Young Apprentice: How to win the discount buying task

As we enter week six of eight of this season’s Young Apprentice, the final and the prospect of becoming the recipient of Lord Sugar‘s investment must seem within touching distance for the seven remaining candidates. But there can be only one winner. This week’s discount buying challenge may appear deceptively simple, but it is arguably the toughest the teams will have to face in a task which will ruthlessly expose the candidates’ weaknesses.

Let’s preview Monday’s episode and have a look at the three keys to success which will determine who becomes the sixth candidate to be dismissed by Sugar’s Digit of Doom™.

*** Mild spoilers for both this and next week’s episodes below ***

The task

The teams are given ten hours to source ten items for waxworks at Madame Tussauds. The shopping list includes a guitar, a Justin Bieber-sized suit and a pair of size ten red stilettos for Elle Macpherson. (Not your average weekly Tesco shop!) The team with the lowest total spend wins.

Laura Moore paid the price for a poor negotiation in season six (image courtesy of bbc.co.uk)

The discount buying task has long been a staple of The Apprentice, although this is its debut on the junior version. It focuses on two key business skills – time management and negotiating – as well as the candidates’ ability to apply a modicum of common sense under intense time pressure. In the adult series, contenders have regularly blundered in each of these areas.

In this year’s run, project manager Gavin Winstanley utterly failed to organise his team and their time, resulting in a cringe-worthy moment of brain fade when he desperately ventured into a dry cleaner named Top Hat attempting to buy the eponymous item of headwear. And last year, Laura Moore was fired after a ham-fisted negotiation where she massively overpaid for truffles in a swanky Knightsbridge restaurant.

Nothing, however, has ever quite matched Michael Sophocles‘ infamous ‘kosher chicken’ incident in Marrakesh in season four:

I have to say, I like the buying task 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, you need an extra level of bloody-mindedness to drive the best possible deal. There are plenty of good salespeople out there, but there are fewer top-class negotiators.

Anyhow, let’s have a closer look at the three key must-dos for this week’s task.

1. Time management

1. With time at a premium, efficient time management is essential in this task. In an ideal world, teams would research every item they need, where to buy them, get some price quotes and then plan the itineraries for their two sub-teams to minimise travel time and prioritise the most expensive items first (or the ones they believe they can secure the biggest discounts on).

Despite missing 3 out of 10 items, Jamie Lester won as PM because of excellent negotiating (image courtesy of bbc.co.uk)

Of course, this isn’t an ideal world. Ten hours is not much time when you consider that the teams potentially have to zigzag their way all over London in search of items and then get back to the boardroom before their deadline. It is all too easy to make one of two mistakes: to rush out in a hurry with no co-ordinated plan, or to spend too long planning and not enough time doing the actual buying. The former is inefficient, haphazard and results in wasted time chasing down blind alleys or buying items over the odds in the wrong place. The latter often results in panic buys at premium prices or items being missed altogether.

For me, a maximum of one hour spent on research and planning should be more than enough. If you haven’t finished by then, that’s okay. The final steps of research, planning and task allocation can always be completed in the Apprenti-Carriers™ – after all, it’s where the candidates will actually spend most of the day.

Identify your products – there is usually at least one obscure product the teams struggle with, with recent examples including a cloche (a dome-shaped dish cover), physalis (an exotic fruit) and the Blue Book (the London taxi driver’s bible). Allocate items to each sub-team that don’t require them to chase from one end of the city to the other in daytime traffic. And set a basic negotiating strategy. Jamie Lester was a rare project manager to do exactly this in season six when he instructed his team:

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

It was obvious but wise advice, but it is amazing how often teams forget this basic principle in their quest to secure all ten items, no matter what.

2. Negotiation

Although most Apprentice tasks revolve around the selling process, this is the only one which requires the candidates to operate on the buyer’s side of the transaction. As many previous candidates have discovered to their cost, being a good salesperson does not necessarily translate to the tough negotiating skills required to be an expert buyer.

The aforementioned Jamie Lester proved to be a rare example of a would-be Apprentice who was as adept at buying as he was at selling. As Karren Brady commented at the time:

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 everywhere, which often allows candidates to get away with murder in their negotiations – what I call the Camera Crew Effect™.

Jim was outwardly charming, but proved to be a steely negotiator (image courtesy of bbc.co.uk)

From this year, finalist Jim Eastwood also proved to be a skilled negotiator, employing a combination of easygoing charm, persistence and sometimes downright cheek to get the best possible price. Having agreed a knock-down price for some steak, he then had the temerity to wangle another tenner off the final cost. His team won by £7.51, proving that in this task you should never settle for a good price when there is still the  possibility of haggling an even better one.

As in many walks of life, when it comes to negotiation fortune favours the brave. Jamie’s basic assumption of knocking 70% off the standard selling price is a sound starting point. You may never achieve this level of discount, but it provides an opening gambit from which to begin a negotiation and provides enough ‘wriggle room’ to give both parties a chance to end up with a win-win situation. Ask confidently for the world, and you may end up with something quite substantial. Ask meekly for a small discount, and that is the best you will ever achieve.

3. Common sense under pressure

As in many Apprentice tasks, some of the worst errors committed by candidates in the heat of a time-constrained task are one which could easily be avoided by applying a little common sense. In the discount buying task, such failures usually manifest themselves in the form of picking a poor location to buy a specific product. Trying to buy a top hat from Top Hat dry cleaners, for instance. Or looking for cheap jewellery in Hatton Garden. Or attempting to buy truffles from an upmarket Knightsbridge restaurant rather than a food wholesaler, which was ultimately what proved to be Laura Moore’s undoing (although the decision to go to a restaurant was actually taken by eventual winner Stella English).

This last example also showed a worrying ignorance of how a value chain works. A typical value chain might consist of a manufacturer who produces a certain product, which then goes through a wholesale distributor before finally being sold by a retailer to the end consumer. At each stage of the chain, someone adds some value which is recompensed in the form of a margin or mark-up. So, for instance, a manufacturer puts various components together to make an electrical device. An electrical wholesaler then distributes this device alongside a selection of other similar products to a wide range of retailers, preventing the need for every individual retailer to have a trading relationship with every single manufacturer. The retailer then offers a selected range of products along with personal advice and service to ensure that buyers get the product they need. By the time a product gets to a retailer, the maximum possible amount of added value – and therefore cost – has been layered on top, meaning you will always pay more at a retailer than you would do if you went to the manufacturer or a wholesaler.

A potential (lack of) common sense disaster could occur in Monday’s episode, where Harry M and Lizzie discuss where to source their suit. Lizzie suggests a market as their best chance of securing a bargain whereas Harry, who is concerned they might not be able to find a suit in the right size, suggests the upmarket tailors of Jermyn Street. While the market approach is risky because of potential availability issues, the likely differential in cost is huge – potentially task losing-scale huge.

Or, as Nick Hewer has previously it in his usual pithy fashion (he was actually referring to Laura and Stella’s ‘Truffle-gate’ disaster at the time):

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

The outcome of this purchase could prove to be a pivotal moment in this task.

And that’s it. Three simple rules for task success. Every candidate will have the opportunity to shine or flop as they attempt to buy at the best possible prices. Personal success will be essential, not just to ensure their team wins this particular task, but also because the candidates will have only one further chance to impress next week, after which four candidates will be fired in one fell swoop to leave us with just two in the final. Some of the current survivors have flown under the radar so far to avoid exposing themselves to danger. The time for caution is now gone, however. With the field being narrowed from seven to two over the next two weeks, it is time for the genuine contenders to soar.

Young Apprentice continues on BBC1 on Monday at 9pm.

Link: BBC official website

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