THE AMERICAN COMEDIAN Jacky Mason used to devote part of his act to the role of the successful businessman. He goes out to his office in the morning where he’s king. His secretary rushes to carry out his every instruction, his sales force bow & scrape in an effort not to have their targets raised too high, and his suppliers phone all day long, offering him compliments and inducements, to persuade him to place more orders. And when he goes home his wife greets him with “You putz, you forgot to put the garbage out!”

WELL RIGHT NOW I’m beginning to feel like my wife’s at work as well at home! Take my staff (no, please don’t take my staff – well actually, thinking about it, you’re welcome to most of them!) – there’s certainly no rushing around to carry out my every whim. In fact it seems a struggle to get them to do anything over and above serving customers. And that’s when they bother to turn in. My part of the world must suffer from one of the highest incidences of sickness in the country. And when they are off sick, heaven forbid they should phone in and give me half a clue as to when they think they might be returning to work.

NO IT WASN’T always like this. I used to employ very reasonable, hardworking and conscientious cashiers. That was in the days before Working Families Tax Credit, when we used to be able to recruit middle-aged housewives who needed some extra income. Now, if their partner has a job, it just isn’t worth their while to work. Add in a healthy economy and virtually full employment and it’s become virtually impossible to fill staff vacancies. And that’s despite paying well over the National Minimum Wage and being flexible with working patterns. The solution? Well, judging by the trends in some other industries, I reckon there’s a small fortune waiting to be made for someone who organises the transportation and training of Polish forecourt cashiers.

NOW WHAT WAS THAT about suppliers pleading for orders? Not in the forecourt trade, Mr Mason. It always used to be difficult to know which route to go down in using contractors. Did you choose the smaller, cheaper firm and accept that lead times might be longer, or did you employ the big boys and trade off higher charges for speedier service? Now you have as much chance of success as you have of winning the lottery. The small firms are so mowed out with work they can’t get to you for ages, while the big outfits seem to have specialised in employing people who turn up, scratch their heads and then reach for their phone to ask head office what they should do. And that’s after they’ve already told you that they haven’t got the right equipment with them and that you do realise that the job’s chargeable as it’s not covered by the contract!

IN FACT, in a complete reversal of the natural order, the easiest part of my business seems to be attracting customers – perhaps I’m capable of doing something right! Or is it that I’m lucky because I haven’t got a Tesco Express on my doorstep? It used to be the full-blown hypers that crippled our volume, but from my recent observations it’s the Expresses that can kill us now. On a recent Saturday excursion I nearly crashed my car when I saw an Express selling diesel at 84.9p. That’s a pricing policy that makes Shell look almost responsible!

ALTHOUGH TESCO can seem to do no wrong at the moment (£2bn profit puts it almost in the league of the oilers!) it makes you wonder whether this government will ever take an interest in the trading strategies of this mammoth. It certainly makes the decision to refer the Somerfield purchase of 114 Safeway stores to the OFT look positively vindictive.

TALKING OF REVERSALS of the natural order, with another 600 or so sites closing last year you would imagine that the capital value of our forecourts would have plummeted. Tell that to the Tiger, who has just sold a 4.5m litre, £10k a week shop, site for a staggering £1.2m. That outperforms the heydays of the late 1980s with its £1 a gallon values. Someone out there thinks there’s a future in petrol retailing.