The Apprentice - episode nine, reviewed

This week’s task, Sir Alan told us right from the start, was all about sales. In fact, it was about sales and babies, as the teams had to pick and shift items at a massive baby show in London. (Cue a stream of aaaaah-CUUUTE shots of pretty little babies accompanied by incongruously ugly parents.)

But it actually read as a how-to of basic business lessons – and fatal flaws.

Sir Alan did his usual team-jiggling, and like an awkward school rounders team, Lorraine, Kate and Howard shuffled to one side, James, Ben, Kate and Yasmina to the other. Sugar made James and Lorraine respective team leaders because they were the ones with experience of being parents.

Then, following the same template as the notorious double-handled-dog-lead episode, apprentice-Apprentices were trotted off to pick two baby-related products to sell from the same pool of offerings.

Now this wasn’t quite as easy as it at first seemed.

There were some bizarre cloth high heels for babies, which by the seller’s own admission were predisposed to the reaction: ‘vulgar’. Neither team went for those, thank god – who wants their one-year-old to look like a hussy?

But other items were more difficult to decide on.

An inflatable birthing pool caught James’s eye, and he seemed to know exactly what the seller was talking about as she waxed lyrical about the pubic bone and the coxix, touching herself inappropriately while she was at it. (“It actually feels kinda good,” she later smiled at Lorraine mid-pubic-grasp.)

Splayed over the wall of the pool like a beached manatee, James was sold. The birthing pool was number one on their list.

Now here’s the thing with the pool – James’s gut feeling wasn’t too far off. The seller had shifted an impressive 5,000 at the last show she exhibited at, and with James’s insider knowledge of women’s lower abdomen, he looked like he could sell them. Impressed nods from expectant mothers at the show confirmed that. And the pool was only £84.95 – where, James said, most people would expect it to be at least a couple of hundred.

The problem with it, that James and team failed to research but Kate and Howard and Sir Alan identified, was that only 2.2% of mothers go for water births.

The size of your target market is, of course, crucial. Why go for something only a miniscule fraction of mothers want when you could expand your sales potential to all of them?

Being switched on enough to ask themselves that question was what ultimately gave Lorraine’s team the edge.

And it led them instead to a one-click-to-fold-down travel buggy. Their sales strategy was flawed in two ways: they didn’t practise enough with the buggy to demonstrate it properly (Lorraine’s attempt to show one prospective couple was embarrassingly stilted, like she was grappling with an insolent oversized stick insect – in the incensed words of Nick, she made ‘a complete Horlicks of it’). And they didn’t research who else would be selling the same product at the show -  as it turns out, someone else was doing exactly the same thing and undercutting them by £35.

But despite this, the buggy racked up a fair amount of sales – precisely because, as Sir Alan reiterated later, every single person there needed a buggy. The market was unlimited.

Lorraine’s team’s other product was a baby crash-helmet – a disturbingly pseudo-rugby bit of gear that got strapped ruthlessly on to poor baby’s head to give that type of particularly hand-wringing overanxious parent just one more way to cotton wool their child from the world.

But it worked. Kate’s rather hard-nosed but ultimately very business-savvy insight to ‘play on the guilt factor’ paid off, and they sold a fair few.

So, the last item of the bunch, and another double-edged sword: rocking horses starting from £1,700. Lorraine’s team (as you will have worked out by process of elimination) rejected the horse on the grounds it was too risky a sell.

But Deborah and Ben both figured if they could sell just one of these wooden wonders, they’d win the task.

James, like the wet, wet sap he is, acquiesced. His actual management strategy was to say to Deborah, “Let’s just say there were two products in the world and you had to choose one otherwise someone would shoot you, which would you choose?" Not exactly the take-the-reigns (excuse the pun) kind of leadership that endears one to Sir Alan.

The risk failed – they didn’t sell a single horse.

But what really rubbed Sir Alan up the wrong way, when this misjudgment landed James’s team back in the boardroom with a profit of just £722 versus Lorraine’s £1660.89, was that neither Ben nor Deborah negotiated with the rocking-horse seller on price.

To make matters worse, they both lied and said they did. “I always go back and check,” Sir Alan said, quite disgusted at their impudence, “And he said he would’ve gone down 10% or so if you’d pushed him even the slightest bit.” Uh oh.

Bad, bad people – ALWAYS bargain down the seller!

The upshot was Deborah, James and Ben were left fighting their respective corners – each of whom, Sir Alan pointed out, had been relegated to the last three people (inhale sharply) four times!

Astoundingly to anyone who has ever heard James speak, it was Ben who got fired.

He just banged on about Sandhurst one too many times (which we couldn’t have like Sir Alan more for for finally telling him to shut up about), and filled the air with too much rhetoric and not enough evidence. There’s only so many times you can use the words ‘performed’, ‘delivered’, ‘conceptualized’ and ‘got my hands dirty’ without following up with any figures at all before the person you’re trying to impress realises your full of hot air.

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