Vending Machines and the Internet

I first encountered John Dawson when I was working in the City Council in Townsville, Northern Queensland.  I was on a four-month exchange as a student and had been asked to do some research on shopping centres.  As a consequence I read some of John’s research as preparation for my report and dissertation.  It is at this point I got interested in retailing (Cambridge did not teach it, or even recognise it in geography at that time)  In turn this led to my joining him in Wales as a PhD student and then to the foundation of the Institute for Retail Studies at Stirling in 1983.

During the time I worked directly with John (c1979-1991), and sometimes in our academic work and engagements subsequently, I got used to phone calls or later emails, which on the surface posed an innocuous question, but in reality made you think hard, dig deep and often reassess what you actually knew.

And so it was that reading my emails on my recent trip to Singapore I noticed one from John – “which has higher global market store, vending machines or the internet?”  As it happened it coincided with another email, this from an ex-student Eric Doherty, asking if I had seen the hot food vending café in Singapore?  This apparently had opened last August.

Now John had recently been in Japan and so vending machines must have been on the agenda.  In Singapore and later in Hong Kong there was little evidence of anything out of the ordinary.  But, I am aware of the increase in their use in a variety of settings and for lots of different products from high end technology to hot pies and sacks of potatoes.


Fisher & Donaldson in St Andrews (Photo STV)


Grewar Farm Vending in Dundee (Photo STV)

I don’t have an answer to John’s question, but from the fact he posed it I suspect he does and that it challenges what he may see as my obsession with internet sales.  In both cases I do wonder about how accurate we can be in our data collection on a national let alone a global basis.  And definitions might matter as well, given the over 50% click and collect being reported in some British retailers.  Are these internet or shop sales or an unruly combination of both?  And does it vary by person or trip?

As ever though with John’s questions it became insidious and I began thinking about modern vending machines.  Done properly they provide instant gratification of a demand (and sometimes a demand you had forgotten you had). But the supply to meet that demand is increasingly technologically enabled. The technology behind (and in front) of vending machines is becoming increasingly sophisticated. Again, there might be combinations that blur the issue.  If I buy rail tickets online but collect them at the station via a ticketing machine, is that the internet or vending or neither/both?  (And yes I know I really can have a ticketless mobile download version now).

I also failed to answer Eric’s question as I ran out of time to see the vending café.  It sounds pretty horrible to me and may be the latest Singapore trend to fly but then crash and burn.  It all seems a little Star Trek, but we do now have the technology to provide hot food vending wherever and whenever we want.  Despite the claims of those behind this, shouldn’t food be more than this?  I suspect in Singapore the drive is both their technological obsession (interest) but also a reaction to the shortage of labour problems the sector is facing in the country.  Against that the Singaporean obsession with food and food quality may mitigate their expansion.


Queuing up to use the VendCafe in Singapore (Photo: The Straits Times)

Vending machines or the internet?  Both have their place and both are probably growing, but at varying paces in different societies.  One does hope however there remains a place for a real shop to provide some real difference and interest and helps to spark imagination and exploration.

Posted in Academics, Automation, Consumer Lifestyle, Farm Shops, Online Retailing, Opening Hours, Restaurants, Singapore, Technology, Uncategorized, Vending Machines | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Turning Around another Supertanker; Marks and Spencer

It has been a while since I have written about Tesco, Marmite excepting, and the last few times I did, I used the analogy of a supertanker and the relative slowness at which lumbering retail giants see their strategies take effect.  In Tesco’s case the Dave Lewis era has seen a turnaround in the approach focusing on a smarter, sharper, but also smaller business.  It seems to be beginning to have an effect but shaking off the bad bits of the past is tough.

These descriptions came to mind in the recent news about Marks and Spencer; a substantial cut in international activity, a pruning of sub-brands, reduced product lines and more focus, an axe to 30-60 UK stores and a refocusing on food stores and food sales.  The markets seemed initially impressed, but then fell back as they digested the relatively limited scale of the store changes and the time this was meant to take.  A supertanker being slowly turned seems an apt analogy again.

The M&S announcements should not really come as any great surprise.  They have been quietly closing and moving some stores.  Simply Food has been rolled out rapidly, so 200 more planned is no shock.  Food has been a comparative success, but clothing and home has been in freefall for some time.  With a new team in charge, the expectation was for change.

So what has been going wrong?  Clothing and home has been underperforming for years.  The offer does not clearly stand out as fashion and other competitors have eaten in to this market.  JLP is now the darling not M&S.  As the same time M&S were late into the internet and have experienced severe website redesign issues.  The latest half-year figures for the internet sales were flat, which is not good enough and pales by comparison.

Most fundamentally however M&S are now burdened by a store estate that in the past would have been seen as an asset.  Too many unprofitable large stores have been maintained and too little has been spent on remodelling, relocating and repurposing the best of the store estate.  The market has changed but the store estate has adapted too slowly.  And despite the pain that will be felt by the announced store closures – for high streets generally but especially for those who work in the stores affected – it is hard not to conclude that more will have to be done and faster.

But some of the comments were overdone.  Some of the media – and I did two radio shows on the subject – seemed to think M&S was now another Woolworths or BHS.  It is not (yet), and the process underway is setting out to make sure it is not.  Yes, profits were down, but exceptional pension items made some figures look worse than the underlying performance.  M&S is still a major, large retailer; one caller on a phone in bet me they would be dead in 5-7 years.  I don’t see that at all.

M&S remains one of Britain’s good retailers; it just needs a faster, more certain course adjustment.  Don’t be surprised if these recent announcements are only the beginning.

Posted in Consumer Change, Digital, Food Retailing, Internet shopping, Marks and Spencer, Property, Retailers, Shop Numbers, Simply Food, Store Closures, Turnaround | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Unlocking the Potential of Scotland’s Towns


For most in Scotland, November 9th will probably be recalled as the day President Trump became a reality.  The irony that that day was the 27th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall will not be lost on some either.  But for many of those interested in Scotland’s Towns, the 9th November was their annual conference, this year in the splendid Galleries and Adam Smith Theatre in Kirkcaldy and on the theme of ‘unlocking the potential of Scotland’s Towns’.

Readers need to be aware of my role as Chair of Scotland’s Towns Partnership, the ‘go-to body’ for Scotland’s Towns and the organisers of the conference; though in reality I had little to do with the actual organising, leaving that to the well-oiled team.

Chaired by Lesley Riddoch (@LesleyRiddoch), we kicked off with local and national welcomes from Fife Council (Lesley Laird (@LesleyLaird)) and STP (myself).  My comments trod well worn ground for readers of this blog, but can be downloaded here.  They could be read in tandem with our newly published Town and Country Planning Trading Places column which expands on the themes.

The main act for the first session was the Minister for Local Government and Housing, Kevin Stewart MSP (@KevinStewartMSP) , who after a brief set of remarks allowed himself to be grilled by ‘bad cop’ Lesley Riddoch.  It is hard to say who won the tussle, but if nothing else, the key role of towns was reinforced.


The second session comprised Steve Millington from Manchester Metropolitan University and the Institute of Place Management and Andy Milne from SURF.  Steve focused on change and footfall in high streets drawing on a range of research.  Andy in a strong presentation focused on the need for creative collaborations across Scotland’s towns and in horizontal and vertical dimensions.  He saw too many gaps in the landscape of support for comfort.

Four workshops bracketed lunch on themes of digital towns, town centre living, creative places and proactive planning and place-making; themes recognisable from the National Review.  Case studies and examples provided detailed illustrations of how potential is being unlocked across Scotland.

The final session comprised Jarmo Suominen and Kelvin Campbell.  They approached the topic of urban transformation in very different but complementary and engaging ways.  Jarmo drew on his international and Finnish experiences to critique public service delivery and to showcase his work on liveable places.  The message was about using what is there already and to stop building walls (real or virtual) and clusters but instead to open up and join up sites of practice, whether schools, offices or whatever.


Kelvin Campbell (@massivesmall) – a radical incrementalist – in a brilliant and enthused closing talk focused on the need to begin to do things and to start in small ways.  Placing people at the heart of places he focused on what we can do and how planners and planning has failed us.  In a broad-ranging presentation, he argued for building a new engaged and enabled way of joining bottom-up (of which we need more) and top-down (of which we need less).  Echoing Andy Milne’s earlier speech he gave us a blueprint for unlocking the potential we have in Scotland’s towns.


Full reports and details of the conference will be provided in due course on STP’s website.    There were a number of active tweeters on the day (for which many thanks) and you can follow what they thought via the hashtag #stc16.


Posted in Architecture, Creative Places, Digital, Fife, Government, High Streets, Places, Planning, Proactive Planning, Regeneration, Retail Change, Scotland's Town and High Streets, Scotland's Towns Partnership, Scottish Government, Small Towns, Town Centre Action Plan, town centre first, Town Centre Living, Town Centre Review, Town Centres, Towns, WTLS16 | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Singapore Swing

My current dose of warm weather in Singapore and soon in Hong Kong is mainly about meeting and talking to partners of the University of Stirling in my capacity as Deputy Principal for Internationalisation and Graduate Studies. It is good to be meeting up with old friends and new possible partners.

But in the time honored tradition of academic multi tasking (or spinning plates more accurately) I am also combining my trip with a little retail work. Some of that will be about looking at shops and talking with retailers, most notably at the Awards Ceremony for the Retail Asia Top 500 Awards where I have been involved this year as a judge for the “Best of the Best” award. This should be interesting and informative.

Howver I am not being allowed to get away quietly and am having to sing for my supper a little. One of Stirling’s long term collaborators and also one of my PhD students from last century (sorry, Lynda), Dr Lynda Wee, is hosting a roundtable at the NYCU Media seminar on Retail Revolution: rethink, reinvent, which takes place in Singapore on the 29th October. She asked me to do 5 minutes on three trends to kick off the discussion, before others chip in with their thoughts.

So, what are my three trends for this 5 minute slot? Besides caveating this with the obvious that I am from the UK and thus local Asia trends may be slightly different in emphases, and that despite my travels my knowledge is UK centric, I think these trends have wide resonance.

First, convenience and ease. We are all well used to the notion of convenience and of convenience stores, but I really mean more than that. This is about convenience in people’s lives, whether digital or physical, in time or space terms and about how retailers have to make their offer not only convenient but also easy to use. The store or the offer can not be difficult or it destroys the point for many consumers. But how often is the shop difficult? It is not also only about speed, but these ideas are related and slowness is often a customer killer.

Secondly, compelling and authentic. Retailers need to make ‘statements’ about their position and offer and do this through the way they put together their operations. These stores and offers make the consumer respond and retailers back up this by their actions with consumers. Retail stores need to shout their message and proposition through all that the store or website does and says. But again how often is the offer or store confused and cluttered? Retailers need to be much clearer in their ‘statements’ at store, website, brand and all levels. When this is done properly this translates into a compelling and authentic position of retailers clearly demonstrating that they know what they are doing, operationally and in terms of customer’s needs. Too often this is not the case.

Thirdly and finally, engaged and entertained. Shoppers want to be engaged with the store, website or company, but not for engagement’s sake, but rather because the retailers gets what the consumer wants in their visit. Engagement has many forms covering brand, experience, product, price, creation, market amongst others and not all consumers want the same thing or level or type of engagement. That is why the best retailers are focusing on customer creation of the experience and the level of engagement or in some cases entertainment. Consumers often want this, but on their terms, and to be entertained not by others, by through their own or their group’s activities. This of course is as important in the digital as in the physical space.

So, that’s my starter for three for this Friday. Let’s see how it goes.

Posted in Academics, Consumer Change, Consumer Lifestyle, Consumers, Convenience stores, Experiential, Multichannel, Retail brands, Retailers, Singapore | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

An Unholy Trinity: Brexit, Marmite and Toblerone

Last week was all about a divided nation. Were you cheering or crying when Marmite was removed from Tesco’s shelves?

The delicious irony that Dave Lewis, CEO of Tesco, used to work for Unilever, the makers of Marmite and various other food and non-food products, was of course the cherry on top of the public spat between the two companies.  A national Marmite shortage was threatened as Tesco refused to accept a major price increase from Unilever on this and other brands.  Of all the things we might expect from Brexit, a Marmite crisis was not one of them.

But, just in the nick of time a (secret) deal between the two companies saw the disaster averted. Nonetheless, it was a good story and one that produced more than a few headlines and commentary. Marmite was not the only product affected, but it was Marmite that made it  such a great story.  Marmite – a product you either love or hate – removed from retail shelves by the plunging pound, brought on by Brexit – another conception you either love or hate.  And despite David Davis’ ludicrous assertions in Parliament, 51.9% is NOT ‘overwhelming’; we are very much split on Marmite.

The origins of the public row seem to lie in Unilever wanting to bring in a 10% price hike on many of their products. Tesco – though other retailers were involved, albeit less publically – rebelled against this, saying they could not absorb such a price rise and would not pass it on to their customers.  Unilever said the price rises are needed and necessary as the pound has fallen so much since the Brexit vote, pushing up the import prices to the UK and raw materials generally.  Given Marmite is made in the UK,  the rationale seemed to be spread a little thin. Despite the press headlines, the price rise was for a basket of products, though most of them also seemed to be made in the UK. Sympathy for Unilever was in short supply.

Pictures  of empty shelves began to appear quite quickly, as in the one below of the lack of Flora in my local Tesco. Online shopping for such products seemed to be even more adversely affected.


Where has all the Flora gone? Tesco, Stirling, 15th October 2016

In one sense the specifics don’t matter – not that they ever did in the Leave Europe campaign anyhow. It was all about perception; and Tesco won that hands down. The plunging pound will no doubt drive up import prices.  This will lead to products being more expensive and increased inflation.  Manufacturers and retailers will battle to try to get their share of costs covered (manufacturers) or sales and competitive position protected (retailers).  But, in the end we will no doubt see prices for consumers rise or products shrink further.

My second photo below is a snip from a Twitter exchange over the weekend (courtesy of @retailbarcode). A lot of tweets I saw focused on Marmite or on Naked Wines increasing their wine prices (by 5%). But this one took the opposite approach, and is least a product made elsewhere. Toblerone explained that due to price increases some of their UK bars were going to shrink , by a factor of 10%+. I bet the price remains the same or increases as well. This is a harbinger of things to come I suspect.



Tweet from @Retailbarcode


For Tesco, hot on the heels of some better financial results, being seen to be on the consumers’ side harks back to the Jack Cohen anti-RPM days and is a good stance especially if they fear competitors may not want to pass on price rises (notably the discounters). They certainly came out of the affair with more positive publicity. But the brands Unilever produce are some of the ‘big beasts’ of the food branding world.  Consumers love them – well not so much Marmite – and will want to see them in stock.  Whether they want to see the price tag attached as Brexit takes full hold on our lives is another matter of course. Food deflation may well be a thing of the past, due to the aftershocks of the 23rd June, as the pound and today’s inflation figures show.

It is worth noting that other yeast extracts are of course available; but they are not Marmite. I wonder how many substitutes were rejected in online deliveries this week?

Posted in Availability, Brands, Brexit, Buying, Discounters, Food Retailing, Internet shopping, Marmite, Pricing, Product Sizes, Relationships, Stock, Supply Chains, Tesco, Toblerone, Unilever | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments



At a period when there seems to be an anniversary at every turn, on the 21st October there will be the 50th remembrance of a truly shocking event – Aberfan.  Seared in the memories of individuals and communities, especially across South Wales, Aberfan stands as testimony to collusion, cover-up and ‘corporate’ mis-management.

On the 21st October 1966, thousands of tonnes of coal tip waste slid down a mountainside and devastated the mining village of Aberfan.  The black mass crashed through the local school; 144 people died, 116 of them young children.  Only 25 children from the school survived.

I lived in a different part of South Wales, but this anniversary resonates personally like few others.  I suppose this is due to the sheer scale of the event at the time, the television pictures which seem vivid in my memory, that in later years I would often have to drive past the village and of course that at the time in 1966, I was the same age as many of the children that died.

This of course is nothing compared to those who lived through it and the families of those who did not.  Gaynor Madgwick was severely injured in Aberfan school. Her brother and sister died there.  She has now written about the events of the day (and weeks, months and years that followed) and the last 50 years, both from her own understanding and the pursuit of truth and sacrifice of her family and others, and from interviews with those closely involved – families, doctors, visiting dignitaries and so on.  In so doing some of her own remembrances are challenged and re-assessed.

For me, this is a remarkable and powerful book about a man-made disaster and its aftermath, but told in a personal way.  The story it tells is as vital today as ever, when we often see the pursuit of business activities placed above the needs, desires and welfare of individuals and whole communities.

The book starts with a searing introduction by veteran broadcaster Vincent Kane.  It is a sharp counterpoint to what follows, pulling no punches in holding people to account, not least himself and his own profession for their silence and then aggressive negative coverage of the aftermath and the community.

Cofiwch Aberfan

Gaynor Madgwick (2016) Aberfan.  Y Lolfa Cyf, Talybont. ISBN 978-1-78461-275-7. Available for purchase from bookshops and direct from Y Lolfa.

Posted in Campaigns, Community, Disasters, Governance, Government, History, Personal, Places, Regeneration, Regulation, Social Justice, Wales | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

Pontypool vs Penarth: Rugby and The High Street and Town of 1951

This post has been ready for some time, but I thought I would publish it today, as it is National Sporting Heritage Day. If you are reading this on the 30th in Stirling then the University is hosting a pop-up event on our Commonwealth Games Archive between 1-5 pm. This post is about some of the personal sporting heritage that I possess.

Readers of this blog will be aware that my father played rugby.  Since his death I have occasionally tried to sort out and organise some of the artefacts he left. A few weeks ago I started looking at his rugby programmes and something caught my eye.

His rugby career began aged 19, when he started playing for Pontypool.  Quite why Pontypool is another story given he lived miles away, and quite why Pontypool tried him on the wing, centre, second row, lock (No 8) and wing forward in his first few games must be another.  But they persevered and he played over 20 games for them in his one and only season in Monmouthshire.

But what caught my eye was the programme for Penarth vs Pontypool in early March 1951.  This was one of the few ‘away’ programmes amongst a collection of ‘home’ Pontypool ones for that year.  It was the adverts that seemed so different.  So, I took a closer look at the Penarth programme, and a home Pontypool one from two weeks later.  Scanned versions of both programme are in the slideshows in this blog.

These I feel can be used as representatives of these two towns, as the programmes seem to be essentially the same all season, varying only in team sheets and club secretary updates and a column or two.  Most of the pages are unchanged in every programme – for cost reasons one suspects.

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The volume of adverts, at a time of rationing (one butcher asks for customers to register), is impressive, but the nature, style and content got me thinking.  The table below summarises the two programmes by the number of adverts by line of business.  The sheer variety is immediate, but closer inspection reveals, I think, more.

 Categories (38) Penarth   Pontypool  
CTN 3 2
Printers 1 2
Menswear 2
Radio Engineer 2
Laundry 1
Grocers 2 3
Butchers 1 1
Radio Hire 1
Garage 2 1
Ballroom 1
Paint merchants/home decorators 1
Electrical 1 1
Barbers 1 1
Chemist/Opticians 1
Florists 1
Shoes 1 1
Fishmonger 1 2
Hotel 1 1
Cinema 1
Watchmaker/jeweller 1
Hairdresser (M) 1 1
Brewery 1
Builders Merchants 1
Photography 1
Auctioneer 1
Removals 1
Fish & Chips 1
Heating/plumbing 1
Café 2
Ironmonger 1
Coal merchants 1
Drapers 1
Furniture 1
Welding/engineer 1
Bus/coaches 1
Undertaker 1
Painter/decorator 1
Furnishings 1
Chivers Preserves 1
Total 29 32

Firstly, the adverts are essentially written only – there are few illustrations – and they bear very little by way of branding or logos.  They are to an extent visual, but design is about typography alone.  Is this a marketing or a publishing technology constraint?

Secondly, the adverts are very much for local businesses.  This is especially so in the Penarth programme, but even in the Pontypool one it extends only to a few surrounding local villages.  The adverts represent a local community supporting a local team and the close cultural and locational place bonds are apparent.  In the Penarth programme the business addresses suggest a tight grouping as well, focused as they are on the main shopping streets.  This local dimension also links to the lack of branding.  Many of these businesses are of course no longer trading.

Thirdly, there are some common elements across both programmes but also possibly surprisingly, large differences. The variation is really impressive and paints a picture of these local communities.  The CTN and grocers adverts are the most numerous (including in Pontypool, Daniel & Son, ‘the oldest and the best, still going strong as ever, over 160 years today’), but common elements include barbers, butchers, fishmongers, printers, garages, hotels and men’s hairdressers.  The differences, to my eye at least, tell a story of ‘posh’ Penarth vs the industrial or working class Pontypool, with the latter containing coal merchants, welders, ironmongers and amongst the grocers the Abersychan and Pontypool Co-operative Society.

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Finally, there are some (for today) oddities.  There is no mention anywhere of television (then nationally in its relative infancy) but there are radio engineers and radio hire.  Perhaps the strangest is the Pontypool undertaker who as well as funeral furnishings, cremations and embalming, offers out his Rolls Royce hearses and cars for weddings, concerts and ‘outing parties’.

These two programmes are snapshots to a bygone age of locality, place and community.  Some 65 years old, the adverts (and indeed the programmes themselves) point to the tight inter-linkages within community.  This local sense of place has been swept away in recent decades.  This is not to romanticise this past – or the retailers whose adverts are in the slide shows – nor to claim it was better then – I don’t know, but doubt it – but rather to highlight the changing nature of our places/towns, our high streets, people and businesses, through these cultural artefacts.

I have a feeling that this theme of change as seen through the artefacts my father left me might be one I revisit on occasion, and that there is much more to be done using this collection of programmes including more work on these two in particular.

In case you are wondering, at the end of his first senior rugby season, in Pontypool, my father was ‘enticed’ back to his home town, Bridgend (and a couple of interesting letters in his papers show how this happened).

And keen readers will recognise the name Sidoli in the Pontypool programme (both in rugby terms and in cultural terms); an example of the Italian influence throughout South Wales and its effect on our diet – chips, ice cream and coffee.

Posted in Advertising, Community, Cooperatives, Design, High Streets, Independents, Local Retailers, Places, Retail History, Rugby Union, Small Shops, Towns, Urban History | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment