slightly uncomfortable.  The colour which has dictated the choice, most people are safe with blue.  I am not guessing about his attitude, this young man will reveal himself as arrogant, an inferior superior and as his sub-conscious mind does not know why he’s purchased the Nag Champa, I know he will become in need of some little victory. How? I’m soon to find out.

He’s given me a five pound note and awaits the change. One twenty pence, one fifty pence and three one pound coins, the game begins. He looks at his change and picks out a coin.  “This coin is a fake.” I take it and look at the old coin, I’m not so sure.  His arrogance can be heard in the next sentence “Come on this IS a fake, replace it.”  I have every intention of changing it, he suspects I’m going to argue the point, I will take my time though and I look carefully at the picture on it.  It seems familiar.

There are millions of counterfeit one pound coins in circulation. It is a fact people will innocently buy items with these fakes without knowing about the problem, if indeed it is a problem. Even the banks recirculate the dubious ones. The problem is how do you pull them out of circulation? This is a difficult conundrum which is being addressed with the new shaped one pound coins which will come into circulation over the next few years.  For the market trader or shop keeper it makes little difference its into the till and out! Same goes for the customer, out of his pocket and into the till.  And who would search through one hundred pound coins to find the ‘bad boys’? I’d wager not many.

Are you going to change the coin?”  I look at the coin again open the draw take a shiny new one pound piece and say “Are you sure you do not want this?” “Listen its counterfeit, you should not have given it to me or your customers, its illegal to do so.”  I give him the bright shiny replacement. “You should show more respect for your customers, trying to rip them off with fakes.”  I say nothing and do not make the mistake of smiling.

All Seeing Eye
All Seeing Eye

“Any interest in a 1991 Flax Plant?”  “Lets have a look”  He puts his magnifier to his right eye and looks at the coin “Purchase or commission?” “What are the two deals?”  “Commission its worth three fifty… I take twenty percent… you’ll end up with two eighty or straight purchase I’ll pay one fifty cash.”  “Give me the cash.” Seven twenty and one ten pound notes later I’m pleased the genius gave me the ‘fake’ back! The coin was the rare and collectable one with the ‘Flax Plant’ engraving.

I believe he did not know or care if the coin was a dud.  For him it was a step on his staircase of superiority! For me it was a one hundred and fifty pound bonus.

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