No joy of six for Laura as Apprentice loser suffers buyer’s remorse

This week’s Apprentice saw the return of a traditional late-season favourite, the buying task. The teams were assigned a list of ten items to purchase at the lowest possible price, and given just ten hours to complete their task and return to the boardroom.

After a frantic day in pursuit of tartan and truffles, the boys proved to be slightly less appalling than the girls, and after one of the fiercest boardrooms so far this series Laura Moore became the ninth victim of the Digit of Doom™, leaving just six candidates to fight it out for the prize of a £100,000 contract with Lord Sugar.

And now for something completely different

I have to say, I like the buying task much more than the various selling assignments. While they appear quite similar on the surface, it is harder to disguise your flaws when negotiating a purchase than it is when completing a sale. Anyone can look like a competent salesperson if they drop the price far enough, but when required to negotiate price for a must-buy purchase, you need an extra level of bloody-mindedness and downright cheek to drive the best possible deal.

Fundamentally, this task requires a combination of two things: negotiating skills and strong organisation and time-management. Every year one team gets it horribly wrong – this year each team managed to fail spectacularly on one front.

The battle of the sexes

Whoever said money can’t buy happiness simply didn’t know where to go shopping.

Bo Derek

The strain is starting to tell, as no one seems to be in a hurry to take the early morning call from Lord Sugar’s office. Eventually Stella, with a towel wrapped fetchingly around her head, answers the phone while Stuart suppresses a yawn and makes a comment about the winner of the competition being the one who gets the most sleep. A novel idea.

Laura The Whinger™ attempts to make a serious observation about Chris and Jamie‘s cards being marked after last week’s crisps task. It’s hard to take the comment seriously though because (a) it’s Laura and (b) she’s trying to sound all businesslike while using a hair straightener. (Next week: the candidates must present England’s bid to host the 2018 World Cup while performing a trapeze act in skin-tight lycra.)

The next generation of ApprentiCarriers? (image courtesy of Mark Hooper)

Eventually the candidates assemble at Tower 42 in the City. Harking back to the good old days when Apollo were the biggest all-girl group since the Spice Girls and the boys were a testosterone-ridden bunch of wasters under the leadership of Dan Harris, Sugar reassigns the teams along gender lines. So, we have Jamie project managing Chris and Stuart for Synergy, while Liz takes the lead for Apollo, overseeing Stella, Joanna and Laura.

The teams are given the list of weird and wonderful items for their assignment – selected, as ever, by an unseen evil genius stroking a white cat – and then it’s into the ApprentiCarriers™. (Although, just for this wheeler-dealer task, wouldn’t it be great if they used a fleet of yellow Reliant Robins à la Del Boy?)

What, no kosher chicken?

We have had some comedy gold moments in this task over the years, but surely none can top Michael Sophocles‘ infamous “kosher chicken” incident in Marrakesh season four:

This year’s edition didn’t quite match that, but we did have chicken feet. And headless chickens.

From the outset, it is clear the teams have divergent strategies. Apollo are all about planning and ensuring they secure all ten items. They spend time researching locations and even buy one item over the phone before setting off. Synergy, on the other hand, have a plan which involves no planning whatsoever. They focus on hitting the streets and negotiating hard to get the best possible price. As Jamie tells Stuart and Chris:

Start at 70% lower than what he’s looking at – that will be kicking around their cost price. You can always go up.

A famous philosopher once said ...

The boys get off to a faltering start. Jamie, looking for an Indian gold tikka, heads to Hatton Garden. It’s a bit like turning up at Heston Blumenthal‘s Fat Duck and asking for a boil-in-the-bag curry. Meanwhile, Chris and Stuart are looking for a ‘Blue Book’. They are informed – not incorrectly – that it is an old American magazine and head off to the second-hand bookshops around Charing Cross Road. It is not until nearly three hours have passed that they realise they actually want the Blue Book from which London cabbies acquire ‘The Knowledge’ of the city’s roads.

In the words of a famous yellow-skinned philosopher with eight fingers and a two-strand comb-over:

D’oh!

The girls are off to a flying start, picking up the Blue Book and the tikka, but it soon becomes apparent that in their haste to secure every item they are failing to drive a hard bargain on price. This is underlined when Jamie, having finally abandoned Hatton Garden for Wembley, haggles an Indian jeweller down to £135 for the tikka – £25 less than the girls paid – and then secures a vintage Singer sewing machine for £35, after Liz had negotiated a less than impressive reduction from £69 to £57 after driving possibly the softest bargain in history:

Now obviously I can see it’s at £69. I wondered if we could maybe negotiate some price with you. What about starting at around £50 and working our way up?

Now I’m no expert haggler, but even I can tell this is shorthand for “Look, I’m not that serious, but just knock off a few quid and we’ll be on our way, okay?”

Karren Brady is suitably impressed by Jamie:

Jamie’s shown that he’s got two key talents which are good for negotiating. One: never take no for an answer. And two: persistence and determination alone get you the price you want.

That, and having a camera crew following you around probably helps too.

Back on track, Chris and Stuart are now motoring along. The pair seem to have taken Jamie’s advice about ensuring they have a good story literally –  by telling, well, stories about brothers taking taxi exams and grandmothers attending weddings. It’s somewhat pathetic – or, as Karren puts it, “a bit Laurel and Hardy” – but somehow it seems to work. Again, that’s the Camera Crew Effect™ for you. I really must try that myself next time I’m bargain-hunting.

Chris hasn’t finished scraping the bottom of the barrel quite yet, however. Shopping for rare truffles, he abandons his Brothers Grimm approach and settles for that tried and trusted negotiation technique – begging:

I’m desperate. I really am desperate.

Yes, Chris, you really are. Is this what Sugar is seeking in his Apprentice? (Bizarrely, even when begging, he still speaks in his usual Mister Monotone™ voice.)

Laura and Stella do that funny Apprentice phone-holding thing (image courtesy of bbc.co.uk)

Somewhere across town, the girls are ahead by seven items to five, but are nonetheless doing their best to make Chris look like the suave and sophisticated James Bond-type figure he no doubt sees in his mind’s eye. Stella and Laura negotiate a whopping reduction on some tartan from £70 to £69, which Chris and Stuart manage to wheedle down to £23. They then buy their truffles from a Knightsbridge restaurant for £200 – at least £100 over the odds.

As the ten-hour deadline looms, the teams race back to the boardroom. Jamie, Stella and Laura wait nervously in the ante-room as Stuart and Chris sprint in with seconds to spare, while Liz and Joanna saunter in somewhat later, having been held up in traffic after buying their final item. And stopping off for some sushi, a nice massage and to reapply their make-up en route. It’s possible I might be making some of that up. But ask yourself this: have you ever seen Liz anything less than 100% dolled up, even under the most severe stress?

Either way, the task is over. The girls were well organised but failed to secure the best prices, while the boys were totally chaotic but negotiated brilliantly (if somewhat unorthodoxly). Neither team has exactly covered themselves in glory.

And the winner least bad team is …

In the boardroom, the accountancy firm of Sugar, Brady and Hewer tot up the sums and start to unravel the tangled web.

Apollo achieved their objective of purchasing all ten items, but incurred a £50 penalty for not being back in time. Synergy only purchased seven items, racking up fines of £50 plus the list price for each of the three products they failed to find. I cannot stress enough that the penalty for missing out on items is so severe that it pretty much guarantees that a team which fails to buy three out of ten will lose the task.

So, of course, the boys win.

Apollo’s total expenditure, including the £50 late penalty, came to £1094.40. Synergy’s, which included a whopping £511.50 of fines, was just £1020.50. Negotiation trumps planning in the game of Apprentice poker.

Sugar does, however, get in some good jabs at the boys before announcing the results. Criticising their lack of advance planning, he ventures:

Did you not feel, gentlemen, that you were a bit like a headless chicken when you went out there?

And he pulls Stuart up for cracking one quip too many:

Can we pause for a moment so we can pick up Stuart’s lead balloons?

Nonetheless, the boys are off to Paris via Eurostar for the weekend, while the girls retreat to the Cafe of Broken Dreams™ to lick their wounds.

Laura sums up the bloody obvious:

We just didn’t negotiate hard enough. We weren’t pushy enough.

I think we’d worked that one out already, thanks.

Boardroom Brouhaha™ (and afters)

After a couple of relatively tame boardrooms in previous weeks, this one turns out to be a doozy as the girls lay into each other. Liz and Laura gang up on Stella over Truffle-gate. Stella calls Liz a weak leader. Laura attacks Stella for being too corporate and for having a “cold persona”. (Hey, that’s why I’ve been calling her the Ice Queen™.) Liz blames Stella and Laura equally. Laura nods her head a lot and agrees with everything everyone else says, then turns around and whinges a lot.

Sugar quickly identifies the source of the girl’s frankly incredible defeat:

I just get the feeling that you got a few quid off and you thought “job done”. The failure was that you didn’t actually work out what the prices should be. You went out blind into the market-place. The bottom line is that you lost because you felt that we were just going out there on a treasure hunt.

And Nick Hewer weighs in over Truffle-gate with his customary pithy one-liner:

If you want a cheap suit, you don’t go waltzing down Savile Row.

Laura went from boardroom to taxi faster than you can say "Yer fired!" (image courtesy of bbc.co.uk)

Nick, if I wanted a cheap suit, the last thing I would be doing is waltzing anywhere.

But Sugar is all over the problem like, well, a cheap suit. Stroking his beard like the evil genius that he is, the Baron Silas Greenback of Clapton deliberates, cogitates and digests before pulling off one of the greatest boardroom switcheroos of all time. For one long, lingering moment it looks for all the world like he is about to fire Stella, but then he turns back to Laura and points the Digit of Doom™ in her direction.

And so, not before time, it’s a one-way trip in the Taxi to Obscurity™ for The Whinger™.

Sugar sends Liz and a visibly relieved Stella back to the house, but not before telling the latter:

It’s [only] because of your past performance you’re still sitting here, okay?

The bitching isn’t over yet, however. Back at the house and recounting their boardroom experience, Liz hammers Stella for criticising her leadership in the boardroom. We depart the happy housemates on the following trenchant comment from our losing project manager:

Anyway it’s a shame that Laura’s gone. She’ll be missed.

Miaow!

The view from the sofa

Sugar made the right call this week. Laura had been lucky to have avoided the boardroom ever since her disastrous stint as project manager in week two, and had been deliberately pursuing a damage limitation policy of cosying up to whoever the current leader was while ducking any responsibility for decisions which might get her fired. Not once in this series have we seen a spark from her to separate her from the crowd, and in a team with three strong female contenders her time was simply up.

Stella was lucky. If judged solely on this task, she would have been fired, having negotiated poorly and committed her sub-team down the route to Truffle-gate. I’ve previously said that her overall record – 7-1 before this episode, and 2-0 as project manager – entitled her to a get-out-of-jail-free card. Consider it now played.

Liz made mistakes here, for sure, but then this task is so pressurised it’s virtually impossible not to make an error somewhere. Having got off to a good start by organising her team well and conducting some research, she became too focussed on buying all ten items at the expense of negotiating. However, the rest of her team really shouldn’t have needed telling. Ask for a small discount, and that’s all you will ever get – and that’s all her team got. Truffle-gate became the scapegoat for the task defeat, but in reality it was the team’s overall approach that caused the loss, not just one item.

Jamie clung on by the skin of his teeth. Yes, he gave clear direction in terms of setting an opening position of asking for a 70% discount, but that was hardly rocket science. Had Synergy lost, he would have come under heavy fire for his lack of research into the tikka and Blue Book, and for only buying two items himself. Even so, Sugar could conceivably have chosen to fire Mister Monotone™ for being so dull. Chris and Stuart did seem to work well as a team, but the former still lacks that entrepreneurial spark Sugar is looking for. As for The Brand™, I make that two solid weeks in a row which cements his position as Head Boy.

Overall, Stella slipped backwards this week but is still odds-on for the final, Liz stood still at best, but Joanna had another strong task. The cleaning company owner might yet wipe the floor with the opposition.

One job, now six candidates. Lord Sugar’s search for an Apprentice who can negotiate their way out of a paper bag continues.

Next week: The Apprentice does On The Buses, as the remaining six candidates must set up and run their own London tour bus operations. I’ll get you for this, Butler, you see if I don’t!

Rating: Episode 6.09 – 4.5/5

Link: BBC Apprentice home page

Previous episode reviews

Episode 6.01: Sausages

Episode 6.02: Beach accessory

Episode 6.03: Bakery

Episode 6.04: Selling to trade

Episode 6.05: Fashion

Episode 6.06: Advertising

Episode 6.07: DVD

Would you employ any of the final 8?

Episode 6.08: Crisps