Many Live! readers will have seen the arguments about the bar in a different Live! discussion thread, but the problems with the Union's commercial services go deeper than that. Union publications are restricted by the staff-student protocol, but Live! is able to discuss the performance of the division as a whole.
Those who frequent the Union's watering holes will have noticed a complete change in the staff and in some cases a drop in the level of service. The Union's Commercial Services division decided that the time was right to perform a restructuring, in order to improve the performance of the division. As reported in August, this led to a post of Trading Manager being created, which was eventually filled in November after the other restructuring had taken place.
A key part of the restructuring was the EPOS system, installed to improve stock control and service speed. As a consequence it was decided that the roles of the bar managers needed reviewing, as they would not be required to perform as much work with EPOS keeping track of things.
The ultimate result was members of staff in the bars and catering being offered a pay cut, redundancy, or transfer to other roles. Under employment law a consultation period took place, during which Live! was unable to report anything except what could be gleaned from information in the public domain. The three bar managers and the catering manager opted to take redundancy and have since left the Union.
Casual Staff Concerns
Student bar staff, as casual staff, have few rights under employment law and were excluded from the consultation. Live! has heard many criticisms of the way it was handled, with casual staff left out in the cold, struggling to find information on how the restructuring would affect them and their colleagues.
When the bar managers took redundancy casual staff loyal to them also left, leading to a shortage of staff which saw Sabbatical Officers pulling pints in the bar. The "family" atmosphere of the bar disintegrated, with the new trading manager left to pick up the pieces when he arrived.
With so many new staff being trained service levels appear to have taken a dive, with poorly pulled or under-filled pints still common. Training is still taking place so this looks set to improve in time.
The new EPOS system, hurriedly installed before the start of the year, has proven problematic - it is prone to crashing, does not talk to the credit card machine correctly (amounts must be entered by hand) and there are reported problems with transactions being lost when the cash register is open.
The whole system appears to have been poorly thought out, with no communication between the systems on either side of the building. The central server cost several times more than the "low hundreds" the executive committee was originally told it would cost and is not backed up. It is also believed that the system is unlikely to be compatible with a College move to cashless smartcard payments, as the costs of making it compatible with both Union and College systems would be too high.
The Deputy President (Finance & Services) was unable to comment on much of the content in this article, but has stated that he was "not made aware of some deviations in the cost of the EPOS system from those [he] presented to the Executive Committee".
The period just before the start of the year was described as the "best time" to install the new EPOS system, with the next opportunity being over Easter. However, shortly after the Union committed money from the Beit redevelopment - rather than trading profits - to EPOS, a restructuring was announced. The question to be asked is: was the EPOS implementation rushed in order to push through a restructuring this year, or was it a natural consequence of the new system? The system has been described as full of bugs and the Sabbatical Officers have also been critical of it after their stints in the bar. One Live! source commented that the system was designed for a shop, not for a bar.
Service levels are expected to improve as the casual staff become more experienced, with bugs in the EPOS system also due to be fixed. Moving to electronic sales and stock control is undoubtedly a good thing in the long run, however the manner of its introduction had a lot of room for improvement and perhaps more careful thought.
While the bars are making good profits, the Union's retail side is having financial problems. The walkway shop lost over £7,000 last year and the online regalia shop is faring even worse. Thought to have cost around £22,000 to develop, the online regalia shop has had £26,000 of stock written off over the last few years, having been sat around in storage since the launch in 2003. The write-offs also attracted criticism from the Union's auditors.
The amount seemingly thrown away on the online shop is almost the same as NUS affiliation - indeed, with affiliation set to drop next year the cost is about the same.
As these losses are an operational issue for the Commercial Services division, the Deputy President (Finance & Services) felt unable to comment on them.
There have been many changes recently, so it is a difficult time for many people involved. Positive things are afoot however, with the introduction of chips under the new trading manager and a new wine list, including better house wines, in the pipeline. A permanent (and hence cheaper) ale is set to be introduced in the near future. The atmosphere behind the bar is said to be good, with a better working relationship between the Sabbatical Officers and the management.
The retail side is still a concern, with the walkway shop making an effective loss - the online regalia shop in particular looks like a liability.