In the James Bond books, the Free World had to cope with groups like SMERSH or SPECTRE. In the West Midlands, computer retailers deal with a different, shadowy, organisation: the Triple-A Team.
Lisa Newman is one of the top field operatives. In the best of Bond traditions, she is a tall and glamorous spy-type with a strong accent. In this case, Brummie rather than Russkie. Her mission is to tour computer shops in the Birmingham area and gather classified information. She says: "We're looking for the main titles, the facings, current prices, availability.
Competitors' products." As she wanders through the racks, she ticks off the different points on a multiple-choice form. But would she actually admit that she is a spy? "Yes, it's spying. I'm doing market research."
Newman belongs to a larger outfit, Interactive Marketing, which is organised according to a secret hierarchy. She is in constant contact with her handler at HQ, a woman code-named Pamela McKewan, but everything is run on a strict need-to-know basis. For instance, Newman knows nothing about computers. As she says: "I'm a complete computerphobe." What she does know is that she is field manager for the Triple-A Team, looking after the affairs of Eidos in the Midlands. This is promotion and previously she shared her time between Eidos and a magazine company but, with the steely insouciance of the professional spy, she giggles and says: "I don't like magazines either."
Newman's first stop this morning is Software Shack in Coleshill. The store was opened nine months ago by brothers Brett and Neil Lawler. Brett explains that they are basically a mail-order company which has been trading successfully for the past three years: "We opened a shop because once people saw our adverts, they wanted to come and visit, which was a nuisance, basically."
Software Shack specialises in imported titles. Brett points to a rack containing hundreds of titles, saying: "We're the only people to sell them in their jewel case like that." The average price is u9.99. Two years ago, he says, they would have sold at twice the price. Today the majority of his business comes through the Playstation.
Brett takes some of Lisa Newman's flyers and expresses an interest in Eidos' coming titles. Anything he chooses to order will come through Centresoft and he takes the opportunity to complain that his last order was delivered to Software Warehouse, whose headquarters are just around the corner.
Newman makes a note: her superiors will take appropriate action.
On the way out, Lisa pulls a camera from her black spy case and starts taking photographs of the window display. She says: "The windows are always very good. Brett's mother does them." The photos aren't taken just for the sheer pleasure of enjoying a well-dressed window, the Lawler boys' mum has used posters and props donated by Interactive Marketing and Sue wants a record of one of her successful infiltrations.
At the Miles Better Software store in Cannock, Newman's surprised to find copies of a game which hasn't been released yet. Sales assistant Glenn Evans shrugs. "We were glad to get them in early. At least we've got something in stock before Electronics Boutique for once."
Is Glenn accusing Electronics Boutique of breaking embargoes? He nods: "Oh yeah. All the time, then the distributors say they don't know anything about it." So where did Miles Better get its copies of this game? "This bloke came in and we bought them off him." A bloke? Glenn shrugs: "Yeah, just a bloke." He doesn't have a description but this is a tough neighbourhood.
Until recently, there was a Miles Better store in Brownhills. It was closed because it wasn't secure enough.
After touring the independents in the satellite towns of Birmingham, Newman heads into the city to take a look at two of the superpowers: Game and Electronics Boutique.
Game began selling music CDs before Christmas 1995, presumably on the assumption that if HMV and Virgin were shoving into their territory, they had better shove back. It has got rid of its back catalogue and stocks only chart titles. In the Birmingham store this week the chart hasn't arrived so the assistants have made it up themselves. The debut album by Birmingham-band Ocean Colour Scene make a surprise appearance at numbers two, five and eight.
There are two Electronics Boutiques in Birmingham, bafflingly placed within yards of each other. This week Sven Harvey is the deputy manager of the Corporation Street branch, which surprises Newman. Last week he was deputy manager in the Pallisades store and she begins to suspect he's moving around to spy on her. She needn't worry, Harvey only has one obsession and that's Amiga. As Newman's eyes glaze over, he launches into a long diatribe against everything that isn't an Amiga 1200. Newman wonders whether this is the kind of information she should pass on to her superiors. She decides not. She didn't understand a word anyway.
Sven Harvey is a man in a constant state of outrage. He explains: "A lot of Amiga people refuse to work in computer stores. They just can't stand that they all ignore Amiga."
Craig, one of Electronic Boutique's sales assistants, speculates on what would happen if Sven was ever promoted: "You'd refuse to sell anything except Amigas."
Sven says, "If I won the national lottery I'd buy the whole chain and turn it into an Amiga store."
Craig says: "Are we up for sale again, then?"
Sven is now back at the Pallisades branch.
When a shop is called Mister "something", it tends to raise expectations.
Think Mister Byrite, Mr Chippy or Mr Tibbs. Mr Disc, a two-storey shop close to the Bull Ring, is no exception. Sure, it looks messy but that's all part of the bargain appeal. The store has been around for ten years so it has to be doing something right.
Mark Griffiths, Mr Disc's Mr software buyer, suggests that its advantage is doing business with 300 local schools. He says
his main competitor is Software Warehouse.
Spookily, there is again a branch of Software Warehouse just around the corner.
Griffiths is a beefy man with a haircut like the bloke from UB40. The style is as common in Birmingham as Mao shirts in Red China. Last year Griffiths was a refugee from the Rumbelows affair. Now he is a self-taught computer expert. He has no difficulty fielding all the tricky questions a Hong Kong computer student asks him about the machines he sells.
As Newman begins to slink around the store, filling in her top secret forms, she is amazed to find Mr Disc is selling the Eidos title Championship Manager Two Leagues at u9.99. She says, "You could sell this for u19.99, you know." Mr Griffiths nods like Charles Bronson in Mr Majesty. He knows but he reckons he's made his money, anything else is a bonus.
NB: SMERSH stands for Smiert Spionam, or Death To Spies. Triple-A team, aka AAA, stands for Access All Areas.
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