An overview of (UK) retailing

One of the common questions that I get asked, generally and by journalists and students, is ‘what is going on in retailing?’  There are many ways to answer this, and in the various presentations I do, some of the themes I feel are key get developed.  But I don’t always write down the thinking or the description academically.

However I have written a couple of chapters in books which are being published this year (one is out and one is due out in August) and they do tell the story of retail change in slightly different ways.  They might be of use to students and perhaps others, so versions are downloadable at the end of this post.

The first is a chapter on Retailing in the latest in the long running sequence of books entitled ‘The Marketing Book’.  Now in its 7th edition, edited by Michael Baker and Susan Hart, this text has become the ‘go too’ book for many introductory courses on marketing that want a non-American point of view.

My chapter – last but obviously not least – examines the key components of the practice of retailing and seeks to investigate the distinctive and changing nature of the retail sector.  As befits a chapter in a book on marketing, it begins with the cultural and consumer aspects of the retail environment.  It then moves to the places and locations where retailing occurs.  Interrelationships linking retail businesses with other organisations are examined, before a consideration of the internal operations of retailers themselves is presented.  The people who take on the running of retail businesses and individual shops, the nature of the selling and retailing processes, and the supply and sale of goods, are introduced and discussed.

Some of it will be familiar territory for those who have seen my presentations.  In putting it together the chapter I did reflect on the key issues today:

  • The transformation in the role of retail location
  • The changing meaning of retail formats
  • The scale and power of retailers
  • Internationalisation
  • Winners and losers from these changes/trends.

I conclude that

‘as retailers are more challenged across platforms and as volatile, restless and demanding consumers seek out what satisfies them, so too the control and power in the situation inexorably moves more towards the consumer and the range of services and options has to more closely fit individual consumer’s needs.  Consumers are perhaps more in control of the retail channel than ever before’.

The second, much shorter chapter, appears is a new volume entitled ‘A Stakeholder Approach to Managing Food’ and aims to provide an evaluation of the development of the food retailing sector in the UK.  It considers the rationale, implications and trajectory of the spatial-structural changes that have occurred (and are discussed in the Marketing Book chapter at a general level).  It situates retail businesses within a network of supply and demand chains and emphasizes dimensions of change, power and competition.

Food retailing today is undergoing a major change.  Discounters, recession, price have collided with large formats, store chains, health and the rise of convenience and the internet.  Local (in various guises) has become a key attribute.

The chapter concludes:

Food is a major component of consumer spending and of consumer life, and food retailing is a reflection of the social culture of a community or a country.  As society has changed and values alter in importance, so too food retailing reflect these changes.  The professionalization of food retailing and its radical reinvention of the post-war trend provided a dynamic country with the retailing it desired and the product choices it valued.  This expansion of possibilities has proved a boon in many ways for many consumers, although it is not without its adverse implications on choice and accessibility, especially in certain locations and for some categories of consumers.

But economics and societies change and values continue to alter.  Food retailing in the UK is at the moment on the edge of change with various competing tendencies.  How these play out in the coming years will be a fascinating story, subtly (and in some cases not so subtly) configured by the decisions of governments (is ‘unhealthy’ food the next tobacco or alcohol?), retailers (can the hypermarket be reinvented?), technology (where can the internet, digital and other technologies take us?) and, of course, consumers (what price/quality balance will become dominant and how do we remove food poverty?).  Food retailing is used by each and every one of us and its significance in our lives, and in patterning our lives, cannot be under-estimated.  Food retailers’ (re)construction of this market is thus a vital component of our food lives and looks likely to be more differentiated than has been the case over the past 60 years.

Full details of the chapters are:

Sparks L (2016) Retailing, Chapter 25, P598-626 of Baker MJ and S Hart (eds) The Marketing Book, 7th edition.  Taylor and Francis, London. [chapter downloadable here]

Sparks (2016) Spatial-structural change on food retailing in the UK, Chapter 14 of Lindgreen A, Hingley M, Angell R, Memery J and Vanhamme J (eds) A Stakeholder Approach to Managing Food. Gower. To be published in August. [chapter downloadable here]

I recommend both books to you, hope my chapters are of interest within them, and that they put a little flesh on the bones of my presentations.  Comments always welcome.

Posted in Academics, Books, Consumer Change, Education, Food Retailing, Internet shopping, Retailers, Retailing | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

And now for some good news: Dixons Carphone and Dyson Openings

As promised, after my rather pessimistic review of some recent retail stories in the last blog, I want to turn to something a little more positive.  The stories below that caught my attention are in one way the other side of the restructuring coin that the last blog commented on.  Disruptions in food have come in the form of hard discounters, convenience and home shopping.  In clothing it’s been in supply chains, styling and home shopping.  Technology therefore is a theme as a disrupter, but what about those that sell us the kit?

Two recent openings on Oxford Street have been in the news.  I’ve not been to either, but will do on my next foray to the Brexit-denying capital (London- Scotland solidarity, who  would have thought it?)

Dixons Carphone opened its flagship store in Oxford Street,combining PC World, Currys and Carphone Warehouse, in late June.  It claims to offer new store concepts and features including:

  • Digital feature wall, is the biggest screen on Oxford Street with over 20 sqm of LED screens delivering aspirational 4k content reflecting product categories, brands and offers through 4.3 million pixels
  • Curated product range, featuring premium 4K televisions, an improved interactive camera display, enabling customers to experience and compare cameras and new Dyson and Nespresso stores-within-a-store
  • Greater range of accessories and wearables, with a new Headphone Wall and Smart Watch Wall giving customers a more enjoyable and easier way to choose the right product
  • Focus on Services, with the first combined PC World Business and KnowHow consultation space, which is also fitted with charging points for customer convenience
  • Dedicated Multiplay offering, serving customers’ connectivity needs, including TV and broadband bundles, connected devices, and on-demand content, all in a dedicated space offering Multiplay expert advice

The claim is that the store will combine ‘convenience, curated products and the connected world in the most innovative store yet, acting as a lab to test new ideas and concepts…we need to promote an exciting, engaging and connected shopping experience’.

A week or so late, Dyson opened its first physical store in the UK – the Dyson Demo – which will allow users to try out the full range of electrical products.  Following on from stores in Tokyo, Moscow, Paris and Jakarta (students of international retailing, work that pattern out!), this store stocks 65 Dyson products but is really about science, engineering, design and explanation, as well as testing, demonstrating and using.  Yes, you can buy (in store or for home delivery) but it is a flagship store in the broadest sense of the word.

The Dyson Demo encourages people to be hands-on and to think about the products – following on from the founder’s lifelong mission to meld design and performance in new ways of thinking and ‘bringing engineering to life’.

I am curious to see both stores and to see how customers and visitors react to, and in, them.  I am not sure, for obvious reasons, whether I will make the Dyson Supersonic salon – my time has passed in that regard, but it sounds engaging, if not a little hair-raising.

Further details and photos on both openings can be found in media reports including The Guardian,  Retail Gazette, Retail Week and Design Week. Retail Week also has a nice video of the pre-opening day of the Dyson Demo.

Broadening out, perhaps a couple of further points could be made:

Firstly, despite the doom and gloom and the downturns in many retailers, there are others that are doing pretty well in even these austerity times.  There are lessons to be learned here in terms of the product and consumer focus and it is no coincidence that these technology-based examples are following in Apple’s footsteps. We are seeing the closer merging of in store selling and entertainment, perhaps with added information (and that could challenge the nature of retail employment).

Secondly, the focus here on Oxford Street points to the disruptive nature of our retail and consumer change.  The flagship nature of these stores, at this iconic (though often rather disappointing) location illustrates the changing retail pattern and the alterations underway in terms of the need for, the locations of, and the use of, retail space.  It is also clear that Oxford Street itself is seeking to capture the sense of some of these changes – “first seen on Oxford Street” for example and its own repositioning.What is the balance between flagship(s), other stores, presence in other retailers (shop in shop) and online?  We are all still working this out.Retail space requirements are being rethought place by place and company by company.

And in pondering the space need question, I offer a final store opening via a tweet from The Grocer (@TheGrocer): a Tesco Finest wine bar pop-up in Soho.

Tesco wine Bar


Posted in BrickMeetsClick, Consumer Lifestyle, Design, Dixons Carphone, Dyson, Electronics, Engineering, Experiential, Flagship, London, Multichannel, Oxford Street, Pop-Up Shops, Space, Tesco | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A quiet few weeks in retailing (not)

The last few weeks have been really quiet in retailing – no, just kidding.  What with Brexit – and the uncertainty it has generated – beginning to take hold in the markets, the unfolding BHS and Sports Direct scandals putting retailers in a very bad light, the cost pressures piling up on retail businesses and if you live up here in Scotland, the seemingly endless winter, even my well-honed capacity for doom and gloom is being taxed.

So I thought it was time for a quick roundup of recent things that caught my eye:

Sainsbury and Netto divorcing: the plug has been pulled on the Sainsbury’s great discount experiment, with 16 stores being closed. In one sense it did not surprise me; trying to catch up with Lidl and Aldi was always going to be a tough ask.  The need for Sainsbury to focus on the Argos acquisition makes some sense, but one also has to have some concern here given the apparent Argos reliance on paying for products in dollars.

My Local going into administration: another disappointing end for a retail ‘start up’ though in this case it emerged slightly more fully formed from the wreckage of Morrisons convenience chain. Only in place since the end of October, My Local has not even made it to a year. Morrisons will still be on the hook for some of the costs one presumes; though the Co-operative Group seem to be picking up some sites.  Start-up convenience in a really pressurised market shows how difficult food retailing is currently and the need for focus and scale.

The human factor in both stories needs to be remembered, as these chains employ quite a lot of people directly and support others indirectly – as of course it has to be in BHS and its large scale impact (more on this is coming in our next Town and County Planning column due in August/Septmeber) on people and places.

The Asda Changes: Finally joining the club to make a full set of all of the “Big 4” changing their leaders in the last two years, Asda is about to change its top man (yes, they are all men) after some less than stellar performances in recent years. A restless Bentonville (and other parts of the empire are also having problems) has been linked with a massive price war leading to brokers’ sell recommendations across the sector, but most notably in Tesco and Morrisons.  No idea if the rumours of such a massive price war are true, but the sector really is in a tough place – unless you are a leading discounter, but could this be about to change?

If we move from food to clothing, then the big story is the Marks and Spencer clothing performance.  Well, let’s not look, but rather draw a veil.  Clearly it is not quite a twitching corpse but the latest figures are the worst yet (given the comparisons) and with seemingly no end in sight, the new team (another one) will have to get some quick wins or the last rites will be getting too close for comfort.  Marks and Spencer can’t continue like this and hope to remain intact. The whole let’s focus on “Mrs M&S” is just so misjudged, which is a shame as some of the other ideas about stabilising the business are simply good retail practice (and did contribute to the decline at this point) – but may be coming when people are just about beyond caring. Time will tell. The inability to add up the numbers for the results presentations is unfortunately symptomatic of a business in stumbling mode (group sales were initially claimed to be UP 1.3% but in fact were DOWN 0.4%)

And that brings us full circle.  We can read the Brexit result and the political fall-outs, break-ups, resignations and stand-offs in all sorts of ways.  But it does feel rather  ‘fin de siècle’ with the old order under threat of being swept away.  Chilcot adds to this feeling of things have gone too far and there is momentum to a major re-alignment or new approach.  Much the same can be said about the UK food retailing scene.

Maybe that’s enough ‘we’re doomed’ and it may be overdone as I write this in the aftermath of Wales going out of the Euros, so the next blog will pick up on a couple of store openings that also caught my eye. Promise.

Posted in administration, Asda, Brexit, Discounters, Food Retailing, Lidl, Marks and Spencer, My Local, Netto, Sainsbury, Sports Direct | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Gardens and Gin

I sometimes wonder what visitors make of Scotland. When I first moved up we did a lot of the tourist things, as people and family visited, but as life goes on it is all too easy to look to further fields and ignore some of the things we have on our doorstep. So, reversing that is how we ended up in Edinburgh last Saturday.

When I booked I had not thought about the significance of the date. The 2nd of July seemed innocuous and promised to be reasonable in terms of the weather. Wrong!

Edinburgh was pretty busy due to the Queen’s opening of the Scottish Parliament that morning. The afternoon was given over to the Pride Edinburgh march down the Royal Mile, which at least provided a splash of colour of what was a very dreich day. Though dreich understates it – it hosed down at time, with added thunder and lightning, and it was also arctic in terms of temperatures. I readily remembered why I tend to look to other countries for breaks!

So, it was not exactly the best afternoon to have booked a walking tour of the Hidden Gardens of the Royal Mile. Wet with added parades.

Hidden Garden

Before the Flood

It was, despite the rain and the need to cross the parade route on occasions, a really interesting tour. Starting at the Story Telling Centre we wove our way through various closes along the Royal Mile. Some of the gardens were public; others were private. Many of the them had community involvement. The bust of Patrick Geddes in the garden at the back of the Story Telling Centre was our starting point, both physically and conceptually. Geddes’ view of space and community provided a guiding spirit.

In the end the tour had to be abandoned, such was the rain and the throng by the Parliament, but the various gardens we visited provided both thought (we are actually planting the right things at home) and discussion (how do we keep community involvement alive in such fragile, mobile times?) We saw some really neat spaces and learned about the relationship of space to the buildings and history.

The July weather though needed to be tackled head on, which is why an hour or so later we found ourselves at the Pickering Gin distillery at Summerhall for their guided tour. “Guided tour” is a bit of a misnomer as the distillery is only three small rooms in the old Royal Dick Vet School. Instead it was more like a conversation with a knowledgeable friend – with added gin. A forty or so minute discussion of the origins and history of gin, followed by the story of how to distill and add flavour to it, and then various tastings of the final product provided a suitably warming end to the day.

Small batch craft gin has become something of a trend and Scotland has more than its fair share. This becomes easier to understand after seeing Pickering’s example – it is very different to the investment needed for whisky for example. That is not to say it is easy, far from it, but it becomes more understandable. A really interesting tour and discussion. The gin was good too!

The Hidden Gardens tour was very much Scottish focused and attracted “locals”. The Gin tour was a mixture of Scots and visitors. Both tours had their retail component – a book on the Hidden Gardens in the former and bottles of gin in the latter. No prizes for guessing which I bought.

Hidden Gardens of the Royal Mile tour was by Greenyonder Tours and will be running again during the Edinburgh Fringe Festival (book early as it has sold out the last six years).

Pickering’s Gin can be found at the Summerhall Distillery in Edinburgh – details of tours here.

Both can be thoroughly recommended – though arranging a dry day is perhaps advisable, but only in one sense of the word.


Posted in Alcohol, Architecture, Buildings, Community, Distillery, Edinburgh, Festivals, Gardens, Gin, Historic Shops, Royal Mile, Scotland Food and Drink, Spaces, Urban History | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Uncertainty: Brexit and Retailing

This is quite a long post, so apologies.

About 10 days before the EU Referendum I wrote an invited article for the Scotsman on the issues for retailing. It was intended as one of a series on different sectors. They did not use it, and I thought little more about it as the (fateful) day approached.

Perhaps it was being in a University and surrounded by people with degrees or the plethora of young people, or maybe it really is an ivory tower, but I did not see the result coming. Close, yes, but no cigar. Stirling itself was one of the most positive Remain areas on the day, even in EU friendly Scotland, so it was quite a large bubble I was living in. Large but not lonely.

So the outcome is known and the decision is made (I doubt that, as there is no clear road to implementation at this point and there are many twists and turns until we find out what the decision actually means in practice).

My article focused on the theme of uncertainty as both the enemy and the constant backdrop to retailing – and boy, do we have uncertainty in spades now. It probably underestimates the probability of recession and impact on consumer spending, underplays the potential implications for international (EU) internet retailing and may be too sanguine on the volatility of the pound and thus the costs of buying goods for retailers. But, the main themes still apply and are all there. Who really knows what will happen now, or how the situation will unfold, generally or for retailers? Uncertainty reigns.

So, here’s my piece from 10 days or so ago – make of it what you will. All retailers, large and small, will be trying to make the best of the unprecedented situation, in what are likely to be very trying operational times (even before the Referendum), and with little end in sight, apparently.

“On June 23rd the UK will vote to remain in the EU or to ‘Brexit’, though it is rather more complicated than that.  On June 24th, the sun will rise and the world will go on, though the news that Donald Trump will be in Scotland that day may have shortened the odds somewhat.  In retail terms the shops will open and consumers will still be buying, not least food and drink in for the weekend watching of the last 16 games in EURO 2016 (well, perhaps not in this part of these islands).  So what does the referendum mean for retailers?

Retailers on the surface do a very simple job; they buy products, offer them to consumers and sell them to these consumers at a profit.  How difficult can that be?  Well of course, the answer is, very difficult, as our mounting list of retail casualties has shown over a long period of time.  As essentially an open market, retailing in the UK is a tough, competitive business involving local, national and international retailers, suppliers, products and investors.  That makes the retail role of bridging temporal and spatial distances a complex one; the asparagus season, autumn fashions, Chinese imports and New Zealand or Scottish lamb all hint of the difficulties of making money or serving consumers in an uncertain or volatile market, where retailers seek to match demand and supply profitably.

Uncertainty is one of the key dislikes of retailers, yet they operate in an inherently uncertain market for the most part.  This referendum has ratcheted up the uncertainty.  Often contrasted as remain or leave, for retailers it is really remain or which of several variants of leave will we end up with?  Will it be full Brexit, some form of staying in or accessing the Single Market (and on what terms) and how long will it take to sort it all out?  This volatility affects both the retailers themselves and their direct operations, but also critically it affects consumers.

Retailers have to obtain a source of supply of product to operate.  They purchase items, often imported, for resale.  The referendum decision will impact retailers’ ability to import as the volume available, the cost and time to import and the price that has to be paid will be affected.  At this point however it is not possible to say how they will be affected as access to the Single Market, to home produced product and to product from countries across the world will have to be considered, and could differentially be easier or harder, cheaper or more expensive.  We simply do not know the outcome and costs or benefits. But supply will for certain alter if we leave, though it is always under review in many larger retailers anyhow.

These products, once purchased, are then made available to consumers via stores, either physical or increasingly virtual.  This availability presumes a distribution channel and operation from producers to distribution centres to stores and then to consumers.  This channel comprises transport, distribution centres, storage facilities and more subtle elements such as packaging and pack size, standards, and technology platforms and operations.  Key elements of this channel will be affected by a Brexit, as access to transport, across markets and for the non-UK labour which often runs our distribution centres will be questioned.  It might all get sorted out in due course, but in this area, it is a pretty safe bet that costs will increase and distribution become more costly, and potentially more complicated.  Aspects of cabotage, travel across borders and various compliance issues of non-tariff barriers will have to be renegotiated.  If migrant labour for distribution centres is not available then how will they operate?  British workers have not rushed to take such jobs at the minimum wage levels on offer.

In terms of store operations then retailers are probably more affected by UK and Scottish government interventions such as minimum wage, lack of rates revaluation, apprenticeship levy, tobacco and alcohol displays (though here the EU has had a role) rather than directly by the EU itself.  Costs are already rising and adding to these will be a problem; however which outcome has most impact is impossible to say.  On such later decisions and issues around ease of access to markets (especially in terms of internet retailing) will a host of investment decisions by UK and international (EU and non-EU) investors be made, potentially affecting the trading ability of retailers here and the sector as a whole.  Internet retailing to and from Europe will be more complex on Brexit, it would seem as there may be additional requirements, delays or even tariffs/taxes.  Some of course may welcome this.

Finally, the really critical element in this equation is of course the consumer.  They will take their own individual views of the situation based on their positions, the impact on their disposable income and their confidence or not for the future.  Whilst it is a truism that consumers will have to continue to consume, the issue is the volume and value of their consumption across the various retail sectors and the stores and companies in these sectors.

In food for example, the sector has been transformed in recent years by the German discounters Aldi and Lidl.  Whilst they do buy British, lots of their product is imported.  If this became more expensive or less available how would consumers react?  In clothing, might it be the case that non-EU imports will further squeeze out EU products on Brexit?  This might be of benefit to consumers, or at least some of them.  For many local retailers there may be little effect directly, but there will be an indirect effect vice consumer sentiment.

The Brexit question is one of those where despite attempts to couch it as an economic issue by many, in reality it is impossible to say with any certainty what the economic cost or benefits there are that will accrue to retailers, whether local, national or international.  You can make arguments on both sides, but no-one knows for certain, not least as whilst we understand the rules for remain, we have no idea of the potential rules or outcome for any version of Brexit.  Given the time this will take to negotiate and the need for goodwill on all sides (which may be in extremely short supply) there is no clarity or certainty of outcome for those in the leave camp.  It is a hope that it will be better, but little more.

As was said at the outset, retailers hate degrees of uncertainty, and Brexit appears to offer that in spades, for several years.  Might it be better in the end?  It is possible, but retailers fear they will not be around by then to gain the benefits, as a possible further consumer slump due to price uncertainty, a potential fall in disposable income and for some a nosedive in consumer confidence, will drive many out of business.  Volatility of the pound is already occurring and is likely to get worse.

We also have to bear in mind that the assessments of the impact on retailers (and others) is predicated on a view of what regulations and legislation is derived from the UK and what from the EU.  However, it is not clear either that retailers know exactly where these regulations really come from or that after Brexit what the changes might be.  Will UK legislation be re-written or will things continue in much the same way?  The mantra of the Brexiters is that ‘at least the decisions will be made in the UK’ but the price of access to the Single Market might make that impossible on many items that affect retailers.  For many as well there is a belief that regulations and legislation made in London is not better suited to Scotland, than that made for the EU as a whole.

It is for these reasons that the majority (though not all) of the major retailers in the UK, and the Trades Unions (and USDAW and UNITE are large unions with members in shops and distribution centres) have come out for remaining in the EU.  They of course are not, and do not, speak for their members, and certainly not for the consumers who frequent their shops or websites.  Does that mean the sector is mainly a worried one, concerned about an uncertain few years?  Absolutely.  But it is not because they believe one side is better than the other, or has stronger arguments.  Rather it is because the sector believes the macro-economic position in which they and their consumers rely is more stable under a remain decision.  Better the devil you know and all that.”

Posted in Academics, Brexit, Buying, Consumers, Costs, European Union, Government, International Retailing, Internet, Online Retailing, Referendum, Regulation, Retailers, Supply Chains | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Winston Churchill Memorial Trust Travelling Fellowships 2017

WCMT Flyer 2017

In the summer of 1989 I spent eight weeks travelling around the United States and Canada looking at the customer service practices of North American retailers.  I visited numerous retailers, large and small, and interviewed countless owners, managers, directors and shop floor staff.  I also spent time with leading academics in various Universities, who kindly helped me explore this service landscape.

Once back in the UK, I wrote up the findings of this visit, some in trade press and others as academic papers in academic journals.  I gave a number of presentations to businesses, academics and other organisations and used this work in my teaching at the University of Stirling.

It was a wonderful opportunity.  I learned a lot and believe I brought this learning into my professional life as an academic and with the retailers I worked with.  Perhaps this is a definition of impact; research with the purpose of having an effect.

As a consequence I was, and still am, a Churchill Fellow.

In 1965, Sir Winston Churchill died.  Thousands of people gave generously so that a living memorial to him could benefit future generations of British people.  This national living memorial funds people from any background to travel overseas in search of new ways of tackling some of the current challenges facing the UK.  No qualifications are needed, just a project travelling to learn and a willingness and desire to return and apply that learning to improve a community, a profession or an area.

Each year over 100 Fellowships are awarded.

Why am I writing about this now?  Well, the Churchill Trust has designated the last week and this week, Fellows’ Fortnight, with the aim to using Fellows to spread the word about the opportunity (closing date for applications this year is 20th September).  I benefitted enormously from the opportunity – as indeed did my father some 15 years before on the very different topic of basketball coaching – and I hope by publicising the opportunity, others can benefit as well.

There are 14 categories (including the Open category) this year – see leaflet below.  Applications are encouraged from anyone, from any background, with or without educational qualifications and in any occupation or none. The Fellowship covers all travel, daily costs and insurance for overseas travel of between 4-8 weeks.

As the Trust says:

“Often a Fellowship serves as a catalyst that unlocks an individual’s potential.  It can accelerate their career, developing them as a leader in their field of expertise or as a role model, and continues to be a motivating influence long after they have returned from their travels”

It did for me; could it for you?

Full details can be found at the Trust website.

WCMT Categories 2017

Posted in Basketball, Churchill Fellow, Customer Service, Retailing, USA, Winston Churchill Memorial Trust | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

‘Oor Summit’ and its Big Ears

Chris Mural

Towards the end of the first day of the World Towns Leadership Summit in Edinburgh last week, Neil McInroy tried to describe and capture the sense of engagement and endeavour that the delegates were displaying and he used the phrase ‘Oor Summit’, suggesting collective ownership and collegiality as opposed to just another conference event.

It certainly felt like that, as the delegates strove to amend, rethink and embrace the putative World Towns Agreement.

This is not the place to go through the many excellent provocations, presentations and discussions, and as a participant in two panel sessions, I am not necessarily the best person to make such reflections.  But, I do want to draw out a couple of themes that I felt capture the mood about rethinking and reinventing towns and places.

Meet and greet

L-R: Michael Smith, President and CEO, Charlotte Center City Partners, The Cabinet Secretary of Communities, Social Security and Equalities, Angela Constance, Tina Saaby, Copenhagen Chief City Architect, Professor Leigh Sparks, Chair Scotland’s Towns Partnership and Professor of Retail Studies, University of Stirling

A recurring element from the outset was the framing of towns and our actions with them as issues of connectivity.  Connectivity can mean many things to many people – and indeed the summit was about connectivity.  The Cabinet Secretary, Angela Constance MSP spoke about the connectivity of political and government actions that runs from the National Review through to the way towns help produce a fairer Scotland.  Connectivity encompassed the idea of towns as spaces where digital meets physical; and where unique identities can be forged.  Connectivity in human form came in the persuasive arguments of Michael Shuman and the need to truly embrace localism and the local economy and the need for human ‘pollinations’ in places.  This was also developed very strongly by Kelvin Campbell (see for example Smart Urbanism and Massive Small) and the need for radical incrementalism and compact urbanism.

Panel Discussion

Ross Martin, SCDI Chief, Michael Shuman and Tina Saaby (City Architect, Copenhagen) in discussion

Tina Saaby coined a phrase that resonated with many when she described her and Copenhagen’s approach as being ‘Big Ears’, constantly listening to and not telling, people about their lives, places, desires and ambitions.  She described new ways of working, engaging and co-creating in places and made the initial point that there will need to be time for people to get used to this and to work out roles, relationships and shared actions.  As Jim Yanchula, channeling his inner Shakespeare noted: ‘What is the city, but the people’.  We should be listening to them from the outset.

These themes of connecting and listening were exampled in very different ways by many of the discussants and presenters and resonated strongly across the Summit.  Whether it was Cape Town or Times Square, New York the need to relink, re-energise and c0-create our communities shone through, as did the passion and ambitions to deliver great towns and urban spaces.

These international perspectives added valuable dimensions to our Scottish reflections.  It is of course only a short time since the Town Centre Review and the Town Centre Action Plan and we should be quietly proud of our achievements.  It is the reason this first Summit came to Scotland.  Actions on the ground in towns across Scotland are beginning to see rewards.  New ways of working/listening/engaging, whether using tools such as the Towns Toolkit, Understanding Scottish Places and the Place Standard or through rethinking the Charrette process as outlined by Kevin Murray are transforming engagement and action.  As we move from anecdote to structured data (of all forms) comparing and linking places and ideas, we can open up real opportunities locally, nationally and internationally.

On a personal level, I was also taken by the idea of ‘health by stealth’ mentioned by Charlie Langhorne and his Wild in Art.  I am not sure that after two days of engagement in the Summit I was in any mental or physical state to do a full Art Trail, but I do want one of his dragons for my garden.

Wild in Art

A storify of the Summit by Cathy Parker can be found here and an ‘official’ one is also being prepared.  A quick Scotland Towns Partnership blog review is here. A Summary document from the Summit is available here as is the new and current version of the Framework. During the Summit a visual representation of the debate and discussion, as well as the Framework was drawn by Chris Beynon of MIG and can be seen in the photo at the top of this blog.


So what next? The World Towns Framework has been developed and will be adapted, altered and re-worked to fit the broad needs of places and people.  I will say more on that again.  STP will house and organise this ‘living’ development of the Framework, so check with their website as it evolves the Framework.  But for all the delegates at ‘Oor Summit’ there is more than enough inspiration, enthusiasm and perspiration to take forward the Framework and the detailed learnings and apply them in their own unique places.

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