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Shop talk

There's more to retailing than meets the eye, as Gerald Haigh discovers when pupils go behind the scenes in a shopping mall

To the retail therapy generation, the names of the big shopping malls roll easily off the tongue - Merry Hill, Bluewater, Lakeside, Meadowhall, Touchwood, Queensmere... Each one is a concentrated example of how modern retailing works. And because it's very much in their interests to make friends with the community, they can be very welcoming to school parties.

Dudley's Merry Hill - a major regional centre with one-and-a-half million square feet of space, 9,000 employees and 220 retailers and caterers - is typical.

Managements of both Merry Hill itself and of the major shops are keen to make links with schools, not just because of the challenge they face in recruiting staff but as a matter of community relationships.

"Retailing has to sell itself," says Julie Haney, Merry Hill's head of marketing. "It's difficult to find the people we want - the whole area has changed from manufacturing to service," (up to the early 1980s the Merry Hill site was occupied by the Round Oak Steelworks.) Pensnett School, a Dudley comprehensive with technology college status, is typical of the schools that put Merry Hill on their timetable.

Their programme, called "Imagine Retail", leads up to a big day in the summer when the whole of Year 9 descends on the centre for work shadowing.

The visit by 15 Year 9 students with year head Rob Apperley and headteacher Barry Bainbridge on a cold January day was in preparation for this. It gave an insight into what happens on shop floors and "backstage" in the offices, storerooms and engineering departments.

The students started in a lecture room listening to a talk about customer service from Georgina Collett, one of the red uniformed staff who walk the mall with a friendly face. What came across here was not so much the talk's content - there was almost too much to take in - but the enthusiasm and pride that Georgina put into it. "I didn't know there was so much to customer service," was a typical student reaction.

After the presentation came the walk around with explanations of how the building works - instead of energy-hungry air-conditioning it has good ventilation and a cunning system of automatic slatted blinds. We saw the store rooms and the waste crusher in the basement.

At the Marks amp; Spencer offices the students met Dean Summlar, another employee who showed the that it's possible to enjoy your working day and be proud of what you're doing. The visit is linked to the school's annual technology week, when the timetable is suspended and each year group is involved in a cross-curricular project.

The obvious links are with citizenship, geography, careers and local history but, says Julie Haney, "We have study packs and 'trails' for everything including numeracy and literacy. We cater for primary, secondary and everything up to Wolverhampton University's MA students."

The Pensnett party had a good morning. The only note of friendly mutiny came when they realised they were going back to school for lunch instead of heading for one of Merry Hill's many food outlets. Rob Apperley reported the rumblings to Barry Bainbridge who sympathised and, with a couple of mobile phone calls and a quick check on wallets, there was a change of plan.

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