Talking Shops at The Engine Shed


On a number of occasions this blog has covered aspects of the past and in particular ghostsigns and historic shops and shopfronts.  Across Scotland (and beyond) there is an enduring fascination for, and concern with, our retail history.

I was delighted therefore to accept an invitation from Dr Lindsay Lennie (@historicshops) to speak at an event to mark the launch of an exhibition on Scotland’s historic shops and shopfronts.  I was even more pleased that it meant I got to see the exhibition on day one and to present at the excellent Engine Shed in Stirling.


Unfortunately, I had to miss the first session of the morning, but I am told it pointed to untapped resources on our retail history at local and national levels.  Having had some students look at a small part of what Stirling Archives can offer, this is a huge opportunity waiting to be explored.

The second session was devoted to improvements on the ground and used examples of the problems and the benefits to be had from investing in historic shop fronts.  The example of Falkirk’s approach can be seen in this booklet. This is not easy – or cheap – but the rewords for shops and places can be great (as the photos below show from Paisley).  This was followed by a discussion of the development of the Talking Shops exhibition and the launch of the exhibition video.


Post-lunch saw a whistle stop tour of Co-operative store architecture from Lynn Pearson (@lynnpearson67), providing a fascinating overview of some magnificent small and large stores.  I hope the book on this does see the light of day soon.  It will add to a canon including Woolworths (and also here).

Lindsay Lennie then switched focus to store interiors and demonstrated all too vividly the dangers we face.  As I know from our work on Sanders, finding interiors is much harder than exteriors.  To realise that so many currently existing interiors are not protected, shows how fragile our history has become (a nice example from Lindsay is shown below).  This linked to Lynn Pearson’s similar point about murals on stores (and see the current issue in Hull).


As for me, well I lowered the tone by talking about present and future retail.  I trod my well-worn path of retail change and (overheads here) but then tried to explore and suggest that retail history can be used to promote an experience in a place and experiential retailing.  We need to be selective – and that is an issue – but we can harness the past to provide stimuli for the present and the future.

The exhibition itself, like many historic shops, is small but perfectly formed.  It is well worth a visit (as is the Engine Shed) and takes viewers through the issues of the development of retailing, the materials and designs used in historic shopfronts and provides some thoughtful points about history and places across Scotland.  The exhibition runs to the 22nd June and is free.

One local item caught me eye – a Gilded Beaver from King Street in Stirling. It really is a loss to streetscapes when signs such as this were removed. “Please note that following some interactions via Twitter it seems that the sign was on 3 King Street and not 4).


As noted before in this blog, resources for further reading on this topic in Scotland are readily available.

Posted in Architecture, BHS, Buildings, Falkirk, Ghost Signs, High Streets, Historic Shops, History, Retail History, Scotland's Town and High Streets, Shopfronts, Signage, Stirling, Streets, Streetscapes, Urban History, Woolworths | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

1967 and All Things Retail

2017 was the 50th Anniversary of the opening of the University of Stirling. There were a number of celebrations and activities, as well as periods of reflection. One of the events on campus was an exhibition about 1967. This involved items from our collection being brought together, as well as reflections by various academics on the events of 1967 in their own subject areas. These reflections are still going on.

In my case, I was asked to write about retail events in 1967 and my comments were put on display. What I had missed however, was that they were also made available in a blog. Having just seen this (my fault entirely), I have reblogged the piece below (thanks to Sarah Bromage) with some additional links.


1967 and All Things Retail


Retailing 50 years ago would in many ways be familiar to people today, but in other ways has been utterly transformed. The act of shopping is predominantly the same, though the stores and shops are very different. The pre-decimalisation, cash not credit card focused retail sector, operated mainly through small shops in local high streets organised in a rigid urban hierarchy. The out-of-town retailing revolution was just beginning, with the concepts of superstores and regional shopping centres in their infancy. Consumer durables were being transformed into mass commodities. The refrigerator was spreading across homes, accounting for the 1967 introduction of Captain Birds Eye as the ‘face’ of fish fingers. Cars were becoming everyday items and Asda’s first discount petrol station was introduced in Halifax to their ninth store. More widely there was debate over whether self-service petrol stations were safe and would be introduced generally. Travel and distance would never be the same, including for shopping.


1967 was a pivotal point in the retail revolution. The changing operations and locations/forms might be in their infancy, but the price revolution was being hotly contested. Resale price maintenance (RPM), by which manufacturers and suppliers controlled the retail prices of products, had been abolished in 1964. However exemptions could be sought through the courts and 1967 saw legal battles to remove or retain RPM in products as diverse as cigarettes, sweets and electrical items. A recurring fear expressed in court was that unfettered price competition by retailers would advantage the new supermarket companies and lead to the death of small stores such as confectioners. This was a battle over which mattered more, small shopkeepers or consumers.

Prices were also in the news at the end of the year as the pound was devalued. Harold Wilson notably commented that ‘it does not mean that the pound here in Britain, in your pocket or purse or in your bank, has been devalued’. This response to trade deficit, increasing unemployment, falling productivity, a weak economy and creditor pressure, did stoke inflation and thus impact demand and shops. The state of the economy was also why actions to reduce prices for consumers was significant. This sounds all too familiar today.

Britain’s First Shopping Centre?

On the 25th May 1967 Princess Margaret and Lord Snowden formally opened Phase I of the Cumbernauld Shopping Centre. This huge multi-storey building (a ‘megastructure’) acting as a town centre, including retailing, was reported as the UK’s first shopping centre, though it was much more. Certainly it was the first of its ‘type’. Built over a dual carriageway the new centre consigned the old urban ways to the past, separating functions and focusing all urban retail in the one place, at the pedestrian heart of the settlement. Voted Britain’s most hated building in 2005 and a serial winner of the worst town centre in Scotland’s Carbuncle Awards, the 1967 promise of a ‘town for tomorrow’ never really lived up to the vision. Its approach though does live on in our regional shopping centres.


The Co-operative Movement

It may be hard to believe nowadays but in 1967 the Co-op was a retail giant with a large and significant market share (My Special issue “History” of the Post-War Co-operative Movement from 1994, can be downloaded here). It had been battling to modernise for a decade as competition increased, but in 1967, significant steps forward were made. A young, dynamic, external appointee, Philip Thomas became Chief Executive of the Cooperative Wholesale Society, sparking board resignations. Thomas promoted radical merger and reorganisation and, throughout the year battles were waged over his proposed future direction. Consolidation and merger of the very small local Co-op societies in order to compete with the national chains and brands did accelerate. Thomas died in an accident in 1968 and is widely regarded as the ‘lost leader’ for the Co-op, raising questions of what might have been if his plans had been followed through at the pace he proposed.

One legacy however from Thomas, announced in December 1967, and launched with an advertising campaign in early 1968, was the introduction of a national brand for the Co-operative (‘the clover leaf’), replacing the myriad of older local and other symbols, trademarks and brands. It became a brand icon for several decades, but could not stem the Co-op decline on its own. In 2017 an updated version of this famous brand was brought back to lead the business.



The Hole in the Wall

The summer of 1967 might be known for many things, but quietly, at a Barclays branch in Enfield, on the 27th June, the world’s first public cash machine or ATM was unveiled. Conceived as a convenience to enable access to cash outwith the (restricted) bank opening hours, the cashpoint has revolutionised consumer access to cash and indeed banking itself. The Barclay’s ATM was a limited, token based, system producing a maximum of £10 on the use of a four digit PIN, and has clearly since grown in sophistication (though now under threat from cards and contactless payments). 1967 is thus the start of the consumer and banking card based revolution.

Posted in 1967, ATMs, Cashpoints, Consumers, Cooperative Group, Cooperatives, Corporate History, Cumbernauld, Fish, History, New Towns, Pricing, Retail History, Shopping Centres, University of Stirling, Urban History | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Healthy Ageing in Scotland (HAGIS) and Online Shopping


We are all getting older, even if many of us are feeling younger than our chronological age.  The ageing of the population is a recurrent theme cutting across topics and activities.  But, in all of the discussion, there is a core theme about healthy ageing; how can we have an older, healthier population, and how would we know?

In order to have effective policy in this area, there is a need to understand the conditions faced by older people.  Scotland has had no longitudinal study on its ageing population.  HAGIS (Healthy Ageing in Scotland) is an attempt to fill this gap, and has developed and reported on a pilot survey for such a longitudinal study.  The protocol for this can be downloaded here.  The intention is to build a longitudinal study comparative with those in other countries.

HAGIS used an innovative sample frame (linked to administrative data) to produce a random sample across Scottish households (at least one person in the household aged 50+).  There were 1057 interviews supplemented by a self-completion questionnaire provided by 67% of respondents.

The results from the pilot survey were launched in early December 2017.  The report, produced by the Stirling Management School, University of Stirling, contains 17 chapters encompassing the project itself and reviews sectors and aspects as revealed by the data. It will be available via the HAGIS website soon.


Our chapter in this (available here) is on online shopping and service use and is authored by Maria Rybaczewska, myself and Steve Burt. We were asked to look at the relationships between age, internet use and online shopping.


What did we find?

The overall HAGIS report authors selected four key items from our analysis of the data on internet use:

  • 76% of Scotland’s older population use the internet. Internet usage by older people in Scotland is higher than the average across OECD countries.
  • The most common internet activities for older people are using email (67%), finding information about goods and services (66%) and online shopping (54%).
  • Internet usage is less frequent as age increases. 56% of people aged 80 or over report that they never use the internet.
  • Amongst internet users there is no age difference in the proportion using email. Older internet users are less likely to use the internet to find information or shop online.

Our conclusions in our chapter were that:

Whilst the majority of academic publications defined old as 55 years and older or 65 years and older, the HAGIS data suggests that the boundary in terms of using the Internet for selling/shopping goods and services and for finding information about goods and services is rather older, at 70 or 75 and above.  This corresponds to the idea of healthy ageing, active old age and current society behaving in a different way now than it did a decade ago.  Increasingly people at 60-65 and over are far more active than their age equivalents previously and this ‘active’ life for some encompasses modern technology for goods, services and information as much as it might do physical activity.  The use of the internet and other technological services is extended well into what is perceived of as older age.  We found that there is limited evidence that use is greater in Scotland than in England.  Primary uses were emails, sending for goods and services and shopping on the internet.


Ageing is often seen in a negative light with adverse consequences.  Understanding what older people already do, how this is changing and the possibilities there are, is vital, and not only in the retailing and online sphere.  Scotland now has the opportunity to develop HAGIS and this longitudinal work (using linked data sets) to provide innovative and valuable policy choices and outcomes.  We were very pleased to be involved in looking at the retail data – and not just for personal reasons!

HAGIS was funded by the National Institute on Aging and the Nuffield Foundation and managed and delivered by the University of Stirling and the University of Edinburgh.  FACTS International carried out the research.


Douglas E., Rutherford A. and D. Bell (2018) Pilot study protocol to inform a future longitudinal study of ageing using linked administrative data.  Healthy Ageing in Scotland (HAGIS), BMJ Open, 8 (

Douglas E., Watson T. and D. Bell (2017) Healthy Ageing in Scotland: The pilot survey.  Published by Stirling Management School, University of Stirling.

Posted in Academics, Consumers, Digital, HAGIS, Healthy Ageing, Institute for Retail Studies, Internet, Internet shopping, Older consumers, Online Retailing, Retail Change, Retailing, Technology, University of Stirling | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Argos catalogues – a fascinating historical archive”

Rather to my surprise, in the eight or so years this blog has been in existence I seem not to have mentioned my collection of Argos catalogues, except tangentially.  Built up and in-filled after an initial donation some 20 years ago, I believe I have the only complete collection outside the company.

For me they are an invaluable piece of social history and a window on retailing and consumer worlds that we no longer can accurately envisage. Could you accurately recall what, how and at what price a Tesco was selling products in 1973? yet, with the catalogues we can.  The catalogues provide a record of mainstream consumer taste in the UK since 1973, and allow us to consider patterns of change in products, prices and other less obvious retail representations. They are also interesting items in their own right.

Just before Christmas I mentioned the collection to Jane Bradley of the Scotsman and she immediately jumped at doing a piece to run over the Christmas/New Year period.  This in turn led to some radio and other press coverage and an interesting stream of emails, through which I am now working.

Professor Leigh Sparks. Picture: John Devlin

The first Argos catalogue. Photo by John Devlin

The Scotsman piece is available here.  I do have to apologise for the photo, which is not the fault of the photographer, but my rather white and gaunt appearance is due to a week’s fast on my return from India.  Not entirely voluntary but certainly self-inflicted. The Scotsman also commented in its leader column, and noted that the catalogues were a “fascinating historical archive”. It does make one wonder therefore why our National Collections seem so uninterested in what they seem to term “ephemera”,

The University of Stirling also saw the potential in the collection and produced a short video of my discussing the market for the catalogues, what they show and how they could be used in research on a variety of topics.  The video is available here.

This is really a large research project and one that may well take me into retirement.  We did a few years ago begin to play with a few ideas and produced a couple of papers, at conferences and in journals.  For those interested I provide a download of one of them here:

Cataloguing Change: Argos Catalogues in 1973 and 1998 (2001). International Journal of Retail and Distribution Management, 29, 427-441

I also constructed a spatial-structural ‘history’ of Argos, or more accurately a telling of the development of the company and it too is available below:

A catalogue of success? Argos and catalogue showroom retailing (2003), Service Industries Journal, 23, 2, 79-111

Over the intervening period I have continued to build the collection and to develop ideas for what could be done with them in academic terms. We have played with a few things, but will soon begin to get serious about what we can learn. The time for this is right as with the company now ever more on line, the catalogue being withdrawn, the future for maintaining knowledge of what we bought etc. is more precarious and so this historical and social record is, I believe, extremely important and valuable in a number of senses.

Professor Leigh Sparks holding the first Argos catalogue

Posted in Academics, Argos, Brands, Catalogues, Consumer Change, Corporate History, Design, History, Milton Keynes, Pricing, Products, Research, Retail brands, Retail Change, Retail History, Retailers, Social Change | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

The Future of Work in Retailing? Just Walk Out

There has been quite a lot of attention in the last few days on the Amazon Go unit in Seattle being opened to the public.  Much has focused on whether this is the end of retail work and how fast this will sweep through our food retailing.

A couple of things should be immediately stated.  Amazon Go has been in trial mode for some time now, and its public opening is somewhat later than expected.  This suggests some teething problems, which given what is being attempted, is to be expected.  Secondly, this is a small store, one shop trial.  There may be more to come (indeed, will be more), but should local stores across Scotland be worried at this point?  Hardly.  Reality and hype are a long way apart here again.

Amazon Go is a logical continuum of trends we already see.  Watching the roll-out of self-checkouts in heavily trafficked urban stores, and of cashless shopping shows the consumer demand for speed, rapidity, convenience and perhaps control.  Amazon Go takes this to another level (through its use of technology and machine learning) and integrates the product end of the retail operation to the in-store consumer experience.  For some consumers this will be perfect; for others not so.  For the retailer, the linkage and integration could be great, but there remain questions over the cost and return.  Will the increased throughput, sales (possibly) etc. and reduced labour costs outweigh the technology costs (not now necessarily, but in the future)?  It is one version of the future, but is not going to be the only one.

There were a couple of tweets around the topic which made me laugh:

Amazon goWh Smith

The absurdity of queuing to get into a store whose whole rationale is not to have queues, demonstrates perhaps our tech interested world and the fascination for all things Amazon and innovative.  Just Walk Out indeed – be nice if we could Just Walk In. As for WH Smith, well that’s just cruel, though true! Their use of self-checkouts is one that regularly drives consumers crazy. How not to do technology.

The Amazon Go story came at the same time as Tesco and Sainsbury (following Asda in December) announced job cuts in stores and especially management level reductions.  Pressured by costs and competition, these retailers are having to look at all their practices and with labour being a major cost, it is the obvious target.  Much of the change seems to be in reducing management (and full-time) staff, mainly (though not entirely) in the larger stores, reflecting the significant pressure such units are under.  Whilst some staff may get redeployed, there will be a lot of personal upset at the job losses, and lives affected.

Taken together Amazon Go and Tesco/Sainsbury point to the ever changing nature of retailing.  In the UK, the BRC Retail Employment Monitor for the fourth quarter of 2017 found that employers in the sector had 2.9% fewer staff, working for 3.9% fewer hours than they had a year earlier. There are new jobs to be had and significant skills are needed in retailing, but these are changing.  Amazon Go points the way in which some parts of retailing will be rethought – if consumers allow.  Whilst work in retailing will always be there, its nature and scale continue to evolve and there is no doubt the scale of retail work will continue to be affected by technology and competitive effects. Whether this will result in a loss of 900,000 jobs in the UK by 2025 remains to be seen, but current trends certainly point to real pressures on workers.

Posted in Amazon Go, Asda, Automation, BRC, Consumers, Contactless, Convenience stores, Employees, Employment, Food Retailing, Hypermarkets, management, Retail Change, Retailers, Sainsbury, Self-Scanning, Tesco, Urban, WH Smith | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

High Streets for Consumers or High Streets for Citizens?

A little while ago I came across a new article by Julian Dobson entitled “from me towns to we towns”. I invited Julian to summarise this for this blog,  but he thought some up to date context would work better than a simple summary of the article. So what follows is Julian’s take on high streets for consumers or citizens? It poses and answers the vital question of who are our high streets/town centres/places for? And for what purpose?

Julian writes:

Early in November, Dover became the latest of Britain’s town centres where you could no longer buy a Big Mac and fries.

There was a time when the McDonaldisation of our high streets was seen as a threat. Today, local newspapers report a sense of nostalgia as customers share their McMemories of a fast food retailer that had become regarded as a cornerstone of the community.

The sense of place attachment associated with a global brand that is indistinguishable wherever you go poses questions of what we now expect of contemporary town centres. Despite the flurry of activity associated with government reviews a few years ago, the responses to such questions have not changed much.

The responses tend to fall into four broad categories. The first is to say the town centre as we used to know it is obsolete. The second is to say we shouldn’t worry, because the changing face of the high street is simply ‘adaptive resilience’.

The third is to go for big, glitzy redevelopment schemes, hoping a shiny new shopping centre will bring back the crowds. The fourth, with a range of permutations, argues that small is beautiful, and advocates local, fine-grained, independent futures for town centres, often coupled with digital innovation.

In all these narratives the user of town centre space is constructed first and foremost as a consumer. And consumers, by definition, have the means to consume. High streets that are only shopping streets are for those who can afford to be there.

But even in today’s stripped-out and struggling town centres, people do more than shop. Children and young people play and socialise. People learn, argue, laugh, watch and sit. Some of them even debate and protest.

In a new article for the journal Citizenship Studies, I argue that our town centres can be places of emergent and insurgent citizenship, where members of the public can challenge and expand the limited range of future imaginaries typically offered by planners and property developers.

I discuss three examples of such citizenship, initiatives where local people have constructed new narratives of place and space in opposition to dominant ideas of the town centre. The People’s Republic of Stokes Croft in Bristol, Incredible Edible Todmorden in Yorkshire, and Transition Town Totnes in Devon have all offered more inclusive and imaginative futures for their localities.

They are not the only ones. But they are interesting in that each of them offers not just an alternative vision for a place, but a different vision of who it is possible to be in that space. They are visions in which citizens actively shape the places they live in and expect to be acknowledged and respected, not simply ‘consulted’ about local futures.

Through such activity local citizens can appropriate, reframe and expand narratives of adaptation and resilience, insisting that the ‘single story’ is not the only one. As I comment in Citizenship Studies, ‘Within an activist reframing of resilience, the commercial heart of a town can become a site for experimentation in economic models that value local networks, products and distinctiveness.’


Julian Dobson (2017) From ‘me towns’ to ‘we towns’: activist citizenship in UK town centres,Citizenship Studies Vol. 21 , Iss. 8, 


Julian Dobson is a “writer, researcher, former journalist, recidivist poet, and apprentice allotmenteer”  and the author of How to Save our Town Centres, available here, and which has featured in this blog before

Posted in "We" towns, Bristol Pound, Citizens, Community, Consumers, Creative Places, Incredible Edible, Local Retailers, Places, Planning, Public Realm, Retail Change, Social Justice, Spaces, Stokes Croft, Totnes, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Do Times Change? Cardiff Market

My fascination with markets is pretty well known and has been rolled out in posts in this blog on a regular basis.  One of the markets that has featured has been Cardiff Market; somewhere I have been visiting for over 50 years.

During that half-century or so I have often marvelled at, and purchased from Ashtons, the fishmongers at one of the entrances.  It really is a magnificent sight not only for its display and the volume of customers it attracts, but also for its sense of history and style.  The photos below don’t do it justice, but give a small flavour (their website has a short video on the current business and their ethos)

ashtons 2Ashtons 1

Cardiff Market remains for me a fascinating and evocative place.  Some of the stalls seem unchanging – both food and non-food – even though the product may have altered over time.  The quality (and price) of the food remains a major attraction.  New additions – spices and sweets – add variety, and the cafes, cake stalls provide a wide range and service.

Some of my first memories are of the lesser explored upper balcony, where my father took me when he bought medals and trophies for basketball competitions he ran.  At that time there was also the café (Faggots and Peas) and the pet stalls.  Both remain but the latter much reduced. Many of the upper stalls have declined and closed (though Kelly’s Records is going strong and worth exploring).

Visiting the upper floor again the other week I came across a display on the history of the market.  It mentions the origins of the current market from 1835 (and the need for it to replace the pre-cursor markets as the City grew) and has some interesting photos and comments.

Market Letter 1835

What really caught my eye though was the pieces on Ashton’s and their claimed status ina letter form 1930 of being in their place in the market from 1866 (though Ashton’s website mentions being in the market since 1890, which probably refers to the current structure).  Does this make them the longest running market stall in the UK?

1930 Letter

Their letter to the Market authorities from 1930 noted amongst other things that:

  • Trade is currently much reduced (this was in the Recession)
  • In such circumstances increased costs were harassing beleaguered shopkeepers (plus ca change?)
  • Their rent was to be increased by 22% per week!
  • Tenancy could be terminated on 7 days notice (wow).

Ashtons case as laid out in their letter (and one hopes/assumes they got relief) was that vital, long-standing, investing and employing businesses should not be penalised in such ways.  The ‘deal’ does seem a little outrageous, though the circumstances seem very familiar today.

If you are in Cardiff, go to the market and spend your money there.  If you want fish or poultry (and top-class it is) seek out Ashton’s.

Ashtons Photo with letterAshton Postcard

Posted in Cardiff, Consumers, Corporate History, Costs, Fish, Food, Food Retailing, Historic Shops, History, Local Retailers, Markets, Rates, Regulation, Rents, Retail Change, Retail History, Urban History, Wales | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment