“Soaring Vacancies” : perhaps or perhaps not?

The end of last week saw headlines about the number of vacant shops in Scotland. Typical Scottish newspaper examples included:

So, something of a downer to end the first week out of lockdown in Scotland and ahead of a bank holiday weekend.

The data were from the British Retail Consortium/Local Data Company survey of “shop” units and so Scotland was but one part of their regular GB study.  I don’t have access to the data (hence why “shop” above is in parentheses as some of the surveys go well beyond retail units) , only the headlines. One of the press releases can be found here, but what was said specifically about Scotland I do not know. Whilst some journalistic licence can be expected, the press release steer is quite clear (though some reporting was much more measured and factual than the newspaper headlines above – see Retail Gazette for example).  Some things about this concern me though (and I am aware this is a lonely but previously ploughed furrow – see here, here and here for a sequence of three pieces in the teeth of the pandemic, but there is also a longer history on this blog).

To quote from the press release “In the first quarter of 2021, the overall GB vacancy rate increased to 14.1%, from 13.7% in Q4 2020. It was 1.9 percentage points higher than in the same point in 2020”.

So in one year the rate rose by 1.9%. In the last quarter it rose by 0.4%. So the rate of increase probably slowed in the last quarter. “Soaring”?

First though a quick recap for those who have not been paying much attention.  Since March 2020 we have been living through a global pandemic.  During that pandemic in the UK there have been three long and deep lockdowns; lockdowns where many shops and other operators such as cafes, bars, pubs, restaurants, B&Bs and hotels were forced by law to shut.  Many workers have been on furlough or have lost their jobs. Consumer spending has altered and been markedly curtailed.  What spending there has been has often been directed through online channels, which have reached unprecedented sales and penetration rates.

And yet in Scotland (and elsewhere) according to the reporting of the BRC/LDC survey, shop vacancies are not as high as after the financial crash of 2008-9.  That’s right, they are lower (the newspapers report they are at a “six-year high”).  Yes they are increasing, especially in shopping centres, but they are not (yet) ‘soaring’ and are not at record highs.  All this in a longer period of sectoral structural change as well.

This position is testimony to tremendous work by, and resilience of, many, in the face of an unheard of set of problems.  Government support, the retailers themselves, rapid changes to business, rates relief, landlords foregoing rents, consumers supporting local stores where they can …. and so on. 

The vacancy rate rose by less than 2% in the teeth of a global pandemic and enforced lockdowns. I find the figure a remarkable, if a little surprising, testimony to people trying their best, and surviving.

Vacancy rates on their own are of course a very blunt and uninformative tool (as we wrote over a decade ago now).  We need the base data (so this commentary is not about collecting vacancy data, which is valuable) but there are so many more informative things we can say about places using it and the types of measures we should have.  We can consider sectoral issues, diversity, churn, persistent vacancy, YoY and LfL change, stock (shop unit) shifts and other measures. But these of course do not make a good newspaper headline.

We (retailers, consumers, landlords) are facing a period of huge change and the re-awakening is going to take time. I doubt it will be smooth.  I would not be suprised if some things do get worse before they get better, and we may indeed reach “record high headlines” (the potential reimposition of business rates will be a major issue for example, as will rent recovery). But then again, we might not, and there are some hopes for the re-awakening/recovery/re-opening.

As an example, I am hearing of (and locally seeing) quite a lot of local independent businesses opening up, and a better realism of what the stock of store units should be.  Both are positive signals of retail change.  Maybe we could speed these processes up by targeted investment and replacement and better and faster support for independent retailers?

More than anything perhaps we should focus more on talking up the sector and what it has achieved, especially during the last 15 months or so, and give consumers confidence about their shopping and the retailers they can now access. Constantly saying how bad places are is not going to speed the re-awakening or make it sustainble.

Posted in BRC, Consumers, Covid19, Data, Independents, Local Data Company, Lockdown, Online Retailing, Pandemic, Places, Rates, Rents, Retail Change, Retailers, Scotland, Scotland's Town and High Streets, Scottish Retail Consortium, Scottish Retailing, Shop Numbers, Shopping, Town Centres, Towns, Uncategorized, Vacancies | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Great Re-Awakening?

One week on from the first major easing of retail (and other) restrictions from the ‘Christmas’ lockdown in Scotland and everyone is wondering how it has been and how it is going?  For some the sight of people queuing at 4.30am to get into a Primark on opening day is a symbol that all is now well in the world; for others they can think of nothing worse.

That diversity of opinion is understandable but is also indicative of a set of wider issues.  People and families have experienced very different situations and pressures in lockdown.  Retailers and sectors of retailing have had very differing experiences over the last year. These two elements collide in how towns, high streets and other retail places are perceived to be recovering or struggling.

Primark have had no sales over lockdown as they operate solely physical stores.  Others (see the food retailers especially) have seen a huge spike in online sales and a boost generally.  Clothing and footwear as sectors have struggled as workwear (and indeed some general clothing and footwear) have not been needed.  Book sales on the contrary seem to have had a bounce in lockdown reading, not only with Amazon but also online and independent booksellers doing well.  Some families have been fine working from home; others have lost their jobs.

This all makes me suspicious of any rush to assessment of how we are doing and what we need to do. It is great news that the first week in Scotland seems positive. But, this is a re-awakening from a long period of slumber.  Some retailers won’t have made it; others are opening new stores in anticipation of an opportunity and a positive rebound.  Consumers will be either delighted to get back into shops or nervous about the thought.  Confidence for retailers and consumers will take some time to build, develop and consolidate.

All of this points to a quite uncertain period as we all learn what we can do safely and what we want to do, whilst with one eye on not having to lockdown again, and worries that the novelty of going shopping perhaps reduces.  Getting to a consistent point of stability and more certainty is not going to be achieved in a week, or I suspect in a month, or even two.

Then there is the issue of eventually learning what has changed temporarily and what has changed permanently.  If working from home and international travel permanently alter patterns of behaviour then our major cities will be heavily affected negatively whereas some smaller towns may (may) be boosted.  This is not likely to be a rapidly resolved conundrum.

It is for all these reasons I prefer the term re-awakening than re-opening.  We have been in forced hibernation; it will take time to know how we are all affected by something so unusual.  And during this time, we will need to continue to support those who are struggling to re-awaken, both citizens and businesses.

Posted in Amazon, Consumers, Covid19, Lockdown, Pandemic, Primark, Queuing, Retail Sales, Retailers, Retailing, Scotland, Scottish Retail Sales, Shopping, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Locavore’s Bigger Plan

I am not sure when I first became aware of Locavore. It certainly was before they launched their Big Plan in 2015. I had a watching interest in the development of social and more sustainable retail food stores and supermarkets, as well as local food and Locavore seemed an emerging Scottish example (Glasgow-based, started in 2011).

Locavore’s Big Plan presented an opportunity to financially support their expansion, as with with some other food related ventures such as Dig-In Bruntsfield and Scotland the Bread. In the end, dealing with my mother’s death left me in no place to follow this through. My interest in Locavore though did not wane and I have continued to watch their implementation of their Big Plan.

At the start of the pandemic, I did think about signing up for one of their veg boxes, but I was far too slow and late (there is a waiting list). I had also thought that being in Stirling I’d be too far away, but it appears not (and via the Stirling Neighbour Food Market Hub). I also become aware of colleagues in Glasgow who have been long standing users and supporters.

So, what exactly is Locavore? In their own words:

“Locavore exists to build more sustainable food networks which are better for the environment, society, local communities and their economies. In short we want a food system which feeds us all while also nourishing a healthy, fair and prosperous environment, society and economy.

We’re working towards this by building an alternative to the conventional supermarket supply chains which we feel do not set out to do any of this. In delivering this alternative the following things are really important to us and define what and how we do things:

  • Localising food growing, processing and production
  • Sustainable land use with organic and agroecological agriculture
  • Creating short supply chains
  • Reducing waste and maximising resource efficiency
  • Creating a fairer and more redistributive economy
  • Tackling climate change
  • Be ambitious and bold to create the future of food.”

They currently have three shops, service 15K customers and deliver 7K veg boxes a month, employ c90 people paid above the living wage, and have production and wholesale arms committed to organic supply. See more details of what is important to Locavore here.

Locavore have now launched a Bigger Plan (which includes a good summary of their history/journey, but also see Scottish Local Retailer coverage from 2016 and recent coverage of the Bigger Plan in the Glasgow Evening Times) to develop to 10 stores and treble the veg box scale, build capacity, become carbon negative and set the base to scale further beyond that. Ultimately, they want to be a significant force in the grocery market in Scotland.

To do this they need finance. This will come from various sources but there is an opportunity to be a supporter at general or local (potentially depending on where stores open and you can put in a view on where they should be as part of the plan) levels. As a Community Interest Company this is NOT an equity opportunity.

If the Locavore approach interests, then the Bigger Plan can be downloaded here. There are also interesting Social Impact Report, Local Economic Multiplier Report and Locavore Partick Store case studies and other material available on their web site. This is a different model, trying to do things in a distinct way and that sense of localness and purpose is to be applauded, and even supported.

Posted in Community, Community Interest Company, Consumer Lifestyle, Crowdfunding, Employment practices, Ethics, Food, Food Retailing, Glasgow, Independents, Local Retailers, Localisation, Locavore, Lockdown, organic, Pandemic, Producers, Retail innovation, Retail leadership, Retailing, Scotland, Scotland Food and Drink, Scotland Loves Local, Scottish Local Retailer, Scottish Retailing, Social Change, Stirling, Supermarket, Suppliers, Supply Chains, Sustainability, Sustainable Development, Uncategorized, Veg Boxes, Wages, Waste, Wholesaling | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Aberdeen, No More?

The Covid pandemic has hit retailing hard. Government support (though important) has in no way matched the lost sales and business. Previous trends have been accelerated, most notably in terms of online sales. Retailers of all shapes and sizes have been confronted with an existential threat, both at store and company level. A reconsideration of how and where retailers operate is only to be expected.

Which is why the ongoing reduction in the John Lewis store portfolio is not really a surprise. We can gloss over the recent direction of the organisation and some of the decisions (branding, store options) and recognise that the new leadership has considerable issues to confront. John Lewis is a large space user, often in expensive locations, at a time when their online business has been hugely successful. A consideration of what stores they need, of what form and size, and where, was inevitable, and appropriate.

These trends all lead to Aberdeen and the decisionmuch covered in the local media – to close the John Lewis Aberdeen store and retreat in Scotland to the two major cities only. Aberdeen is an outlier for the portfolio in many ways; a large-ish city, geographically distant, with a perceived legacy of reliance on oil and gas from the North Sea. Times have not recently been easy, but the city has been trying to reinvent and refocus itself.

John Lewis store in Aberdeen

The John Lewis store in Aberdeen comprises in part a distinctive late 1960s building (originally built for Norco, the co-operative society). Beauty is of course in the eye of the beholder. John Lewis opened their Aberdeen store in October 1989. The micro-location may not be as good as it once was. The costs of running the store versus the footfall and sales may be too high. Alterations to the store to make it fit for modern operations may be an expensive option. John Lewis will know their costs, their catchment and local (and regional) online actuals and potential. The decision, from a John Lewis point of view (if we ignore the local 260+ Partners, and we should not forget about the impact on them) may be quite straightforward. Their discussions, with a quickly convened local task force, about maintaining a presence in Aberdeen may provide a possible solution, and this might involve a Waitrose operation, but nothing is yet clear. They could walk away completely.

However, two more longer term points should weigh on all minds (see also my comments in the local media).

First, are the operations and lessons of the last 15 months the best predictions of the future?  Trade has been altered and decimated. None of us really know where and how it will settle down in say 3-5 years’ time.

Secondly, the cost calculations are being made on current assumptions. We have to sort out the tax and cost regimes of town centre and city locations versus out of town and online retailing (and wider operations) if we want towns and city centres to flourish. If that happens then the balance switches and operations may be more attractive in central locations.

We argued this and developed some recommendations to help bring this about in the recent Review of the Town Centre Action Plan. We need to build locally on that wider vision of what town and city centres should be about and how and how they attract people. If we get these things right then the attractiveness of city and town centre sites change. Decisions taken now, assuming the world will stay as it is in cost, tax and other business and consumer regime senses, may be understandable as businesses struggle to survive and emerge from the pandemic and to see a way forward. But, they may be poor decisions nonetheless, especially when we gain some distance and hindsight from today.

For a retailer with a cachet and a draw, looking to remodel their costs, obtain a site and location which more closely fits their new needs, driving a hard bargain in recognition of their status as an asset, makes a lot of sense. Time will tell if such a deal can be struck in Aberdeen. There is a large consumer market to be gained one suspects. As for the future of that distinctive building, that will also have to wait.

Posted in 1960s, Aberdeen, Architecture, Bids Scotland, Buildings, City Centres, Closure, Consumers, Cooperatives, Covid19, Department Stores, Internet shopping, John Lewis Partnership, Lockdown, Norco, Online Retailing, Pandemic, Rates, Regulation, Rents, Retail Change, Retail Sales, Scotland's Town and High Streets, Shopping, Social value, Tax, Town Centre Action Plan, Town Centres, Towns, Uncategorized, Waitrose | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Ten years on stirlingretail.com

Ten years ago today (6th April 2011) I put up my very first post on this blog.  My intention was really two fold.  First I wanted to have a place to collect and publicise retail things so as to avoid having to repeat myself about basic and core things to journalists and others.  Secondly, knowing that I was about to enter a prolonged period of university administration.  I wanted a forum to comment on retail matters and have a ‘voice’ as academic articles were likely to be out of the question.

Others can judge whether the blog is worth it to them, but for me it has been that different outlet and has been very enjoyable to do.  It hasn’t stopped the obvious phone calls but I have been able to link it to my academic and policy work, which seems to have staggered on despite other distractions.  The style/theme may have dated and some sections are now underpopulated but it is attracting record numbers of visitors.

Birthdays are about looking back and looking forward. So I thought I would look back at April 2011.

April 2011 saw four posts published and it is interesting to look at the topics

So, if you look at themes on the blog recently, then not much has changed in a decade.  I am still working on convenience retailing (which has grown strongly over the period and during the pandemic – and who thought about the latter in 2011?) and on town centres. Retail shopfronts and history remain fascinating.  Retail sales likewise are still facing the same question, but in the last twelve months with a lockdown pandemic dynamic and urgency.

The top three read posts for all of 2011 reflect emerging issues of the time.  The top post was on the opening of Waitrose in Stirling – on the site of the Stirling Miner’s Welfare, so as I remarked at the time a sort of symbolic shifting of our times.  The second most read post was on the state of British retailing from the topics covered at the Annual BRC Conference – the lead issues were multichannel, the ongoing Portas review and retail regulation.  And the third top post was my realisation that despite stagnating market share (and not many were saying that), Tesco were still #1 in the UK and had been for the entire life of our first year undergraduates – they had never known any difference. Ten years on they still hold that spot of course, making them British largest food retailer for almost 30 years and something that still concerns some.

The symmetry of topics between then and now is either disturbing (has so little changed in our concerns about retail) or reflective of the reality (retail continues to confront and adapt to systemic change). It could be both of course, but I will leave you to judge. Will the same topics be in the front of our minds in 2031?

Anyhow, 10 years more – or not? I am not sure I thought it would last for that long, so who knows how much longer it is worthwhile and interesting (to do and to read).

Posted in Academics, Consumer Change, Convenience, Convenience stores, High Streets, Internet, Internet shopping, Local Retailers, Market Shares, Mary Portas, Multichannel, Online Retailing, Red Tape, Regulation, Retail Change, Retail Sales, Scotland, Scotland's Town and High Streets, Scottish Government, Scottish Grocers Federation, Scottish Retail Consortium, Scottish Retail Sales, Shopfronts, Stirling, Tesco, Town Centres, Towns, Uncategorized, Waitrose | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

An (Un)Happy Anniversary

On the 16th March 2020 I started working from home.  There had been an odd set of circumstances in the run-up to this date.

We’d come back from South Africa in late January and I’d felt a little unwell; something flu-like and then I lost my voice and could only squeak like a chipmunk.  I had to stay in bed and missed the Scotland/England rugby match (shows how unwell I must have been).  On our trip a week or so after to see France play Wales in Cardiff, our brand new hire car broke down and I spent three hours in a pub car park waiting for it to be fixed.  My wife spent those hours in the pub itself having sympathetic drinks bought for her (hopefully for the car breaking down and not for being married to me, but she never really said).

Then Flybe collapsed so we had to drive to Wales for the Scotland rugby game (and to see my house bound sister).  Once in Wales the game was called off due to Covid.  So we drove home and lockdown started a week later. Anticipating things, I retreated to working from home on the 16th and I have not been in work physically or seen my sister since. Nor have I seen a live rugby match.

One year, one whole year.

Now as I have noted here before, I/we are the lucky ones. We are in a privileged position.  Others have been far less able to cope and have been far more affected by tragedy.  I can do my job from home and we have been able and can afford to use home delivery for things we might need.  We haven’t used cash in a year, my car has done only a few hundred miles in a year and we have basically asked the retail sector to come to us.  In the main it has worked.

Destroying my knee a few years ago meant we were set up for, and using, home grocery delivery for main items and it has functioned pretty seamlessly, especially as delivery slots expanded.  We added to that with visits to the local butchers (my one main regular trip out) and online purchases of fish (we have varied it and most has been great), flour as we already did home bread making (the excellent Blair Atholl Watermill), cheese (Errington, Lincolnshire Poacher), charcuterie (East Coast Cured) and wine (Woodwinters).  That covered the essentials. We tried to be local and small/independent where we could but also used a couple of wholesalers who switched to home delivery.  An indulgence has been croissants and speciality bread from Wild Hearth Bakery.  Trips to Stirling Farmers Market added some variety when possible.  Books we’ve bought from local bookshops as an alternative to Amazon and Christmas provided a chance to really seek out quirky, independent businesses for presents. Again, with two (corporate interestingly) exceptions it all worked pretty well at Christmas.

As I said, we are fortunate.  What it has shown is the wide range of local and alternative businesses out there with great products.  As we come out of lockdown again I hope to use that freedom to reward those businesses that kept us going during this year and not fall back to previous habits. This will be both in physical and virtual shopping.

For a while I resented the delivery charges I was paying and the cardboard generated for recycling.  I am not sure I can do much about the latter, but I reconciled myself to the former as a trade-off with the lack of petrol I was buying for my stationary car.  Seen in that way it is not such a bad deal.  The question of the wider impacts of all this is for another time.

But one thing is clear. Being a Professor of Retail Studies and basically only doing online retailing/shopping is no way to go on. I need to get out to more shops, and that day can’t come fast enough. I am not sure I need to buy anything, but I really want to be in those spaces.

However, in the meantime a thank you to all those smaller and local businesses that have kept us going. We really appreciate it.

Posted in Amazon, Books, Cardiff, Christmas, Consumer Change, Consumer Lifestyle, Consumers, Covid19, Farmers Markets, Food, Food and Beverage, Food Retailing, Home Delivery, Independents, Internet shopping, Local Retailers, Localisation, Lockdown, Online Retailing, Pandemic, Producers, Products, Retail Change, Retailers, Retailing, Scotland Food and Drink, Scottish Retailing, Small Shops, Stirling, Uncategorized, Wholesaling | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

La Dolce Vita – or perhaps not

I am on annual leave today and tomorrow. These dates have been in the diary for some time; over a year to be precise.  Whilst being on leave will be a relief (for me and no doubt some colleagues) it is rather bittersweet.

I should have been in Rome, watching Wales play rugby.

Italy joined the Six Nations in 2000. Wales first played them in Italy in 2001.  Living in the USA at the time, the journey was a little far.  But every other year since we have been present, if not always correct.  In rain or shine, good times and bad, the Rome long weekend has been a favourite and a highlight.  Even if, whisper it please, Wales actually managed to lose, twice.  Initially we just turned up and paid at the gate at Stadio Flaminio as part of a small crowd.  Now it is a tens of thousand strong pilgrimage and to the Stadio Olimpico.

2003 Stadio Flaminio – teetering between ranshackle and condemned

But this year, which would have been our 10th such trip, Covid has intervened and my living room sofa will have to do.  And that in this year of all years for Welsh rugby (hopefully).

On the positive side it is saving me money.  But that individual view illustrates the problem so many businesses have at this time.  We won’t be paying for flights, accommodation, transport, food and possibly drink. Restaurants, bars and others will have to do without our purchases.  And we won’t be doing retail research, especially into retail formats (Eataly for example) and markets (Campagna Amica). The scale of the economic loss is formidable given the volume of people, and the scale of spending.  This is income entirely foregone; the fixture, and our trip, is cancelled, not postponed.

And it is not just Rome.  We would have gone to Murrayfield twice (and the Welsh invasion every two years is large for many towns across Scotland as well as the city) and down to Cardiff twice.   Rugby is my rather expensive passion, but not spending does not seem right.  We may not miss the economic hit, but we do miss the social hit.

I write this not to garner sympathy for what I am missing, but to point to the significance of events of all shapes and sizes for their own local economies, local businesses and for all those that support them. The cumulative loss is huge to many places and businesses.

In some fields the pandemic has possibly postponed spending and it will be released in due course.  In others there may be a post lockdown and (hopefully) post pandemic recovery as people want to spend and socialise and eat out and do the things we missed.  The scale and length of this is a great imponderable at the moment. Great, but for businesses trying to survive through this desert of income, even with Government support, it must be so hard, and probably soul destroying.

There are also many people who have not been in the fortunate position we are in, and have found it hard to keep going during the pandemic. Their post pandemic spending will not be any release of (non-existent) savings, but a continuing struggle to make ends meet. It is one of the reasons we have to address the systemic inequalities in society.

So, as I watch Wales and Italy on Saturday I will be promising myself in the future to make amends for what I’ve missed over the last year.   Eat, drink and be merry, with friends, in as many new and old places seems like a nice idea and if I can support local businesses at the same time then all the better.  And if as many people as possible are of the same mind then maybe things will be better in the coming year for many businesses.

A Welsh win on Saturday will help kick start the process.

2019: Near to Stadio Olimpico. The guy on the right was a pretty handy player in his day

Posted in Consumers, Covid19, Food and Beverage, Italy, Markets, Pandemic, Retail Economy, Retailers, Rugby Union, Social Renewal, Sport, Uncategorized, Wales | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Money, Money, Money: Paying by Cash, Contactless Card or Digital?

Source: Bank of England (2020) Cash in the time of Covid

In the UK Government Budget of the 3rd March it was announced that the upper limit for contactless card payments was to be lifted from £45 to £100. This reflects the rapid rise of contactless card payment (which began before the pandemic, but has accelerated during it), the growth of online transactions and payments and the decline in the use of cash. The following day Amazon announced the opening of their first till-less electronic payment only store in London.

There are a number of apsects to these announcements and the underlying trends they reflect, some positive and some negative and there are concerns about people for whom cash is critically important for a variety of reasons.

I invited an ex-colleague of mine who has looked at this and other financial services issues for most of his career, Professor Steve Worthington of Swinburne University Business School, Melbourne, Australia to provide some thoughts on the issues raised. He writes:

“The pandemic has turbo charged the transition from paying by cash, to paying by digital transactions. The increased reluctance to either pay with or accept cash, may be partly attributed to fears (often unfounded), about how bank notes and coins may carry the infection and hence it may be transferred by the handling of cash.

The increase in on-line purchases has also played a major role in the diminishing use of cash, as consumers unable or unwilling to shop in person, purchase on-line. For those face-to-face transactions that still occur, the rise of the contactless payment card has made their usage more acceptable, as there is less likelihood of a transmission of the virus, because the card is not exchanged between people and social distancing can be maintained.

The limit on contactless card transactions is currently £45, but the Financial Conduct Authority (FCA) announced in January 2021, that it was seeking to raise that limit to £100, as the number of retailers accepting cash, continues to fall, and this was announced in the recent budget. Such a move would put further pressure on the cash infrastructure that underpins the availability and use of cash as payment instrument.

Link, the UK’s largest cash machine network, said in January 2021 that there had been a 38 per cent decline in ATM transactions in 2020 and that the number of ATMs had declined by 10 per cent in the same period. At the same time many banks are closing some of their branches and/or reducing the hours that they are open for customers. Thus, the decline in the use of cash is something of a self-fulfilling prophecy, as cash becomes both more difficult to access and at the same time, there are less and less opportunities to use it.

The charity Age UK has written an open letter to the FCA, warning that the rush towards a more cashless society could leave to some older people being excluded from paying their way with cash. Age UK is also concerned that banks are ‘encouraging’ customers to use digital channels. This would further exclude senior citizens, as it is believed that one third of the 70 plus population in England (the equivalent of 2.3 million people), live in a household without access to the internet. Other members of society who are vulnerable to digital exclusion include the poor, those with disabilities and people who live in rural areas.

There are a variety of responses to this issue of financial exclusion, for those who prefer to use cash. In September 2020, the EU Council of Justice declared that cash is a public good and must be accepted by retailers. The Advocate General of the Council stressed the key role that cash plays in social inclusion and that it is also an important factor in personal freedom and privacy.

In the USA, a broad spectrum of consumer representatives and businesses announced in May 2020, the formation of the Consumer Choice in Payment Coalition (CCPC), seeking to preserve the right of American consumers to pay with cash. Their priority is supporting the passage of the Payment Choice Act of 2019 in the US Congress. If enacted the law would maintain national acceptance of cash payments for consumer purchase of goods and services, at bricks-and-mortar retail outlets. The CCPC claims that cash payments have widespread public support, citing recent moves by the state of New Jersey and cities including New York, Philadelphia, and San Francisco, to enact laws requiring retailers to maintain a cash payment option.

In the UK, the 2019 Access to Cash Review, found that 17 per cent of the population rely on cash, with vulnerable communities such as the poor and those in rural areas, at particular risk from reduced access to cash. The UK Government has committed to introducing new rules to ensure that cash remains available to those who prefer it to the digital alternatives. The Government is also proposing to provide the FCA with overall responsibility for maintain a ‘well-functioning’ retail cash system.

There are already initiatives being explored to address the demise of bank branches and ATMs in the UK. The Post Office is trialing ‘Banking Hubs’, which involve sharing retail space with high street banks who have closed their local branches. These hubs are part of a wider scheme setup under the Community Access to Cash Pilots (CACP), that includes six other projects with local communities trialing different measures. These include making it easier for shops and pubs to offer purchase free ‘cashback’ to consumers.

Furthermore, the FCA has warned banks that every time they plan to close a branch or an ATM, they will need to provide an analysis of the impact on customers access to cash. This will include the needs of the customers currently using this branch or ATM; the impact of the proposals on those customers and alternatives that are or could reasonably be put in place.

So the message to us all is, ‘Cash: Use it, or Lose it!’”

Posted in Amazon, Amazon Go, ATMs, Cash, Cashpoints, Consumer Change, Consumers, Contactless, Covid19, Credit and Debit Cards, European Union, Local Currency, Pandemic, Post Offices, Retailers, Self-Scanning, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Place for Older Consumers

A few weeks ago I reflected on my academic article output for 2020 and the, to me at least, surprise that I had achieved seven outputs.  I put this down to my co-authors, but did point out that this feat was not going to be repeated.

Whilst I am certain it won’t be repeated, my co-authors have got 2021 off to a flying start as two articles have been accepted and put into early view in January and February.  Whilst the papers are not related, there is a common theme between them, namely the older or ageing consumer.

Now it is strictly accurate that there is an increasing degree of personal self-interest in the subject of the older consumer, but that is not the origin of either of these papers.  There isn’t really an order to them, but I do think the topics are extremely relevant.

Dr Maria Rybaczewska and myself have authored a paper on “Ageing consumers and e-ecommerce activities’ for Ageing & Society.  This takes data from the Healthy Ageing in Scotland (HAGIS) programme (for which thanks to Dr Elaine Douglas and Professor David Bell) to look at the online behaviour of older consumers.  We note that the ‘breakpoint’ for use appears to be 75 years old; somewhat higher than most academic papers and business practitioners tend to set it.  We also see some indication of single/widowed status or having lower usage, raising issues of isolation.  The pandemic won’t have helped this one suspects.

The second paper is co-authored with my Stirling colleague, also Deputy Principal, and Professor of Gerontology, Judith Phillips, together with Nigel Walford and Ann Hockey from Kingston and Anglia Ruskin Universities respectively.  It is entitled ‘Older people, town centres and the revival of the high street’ and is published in Planning, Theory and Practice.  The paper considers the potential multiple roles of older people in helping revive and rejuvenate town centres given the centrality of place for healthy supportive living, community and social participation and ‘ageing in place’. As this paper is OPEN ACCESS it can be downloaded at the publisher or below.

Whilst on different topics, the common thread is the perception and value of older consumers.  Many companies have been guilty of ignoring older consumers when it comes to the internet.  This is not to deny issues of access and use for many, but to point up the opportunity (and as we become more digital, the need).  This sense of opportunity and value also underpins the second paper and the benefits that can derive from seeing town centres as beyond retail, with a mixed use, inter-generational approach.  This is one aspect that underpinned some of the thinking in our recent Town Centre Action Plan Review recommendations. Rather than isolation (whether digital or physical), older people and older consumers can bring wider benefits for all society and places.

The abstracts of these papers and links to the Stirling depository providing pre-print access can be found here.  Depending on your access and subscriptions the final published papers can be obtained by following the links below.

References:

Rybaczewska M. and L. Sparks (2021) Ageing consumers and e-commerce activities.  Ageing & Society, 1-20, https://doi.org/10.1017/S0144686X20001932

Phillips  J., Walford N., Hockey A and L. Sparks  (2021) Older people, town centres and the revival of the ‘high street’. Planning, Theory and Practice, https://doi.org/10.1080/14649357.2021.1875030

Posted in Academics, Ageing, Community, HAGIS, Healthy Ageing, Healthy Living, High Streets, Internet, Internet shopping, Online Retailing, Places, Planning, Regeneration, Retailers, Scotland's Town and High Streets, Social Inequality, Town Centre Living, Town Centres, Towns, Uncategorized, Vibrancy | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Retail Sales in Great Britain, January 2021

A couple of weeks ago, the Office for National Statistics produced the monthly retail sales figures for Great Britain for January 2021.  This is the first full month of data since lockdown was reintroduced before and around Christmas.

The press headlines in some cases were predictably apocalyptic, and highly unenlightening.  There is no doubt that parts of retailing are really struggling, but others are not, reflecting the current changed reality of consumer behaviour.  As I have written before, the headlines irritate me because they ignore the context to a major degree.  In a lockdown where some shops can not open, surely you expect retail sales to be down, and by quite a lot.  Indeed one could argue given the state of the economy and personal finances for many, they have been more resilient than anticipated (see first figure above).

None of that though can mask the pain and the problems for retailers (and especially their employees) forced to be closed and likely to be closed for some time yet.

We can see the impact of this in these ONS figures.  Non-food stores saw sales almost a quarter down between January and the previous month (December including Christmas).  The impact is felt across the non-food sectors but the data suggests it was not as extreme as in the first lockdown last April.  This is ascribed to stronger online and click and collect provision, as capacity has been built and learning implemented in the last 10 months.

Food retailing continued to do well, growing in comparison to December.  Some of this remains hospitality and eating out diversion. Supermarkets also gained clothing sales.

The switch to online is also notable in the figure above.  And, as the figure below shows, the proportion of retail sales online hit a record 35.2% in January 2021.  The figure clearly shows the switch at the start of the pandemic into online, and the way in which food retailing reacted (now at a record 12.2% in food as well).

The questions arising from these data are profound for retailing:

  • Does the online food penetration pattern imply a sustained switch of behaviours? Capacity has been built and users are used to systems, so is this level here to say or likely to grow? Or if it gets unused what will that say for the future of online food retailing?
  • Linked to this, does routine food sales via this channel imply that better local and convenience opportunities will also be sustained?  Or will these be hit more as hospitality etc. opens up?
  • The fluctuations of the non-food online penetration (linked to lockdowns) implies a more necessity driven behaviour, so does this suggest that as stores open up, so sales patterns will revert to physical stores, and online penetration here will fall?
  • And overall, is online at 35.2% where this will end up, or will as before in the pandemic the penetration drop back a bit?

This will obviously unfold as we come out of lockdown, and if we can sustain the opening up of shops, then I think we will see a renaissance of physical retailing. The questions above are a little skewed to the macro and the larger retailers perhaps, and there is an interesting undercurrent of independent and local shop openings and attraction that will need to be considered further. We have all missed being out and about and socialising, and I suspect many will want to make up for lost time in their local and perhaps other centres, and to see something different to their current online and restricted shop offers.

Posted in Christmas, Click and Collect, Clothing, Consumer Change, Convenience stores, Covid19, Essential Retailing, Food Retailing, Internet shopping, Local Retailers, Localisation, Lockdown, Non-Essential Retailing, Non-food retailing, Office for National Statistics, Online Retailing, Pandemic, Retail Change, Retail Sales, Retailers, Supermarket, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment