When the Chips are Down

We found out in the opening of the Apprentice tonight that the shopping channel task is a favourite of Sir Alan – certainly I have to agree. The annual trips to Peterborough really do produce some amusing episodes, and often really shake things up. They also produce some surprises, this time being no exception.

The established Apprentice wisdom on this one seems to be that you need a mix of items in your choice of four – a couple of low price impulse purchases that you hope to shift in bulk, alongside a couple of higher price items of which you hope to shift a few but make a lot of money. The belief also is that the amateur apprentice candidates are never going to shift anything like the volume of a professional presenter. This time around, Howard, Kate and Lorraine ended up with precisely that traditional mix of products, whilst Yasmina took a bit more of a gamble and told Debra and James to go for four low price items – all coming in under £25.

Whilst it’s the sales figures that decide the task, the main entertainment in the programme is always the sometimes hide behind the sofa bad performances. There was nothing to quite match up to the infamous trampoline, but certainly this crop of candidates produced their fair share of laughs from the crew…

The most amusing pairing was Yasmina and James – not quite Richard and Judy…

Nor here…

In the end though, the task came down to chips, and this presentation:

Alongside the sales, the shopping channel involved gives Sir Alan an estimate of the expected sales of the selected items with experienced presenters. The deep fat fryer pitched here was, on paper, the biggest money-spinner. The benefits of the low amount of fat used to conventional frying is the big selling point, but here Howard and Lorraine get stuck talking about chips, and giving a woeful pitch. Indeed at one point Lorraine can even be heard saying that she wouldn’t give chips to her children. The result was woeful sales, much as to be expected. But then one of the surprises of the night – Debra managed to ditch her usual abrasive personality and as a result was within 5% of the expected sales of the professionals for her items,

As a result in the final tally, the low ticket price coupled with the stellar performance from Debra make the gamble by Yasmina pay off, and Howard, Kate and Lorraine get sent into the boardroom.

The boardroom is surprisingly refreshing. After a dissection of the task failure, which Howard blamed on Lorraine over the chips demo, and Lorraine blamed on Howard for rejecting the Pleo Robotic Dinosaur, the three were called back in and gave their own pitch about why they thought they should stay. Unlike previous weeks at this stage there wasn’t a whole load of negative campaigning, just the three of them saying why they should stay.

The final decision though will I’m sure have surprised and upset quite a few people. All the way through Howard has been the quiet, steady pair of hands, indeed in previous series this has proved to be a good tactic, but not this time around. Sir Alan said that he was looking for a bit of a risk taker in these challenging times (although some would argue that it is risk takers who have got the country into the current mess) and sends Howard on his way.

The favourite to go must have been Lorraine – but she seems to have a strong advocate in Nick which is maybe what swung it for her again this time around, plus the fact that she generally seems to be right – as Margaret has pointed out previously. Kate, despite a poor sales performance in comparison with Debra on the task this week has been far too good in most previous weeks to have made her a strong possibility to go.

So that leaves us with our final five – and from the preview of the show it looks like we are going to have them whittled down to two next week. They are a bit of an interesting bunch. Firstly we have James who has been described variously as a joker, and the village idiot, then we have Lorraine who has narrowly escaped being fired on a number of occasions – they are probably the surprise two for the final five. Then we have Kate who has been tipped as a potential winner from early on, but has failed to shine on a couple of key sales tasks. Alongside her we have Debra, who is the youngest of the final five and has shown herself to be decidedly vocal and a pain to work with on a number of occasions, but may have redeemed herself at the last minute with this weeks task. Finally we have Yasmina who does seem to have some qualities in common with Debra, but is a lot more personable. She has also very rarely been called into the boardroom – although that can sometimes be a disadvantage.

In terms of the final two, on the basis of previous episodes I’m going for Kate and Yasmina to make it through – my thought being that the improvement in Debra this week is not enough to counter the negatives from previous weeks. Having said that, the interviews can always be a bit of an eye opener – although last year proves it isn’t necessarily a show stopper for Sir Alan, the CV’s can always throw up a few nasty surprises, especially if the candidates have been bending the truth a little…

Backing the Wrong Horse

Even a scholarship to Sandhurst can’t save you when you back the wrong horse.

The show sales task on the Apprentice always comes down to product choice, and there are two distinct strategies. Either you play it fairly safe and go for two products that you think will sell, maybe going for one low price and one mid price, or alternatively you take one of your two product choices and take a major gamble on a high ticket item and hope it will sell. Last year it was wedding dresses and the gamble paid off, this time Debra and Ben bet the task on high ticket rocking horses, and spectacularly lost the bet.

The problem was that they had almost decided on their choice before they saw the product, indeed the two of them are shown saying as much in the car on the way to the meeting. As you can see here, Debra left team leader James little choice, and makes it really clear which product she wanted:

Coupled with James choice of another fairly specialist item – a birthing pool, Empire ended up taking a massive gamble.

Over on the other team, the products chosen were the pushchair and the head guard, the relatively high price pushchair being a harder sell, especially when Lorraine discovered another stall who was selling below the minimum price that the team had negotiated. However that pricing problem was counteracted by the relatively cheap impulse purchase on the head guard, which enabled Ignite to with the task.

But the choice wasn’t the only mistake. At the very end of the show, Debra had a potential sale, which stumbled on the fact that the team couldn’t agree to a discount. In the initial negotiation, both Debra and Ben were so besotted with the horses that they failed to negotiate, something Sir Alan picks up on and we see two of the boardroom liars get caught out again:

Probably the most entertaining part of the programme tonight was the boardroom – the response Sir Alan gives when Ben starts off on the scholarship to Sandhurst routine again is probably one of the best lines of the series, and you can see James, Debra and Margaret trying to keep a straight face afterwards. However, Sir Alan then follows it up with a line that probably should serve as a warning to any other Sandhurst people who try and impress him, when he mentions Paul from series three who tried to sell cheese from Makro to the French, and to cook a sausage on a baked-bean can. Of course the Sandhurst people will quite rightly say that these two are unrepresentative of the people they turn out, just as I’m sure lots of other places would try and disassociate themselves with some of the performances we see on the series.

When it came to the firing, we thought for an awful moment that James was going to go – certainly he looked close to tears at one point, but really it had to be between Debra and Ben. Looking back although Debra does have some real problems over her attitude, she does seem to have some modicum of ability. Ben has had a couple of successes, but repeatedly messed up whether it be steamrollering in poor ideas and ignoring specific instructions in task three, totally missing the point of the task in week six or totally failing to sell a thing in week seven. He was the youngest candidate, and boy did it show, a vastly inflated and hyped up ego, that wasn’t backed up with the talent.

So, finally the man who didn’t go to Sandhurst is show the door, although I’m sure many people would have been happy for Debra to be sent packing too, as she was more up for the gamble, and was the one that pushed James. But Ben it was, and he really wasn’t very happy…

Next week we have the treat of the annual TV shopping task – I wonder if they will be selling trampolines this time around? As always it looks like an opportunity for some spectacular car crash TV.

As we’re nearing the end, who might make it all the way? We’re going for a Kate against Yasmina final – looking at the others, Debra seems unable to reign in her attitude, Lorraine might be an outside choice but has an entrenched reputation for antagonising people to overturn. James has previously been described as the village idiot in the boardroom and is struggling to overturn his reputation as a joker with no real talent, and finally Howard seems very much to have been the quiet one who has kept under the radar but gets weeded out at the interview stage. Needless to say, I’m sure I’ll be proved wrong in a couple of weeks time – I always am…

Buyer Beware – Garmin UK Online Store

Over the past year or so Garmin have finally started to provide software for the Mac. One of those new pieces of software, currently in beta is BaseCamp, a tool that works with various of the Garmin topographic mapping products giving a three-dimensional view of the mapping data, similar to the view that their latest series of handheld GPS units can produce.

Amongst the mapping products I have are both Topo UK and Topo Canada, however only Topo UK was recognised by BaseCamp.

The reason turned out to be fairly straightforward, BaseCamp needs topographic data that includes Digital Elevation Model or DEM data, and whilst Topo UK includes that data, the early release of Topo Canada that I have, version 2, doesn’t include that data. Not a problem, as in the five years since I bought my copy, Garmin have updated Topo Canada to version 4, that includes the required data.

Since I’ve recently bought and registered another Garmin product, I had a discount code that offers me ten percent off products in their online store, so I took a look at their UK store, and found that they had the up to date version 4 of Topo Canada listed so I put in my order for the upgraded version.

The parcel turned up today, and opening the package, the box looked rather much like the Topo Canada packaging I already had, the computer requirements didn’t match those listed on the website – no mention of the Mac for a start – and the copyright on the box was 2004. Taking a look inside, rather than one DVD it was a four CD set, and the version number on the back of the box was version 2. Despite listing the latest software on their website, Garmin UK had sent out the same software I already had.

Not surprisingly I was not best pleased, so I gave Garmin UK a call – well three calls actually as their phone handling system cut me off mid-call twice before I got to talk to a real person. Explaining the problem , he went away and took a look and said that the only Topo Canada they had in their stock was the version 2 they had sent me.

They did try to persuade me to stick with what they had sent, but once I’d said that I already had a copy of that, and that I specifically wanted the version with the DEM data to use with BaseCamp, they said they would talk to their head office, and I’m currently waiting for a call back with their answer.

The problem of course is that although Garmin UK are currently being quite helpful, they are quite blatantly in contravention of the Sale of Goods Act in that the product their website describes – a Mac compatible version of Topo Canada – is not what they’re sending out. If they replace my copy with what I ordered or give me a refund I’ll probably leave it at that, but certainly if you’re buying map software from Garmin UK, especially if it is something pretty specialist, be aware that they are still selling off their old stock, even if it is five years old.

Selling Margate

Sometimes Sir Alan fires people for the task, other times he goes for someone on his list of weak candidates. This week it was definitely a chance for him to get rid of a weak candidate – and he was faced with a choice of two letting the real guilty party off.

The task was to rebrand Margate, creating a poster campaign and leaflet, and then presenting the campaign firstly to industry experts, and then to the people of Margate.

Both teams split themselves with two putting the materials together back in London, and two on the ground in Margate gathering market research and taking the pictures for the campaign materials. To be honest it looked like Empire were doomed from the start. This was clearly a creative task, and Ignite had Yasmina and Kate, both of whom had done well in previous creative tasks – Empire appeared to be sorely lacking in creative talent. They had the double problem of having Debra who seemed to have decided that she was going to be in charge, and bulldozing her way through all opposition.

The teams went for clearly different angles. Ignite opted to sell Margate as a traditional family resort, highlighting activities for all the family, whereas Empire thought that repackaging the town as a LGTB was the way to go, with the notable exception of Mona who suggested a family theme similar to Ignite.

It’s fair to say that whilst the LGTB theme produced a number of cringe making moments – in particular Tanzanian born Mona totally mishandling a conversation with a pre-op male to female transsexual – neither idea was a turn off for the industry experts or the locals. Despite initial misgivings in conducting the market research Mona found that many locals were already aware of a small LGTB in the town.

Therefore it all came down to execution, and in team Empire, this was an ongoing battle as Howard repeatedly tried and failed to get Debra to produce what was needed. Sadly, much as happened last week, Debra bulldozed through his objections, producing posters that looked more like leaflets, and with a font choice that was appalling – not quite Comic Sans, but pretty close, and a whole look that Beth described as something her students might coble together rather than something for a professional marketing campaign. To cap it all off her time management went out of the window and she left too little time to finish the leaflet, resulting in large amounts of empty space, a mistake she further compounded by lying in the presentation and saying that it was a deliberate idea to include local business advertising – a ploy the industry experts saw through immediately.

Whilst there were issues with the Ignite campaign, it was streaks ahead of what Empire produced. The posters had a consistent design, and a clear message, the leaflet was finished, and the presentation was good. So it wasn’t a surprise at all when Ignite were declared the winner.

The boardroom call-back was clearly down to tactics. Had Debra brought back Howard, then the discussion would end up being about the disagreements over the posters and leaflets where she had continually and incorrectly overruled Howard. Instead she brought back Mona and James, both of whom are seen as weak candidates who have escaped the boardroom so far, even taking into account Mona coming out on top in the sales task last week.

I’m absolutely clear that on the basis of this task Debra was the main person to blame, she bulldozed all opposition and what was presented was her design, and it sucked, however she presented Sir Alan with Mona and James, one of whom has been pretty quiet over the weeks, and the other who was described by Sir Alan himself last week as a village idiot.

Here it was very much that Sir Alan was presented with one of the people who he didn’t think was the right fit, so he took the opportunity to get rid of her – definitely a lucky escape for Debra…

Of course if you want to see a professional re-branding, check out this effort to re-brand somewhere else:

Product, Product, Product

It never fails to amaze me how many Apprentice candidates seem to think they can sell ice to Eskimos, but fail to get the basics right in picking the right product, for the right customer. This week with Sir Alan having set up pitches with a high class designer store and a long established hardware store, one team pitched a two person dog lead and an expensive cross between a sleeping bag and a jump suit, and the other a cat playground that was just a painted cardboard box and a one sided bicycle pannier that almost everybody said would unbalance the bike. Of the four products, only the one sided bicycle pannier sold, and that was a small number to the designer store on looks alone.

What that did do though, is level the playing field. With four poor product choices, and minimal sales to the potential big prospects, it came down to a battle of the salespeople, a chance to find out who was all mouth, and who had the potential.

After some team swapping, and based on the previous bravado, Ignite were in a strong position, they had Kate who has been a strong candidate so far, with Phil and Ben neither of whom have been shy in telling everybody what strong candidates they are. They also had Lorraine who whilst she seriously rubs people up the wrong way at times has consistently been right, and Yasmina. Facing them were Debra who also talks up her talents in sales, but was on a final warning from last week, along with Howard who we’ve barely seen, Mona who badly mismanaged the first task and survived by the skin of her teeth, and James who Sir Alan described as the village idiot last week.

Unlike previous selling tasks, every candidate had their own individual order book, and all but three managed to sell, those three, well the problem was pretty apparent…

The double whammy here is that or weeks, Phil has been in conflict with Lorraine, and from the moment she put herself forward as project manager, you could see the general laid back attitude to the whole task, so confident that if they lost the task, as project manager Lorraine would be shown the door.

However as always, it comes down to the boardroom. Things kept coming back to the lack of orders, so Phil tries to highlight his previous success – the selling task last week where he made a loss but won by default, and ignored repeated suggestions from Lorraine that the rug was worth a lot more than he thought, and then Nick brought up Pants Man from the week before. Amazingly at this point, Sir Alan still seems to be wavering towards Lorraine, so she plays the relationship card and mentions that she believes the relationship between Phil and Kate has affected the task. At this point Kate defends herself, and just for good measure sticks the knife into Phil. With that, Phil is gone, and certainly in this house and I’m sure a good few others we’re mightily pleased he’s gone.

What follows now of course is the massive effort to rebuild a reputation, so on You’re Fired we had humble Phil who plays down his talents, agrees with the comments made about him and is even vaguely complimentary about Lorraine, something that continues in his exit interview.

That leaves one other of the trinity of failure this week, Ben (who got a scholarship to Sandhurst don’t you know). Had it not been for the whole Phil and Kate thing, he would almost certainly have been in the firing line. Despite all his comments about his sales ability he flopped totally, he was just lucky that he failed along with Phil and Kate, and thanks to that and the ongoing arguing between Phil and Lorraine, he could take a bit of a back seat. Had he been in the boardroom after his spectacular loss last week, and a singular inability to sell this week, it certainly would have been a difficult one for him to talk his way out of, in much the same way as Phil was a strong candidate to be shown the door once he was picked. The interesting battle of course would have been Phil and Ben – but it might well have been a battle where Lorraine went down in the crossfire…