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On the wall behind John's desk is a sign: ACHE & PAIN DEPT., which is a notice to any visiting supervisor, manager or checker that he can get John's ear with a problem. But when something has gone wrong, John wastes no time listening to alibis, merely points to his big bookstand dictionary labeled: "Compendium of Alibis Compiled by Members of the A & P." John solemnly tells employees: "Now just don't you alibi, because it's got every alibi you can think of in it."
Mr. John is acutely aware of the habit patterns ingrained in the whole U.S. food business. Its profit margins are so small, and competition so keen, that generations of storekeepers found survival required them to underpay and overwork their help, weigh their thumb with the sugar, and as John puts it, "cut their salaries out of the meat." To remind everyone constantly against "flipmagilders," his private word for chiselers, Mr. John long kept a giant "butcher's thumb" in his office.
His biggest worry is that A & P's size "prevents the heartbeats from reaching the extremities." To make the blood reach the fingertips, he holds a weekly meeting with a different group of supervisors, the men directly above the store managers.
His invariable ritual at these meetings is to put the nervous supervisors at ease by recalling nervous moments of his own. At last week's gathering he began: "You should have seen how scared I was at school when the principal sent for me. I'd put some limburger cheese at the bottom of the stairwell. Oh, the stench that went up!" Then he lessened their awe by lampooning A & P's "brass hats." "I've got mine on," he said, raising his hand to indicate a very tall imaginary top hat. Abruptly he asked: "What do you think George and I do all day, count our money?" He went through an imaginary bill-counting routine, saying: "Oops, George, there's a hundred you dropped."
Then he became serious. "Now you take this matter of overtime," he told the supervisors. "One day a girl, a checker, came into my office and told me she was cheated out of $450 in overtime. She got every penny. I had put time clocks in all the stores to stop this sort of thing. Then a fellow got up at one of these meetings and said, 'Mr. John, I'm cheating my help on the time clocks.' He thought he could make a better showing! Another checker came in, and I asked her if she knew why I put in those time clocks. 'Oh, yes,' she said, 'to keep us from cheating the management !' You see how hard it is to get a thing that plain and simple understood?"
Grey Horses & Red Wagons. John and George Hartford got their first lessons in merchandising from a master showman, George Huntington Hartford, their father. Born in Augusta, Me., George Huntington Hartford had drifted around the dry-goods business with indifferent success. He was 26 when he and a partner named George Gilman hit on an idea. Tea was bringing $1 a lb. By buying it off the ship and eliminating the middlemen, they thought they could trim the price to 30¢.