Singapore’s Scary Monsters

Back in the warmth of Singapore for our graduation and alumni events and associated student and other meetings, and there seemed to be only one question people had for me; what could be done about Singapore’s ailing retail sector?  On the surface there seemed little wrong – lots of people around – but beneath this, things may be a little scary.

Singapore is not a large place and its connectivity has expanded rapidly over recent decades, with more MRT and other lines on the way.  The raising of quality and quantity in heartland malls and local shopping have decentralised retailing both for locals and for some tourists.  There is also a lot – and I mean a lot – of retail space, more of it empty than before. Rent is high and the economy is doing less well than it has in the past. E-commerce is growing from a low base.

A day visiting Orchard Road quickly makes the point.  Mall after mall, all upgraded, all chasing the same tourist spend and all with the same retailers (and French, Korean, Japanese et al  pastry shops which have exploded) rather numbs the mind.  Yes they differ in design and scale, but the function – and the functions within them – are identical.  The REIT phenomena has made venues almost interchangeable and despite the crowds it is hard to take positives across all the malls.  Empty space is more obvious (not just on Orchard) and according to reports is at a record high.  With high prices and such ‘sameness’ no wonder retailers are struggling.  Over shopped, over priced and for Singaporeans better deals ‘over there’.

And it is not only the tourist strip of Orchard Road that has this feel. The newest mall I saw was barely open, but the redeveloped SingPost center in Paya Lebar looked the same as so many others (although it is now twice the size after redevelopment). More locally focused perhaps and stuffed with food and beverage (now 30-50% of most malls) it was new, but in so many ways, old. I fear that this blandness and sameness has reached a tipping point and the vacant spaces are silent testimony to a massive and scary structural problem.


Another small instance of this is the adjacencies in some malls. The two photos below are from Marina Bay Sands (another with gaps) and from Ion Orchard. Fancy a Steinway with your Lego? Or keep your kids quiet with Ferrari junior (why?) while you have your teeth fixed? I am not sure I see the thinking here.


In my entire visit I only found one shop example that fought against the blandness.  In Ion Orchard, I came across Samsara by Gentle Monster.  Now I am not the target market, being neither on trend nor Korean influenced, but Gentle Monster did make me stop and look.  Is at a shop or an art installation?


Gentle Monster is a Korean designer sunglasses business which has grown rapidly in the last few years.  Its reputation is of generating quirky flagship stores and a celebrity following.  Singapore is the latest Asian store but there are stockists in Europe (Harvey Nichols in London).  Supposedly based around Nietzsche’s “Thus spoke Zarathustra”, the Singapore store is a bizarre (my term) set of ‘rooms’ with moving art installations (see montage below) and sunglasses in showcases.  It is quite a lot of space for a few sunglasses and I wonder about sales vs costs, but it certainly is a flagship statement.  The staff were engaging and wanting people to explore the store and seemed pleased to show it off. Their current website has a good explanation of the thinking behind the store and the displays in motion.

Experience and experimental retailing has been often claimed as the way forward and Singapore malls have space in spades to play with.  But can this experience be made to pay, consistently?  Gentle Monster is an interesting one-off but will it go stale quickly or will imitations make it lose its difference?  Either way, there is going to have to be a lot more innovation and smart thinking to sort out the space and demand equation in many malls in Singapore (and elsewhere).

Posted in Adjacencies, Art, Brands, Corporate branding, Customer engagement, Design, Experiential, Flagship, Food and Beverage, Gentle Monster, Korea, Malls, Online Retailing, Retailers, Retailing, Shopping Centres, Singapore, Space, Vacancies | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Time Out in Lisbon: Part Two

Following on from my personal wander around Lisbon and the Mercado da Ribeira (Part One), and on the day after my keynote presentation on retail, consumption and urban governance (the overheads are here), the conference had its own ambulation around the city, focusing on the Avenida da Liberdade and the Chiado.

The Avenida is the grand boulevard heart of Lisbon and is a 19th century installation.  The place to be seen and to see, it is in the grand tradition of such boulevards or avenues in Europe.  As Lisbon moved up from the waterfront and the older core and Chiado, so the Avenida took on an enhanced role for living and playing.

Today’s Avenida is very different to its original conception, with sometimes grander buildings, certainly more traffic and a renewed focus as the place for luxury retailing.  As the visuals below show, it is in part a calm space, in part a busy road.  Grand buildings remain, but interspersed with more modern monstrosities.  What were the planners (and architects) thinking?  Luxury retailers abound, bit so too do the new ‘luxury’ fashion for the popular market.  An Avenue of flagships.

The second part of the walk covered the older heart of Lisbon and especially the Chiado.  Affected by fire and other disasters it continues to undergo change but is a vibrant tourist and to an extent local heart, full of stores, shops, restaurants, squares and generally places to interact.  It feels much more personable and for people, than the Avenida, which was more for ostentatious display.

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One pleasant discovery walking around was the continuing presence – though sometimes precarious – of old historical shops, including their interiors. This included apparently the world’s oldest bookstore, and possibly the world’s smallest glove shop. The slide show above and below shows external pictures of some of these and the modern re-use of some grand facades by current attractions, for example H&M and Apple.

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The final stop of the day was an exhibition – Shops with a Story to Tell – which was another pleasant surprise.  This historical shops exhibition both mourned those that had been lost and celebrated in pictures, stories and artifacts those that remain.  Quite a few of these had been seen on the walking tour, but here their stories were told and modern photograpahs used to express their continuing value.  A few of the pieces are shown below which showcase the interiors of some of the shops seen earlier.

The exhibition was interesting – especially for someone who loves old shops and places which seek to preserve them and their business.  But, it perhaps was a little too ‘flat’, comprising the same approach to all the subjects.  The opportunity to integrate the story of shops, places and Lisbon, and to reflect on the present and the value history brings, was a little missed.

In one thing though the exhibition was a great success.  At the exit there was no gift shop (sorry, Banksy) but rather a collection of postcards with images used in the exhibition.  On the back of each card was text giving opening dates, operating hours, addresses and directions to the shop, plus a map of those other historical stores nearby.  In that way you could construct your own walking tour to the real things.  A flavour of the imagery is presented below.


Wouldn’t it be good if we could we do the same for say Edinburgh or Glasgow or even smaller cities such as Perth or Stirling, or have we lost too much?

Posted in Academics, Architecture, Brands, Buildings, Consumer Lifestyle, High Streets, Historic Shops, History, Lisbon, Localisation, Places, Public Realm, Regeneration, Reinvention, Resilience, Retail Change, Retail History, Retailing, Shopfronts, Streets, Streetscapes, Tourism, Town Centres, Urban History | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Time Out in Lisbon: Part One

It has been some time since I was in Lisbon and thus it was a pleasure to receive an invite to present a keynote to a conference on retail, consumption and urban governance, especially in early autumn, which is slightly more palatable in Portugal than in Scotland.

Being essentially a geography conference, there was a retail place/study trip, more of which in a future post on Part Two of this visit.  On the first day I had a free afternoon and asked my hosts what to see (that wasn’t already on the study tour).  Their suggestion was the Mercado da Ribeira, a 2014 regeneration scheme, at the waterfront, and which had proved a huge tourist attraction.

The Mercado building is the old (late 19th century) market hall for Lisbon.  A food market occupies one part of the regenerated site.  In the continuing saga of recent trips it was shut when I visited.

The main hall in the complex is occupied by/branded as Time Out Market Lisboa.  This is really a glorified food hall/court but identified as distinct by the Time Out branding.  The first of its kind in the world, it is a Time Out ‘curation’ of the best in Portuguese food and drink; ‘if it’s good it goes in the magazine.  If it’s great it goes on to the Market’.

Now I can not assess the quality or the price of the offer (it all looked great), but it was buzzing when I was there.  Most seemed to be tourists and I have read claims of between 2.1 and 3.4 million visitors per annum.  The main component was food, but there were stalls with ‘Portuguese Life’ (what’s the Portuguese for hygge?) and craft themes.  Events and displays also feature at set times.  The slide show below presents some of the look and feel of the refurbishment and the space.

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The interest for me was at least two fold.  The brand extension by Time Out is fascinating.  I am not sure of the detail of their involvement, especially financially, but it seems to be adding a ‘kite mark’ of quality or authenticity, borrowing from the magazine.  Secondly, the curation of a Portuguese food authenticity reminded me again of Eataly.  This seemed closer to the Eataly ethos than my Singaporean, Japanese example.  I still yearn for our Scottish version!  Whilst I recognise that not all will react positively to such concepts – citing the commodification of food culture, the lack of ‘real’ authenticity and the hyper-reality presented, there is something interesting here.  In Scotland anything that stoked interest in our food, would be in my view, a good thing.

In googling around the concept, I did note that Time Out are planning more of the same in other cities and countries.  It will be interesting to see how these go.  They had planned a London edition to open in 2016 near Shoreditch.  In March 2017 this was refused planning permission on impact grounds.  So, currently you have to go to Lisbon to see one – that is not a hardship!

Part Two will look at the Avenida de Liberdade, the Chiado and historical shops of Lisbon.

Posted in Academics, Architecture, Brands, Eataly, Emporium Shokuhin, Food and Beverage, Food Court, Food Tourism, Gastronomy, Historic Shops, History, Lisbon, Markets, Places, Regeneration, Retailers, Scotland Food and Drink, Singapore, Time Out, Tourism | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Are Retailers Social Engineers?

A few months ago, we published our report for Food Standards Scotland (FSS) entitled “Identifying and Understanding the Factors that can Transform the Retail Environment to Enable Healthier Purchasing by Consumers”.  The report and various summaries along with our brief commentary on it can be found on this blog here.

Reaction to the report can be best described as polarised, both directly to our face and in emails and social media.  There was a lot of support from health professionals and it has been described as thought-provoking and challenging.  Retailers and retailer bodies also found it challenging, but with a different slant, more often (though not always) casting it as misguided and disappointing.

One of the hopes from FSS and ourselves was that if nothing else the report opened up a debate.  And it was in that spirit that I presented the report to the Scottish Grocers Federation Parliamentary Cross Party Group on Independent Convenience Stores.  This Cross Party Group is proving a very worthwhile forum for debates on retail issues and is testimony to the renewed energy, desire, ambition and forward thinking of the Scottish Grocers Federation.  A full committee room listened politely to me, didn’t throw too much and engaged in the debate.

My overheads can be found here.  Not surprisingly the questioning and commentary on this was robust and challenging, but always fair, polite and recognising that diet and health in Scotland remain a big issue and a government priority.  The role of retailers in this is also recognised widely; the questions being over how best to improve diet and health and how other sectors fit into the equation.  As our report is at pains to point out, focusing on food retailers/shops alone and ignoring other food consumption sites and digital opportunities to purchase is not sustainable.  It runs the risk of damaging the very communities policy is seeking to help.

For me, the last question from the group crystallized some of the issues: ‘why do you want retailers to be social engineers?’ The point being made was that asking retailers to focus on health cast them in this role, and it is one they are not suited for.  So restricting unhealthy in-store ‘activities’ and rebalancing towards healthy is social engineering. It is a slightly different version of the ‘nanny state’ argument.

One of the key points in the report is that consumers are being asked to adopt individual responsibility in an inherently unfair context.  With the overwhelming balance of stimuli at the point of decision being towards unhealthy consumption, how can a consumer exhibit personal responsibility, at the point of purchase/consumption?  To that extent, my response to the question is that retailers are already social engineers, but are doing it unwittingly.  More exposure and questioning of the practices undertaken will make this more obvious.

We all agreed on one point though.  This ‘social engineering’ (if it is that) is also practised in sectors beyond retailing and in many cases is embedded in the whole consumption eco-system.  Unlike food retail shops, such other situations (cinemas, coffee shops, pubs, fast food and other restaurants) are actively focusing on super-sizing and upselling.  So you really need that bucket of popcorn in the cinema that is twice your body weight don’t you?  And staff are often rewarded for such ‘additional’ sales.

More positively, the Scottish Grocer’s Federation has for a number of years done a lot of work in Healthy Living and their efforts are underpinning the Healthcare Retail Standard. If you are unaware of the SGF’s positive efforts on Healthy Living then check out their work here.  This is one activity that could do with some super-sizing.

Thanks again to Scottish Grocers Federation for the platform and debate they provided. Their next Cross Party Group is on the proposed uncontroversial (not!) Deposit Return Scheme (DRS). The Scottish Grocers Federation view can be accessed here.

Posted in Community Grocer, Consumer Lifestyle, Consumers, Convenience stores, Cross Party Group, Deposit Return Scheme, Diet and Health, Food, Food Retailing, Food Standards, Health, Healthcare Retail Standard, Healthy Living, Independents, Local Retailers, Restaurants, Retail Change, Retailers, Scotland Food and Drink, Scottish Grocers Federation, Small Shops, Social Inequality, Social Justice, Sugar Tax, Waste | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Barclay Review

A few weeks have now passed since the publication of the much anticipated Barclay Review of Non Domestic Rates in Scotland.  I was away at the time and did not get much sense of how it was received, though did note the headlines about private schools.  So, given rates has featured on this blog before, I thought I should have a read.  If you want to do likewise then it can be downloaded here.

A couple of points can be made at the outset.  Despite its length, it is well written and is a clear read.  It is not often you can say that about such reviews.  Secondly, it does rather go out of its way to point out its constraints (tax neutral, no re-opening of 2017 issues) and that many respondents wanted to either range outside its brief, or have a good moan (there’s a nice line about the hospitality industry crying ‘woe is me’ probably in their best Frankie Howard, but then being completely unable to come up with any ideas for solutions).

Barclay recommendations

The Review’s recommendations come in three areas.  First, reforms to support economic growth; secondly to improve the administration/experience; and thirdly to ensure the fairness (level playing field) of the system/process.  I won’t dwell in detail on this but do note the clarion call for improved clarity, consistency, transparency, modernisation etc. that pervades the recommendations.  This is to be welcomed, though the side-swipe at the assessors may have ruffled a few feathers.

From a retail and a town centre point of view there are a few key suggestions, and in my view one glaring omission.

The report illustrates clearly the huge burden on the retail sector that rates are.  Making the system better will help a little.  The Review of the Small Business Bonus Scheme is overdue and there is a very interesting point about learning from Northern Ireland and focusing such a scheme on town centre situations.  The suggested reduction of the large business supplement (and the nice nuance of renaming it the large property supplement) to equate to England will please some operators.  The extension of Fresh Start to town centres likewise will have some, probably limited effect, as will associated issues for empty properties.

Barclay money

But my real attention was caught by two particular points:

  • The ‘glaring omission’ I referred to earlier (though I accept this is an over-statement) is the way the whole digital issue is swept under the carpet/kicked down the road. The Review is adamant that a property tax remains appropriate but by doing so, under its constraints, ignores the digital ‘elephant’.  It is covered briefly in Annex C (Annexes are for issues beyond scope or rejected in the main) but it opts out of the problem by simply saying the Scottish Government should in time consider ‘how should the digital economy be taxed?’ and ‘how should they contribute to local services?’.  I just hope this is not too late for many bricks and mortar businesses.
  • The most interesting (and depending on your viewpoint, disturbing) point is perhaps made in paragraph 4.30. Here in the recommendation on town centres, it recognises that possible primary legislation could “enable councils to impose an additional levy on rates in certain limited circumstances”.  The circumstances the Review lays out include a supplement for out-of-town businesses or predominantly online businesses.  Such amounts raised would then be used in town centres locally.  If thought about fully, such proposals could begin to address a call made in this blog and elsewhere for better spatial policies to focus on town centres (e.g. rates, VAT).  I feel it has to go beyond the out-of-town retail operations and online distribution centres mentioned by the Review, in order to reflect the multifaceted reasons for shifting town centres performance.  But the basic idea is one that has to be trialled.

Barclay Road Map

Posted in Barclay Review, Buildings, Closure, Government, Internet, Legislation, Online Retailing, Policy, Property, Rates, Retailers, Scotland's Town and High Streets, Scottish Government, Small Business Bonus Scheme, Small Shops, Tax, Town Centres, Vacancies | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Traditions and Ghosts in Scotland’s Shops

Anyone following my twitter feed (@sparks_stirling) will have encountered my fascination and interest in ghost signs. It has also been included in some musings from me and a guest contribution to this blog.  I had a previous tendency to focus on the uses above ground level as I wander about towns, but this has been exacerbated recently by searching for signs and features of the shop past in Scotland’s towns.

The slide show below provides some of the recent shots from Edinburgh, Culross and St Andrews.  There is little systematisation in my search thus far, and so the slides are serendipitous discoveries and interests.

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These traces of the past are only a small part of the historical legacy that we can find in our towns.  There is a very rich context that can be uncovered and has been explored by Lindsay Lennie in her excellent 2010 book on Scotland’s Shops.  Now there is an updated Historic Environment Scotland Short Guide on Scottish Traditional Shopfronts.  It can be downloaded here.  This is a 2017 Second Edition of the previous 2010 version.

This short guide is a fascinating verbal and visual exploration of the key elements of historic shops.  It covers shopfronts and architectural features before focusing on signs and lettering, sun blinds and awnings, security, ventilation, exterior and interior elements.  There is then technical help in researching and maintaining historic shops.  It really is an excellent guide and I love the fact that one of the target audiences is the “enthusiast”

Scottish Traditional Shopfronts

Its publication is also timely given the changes going on in retailing and town centres.  We need places to be distinctive and different, as well as interesting.  Reflecting the legacy of shops is one way of ensuring that there are points of interest and engagement in often increasingly bland places.  We need good modern design and new shops and buildings, but in addition to the wonderful expressions of the past we should seek to preserve and use.


Posted in Advertising, Architecture, Buildings, Edinburgh, Fife, Ghost Signs, Heritage, Historic Shops, History, Places, Retail History, Royal Mile, Scotland's Town and High Streets, Shopfronts, Streetscapes, Urban History | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Big Show (Y Sioe Fawr)

A few weeks ago I attended the Royal Welsh Show (Y Sioe Fawr) at Llanelwedd/Builth Wells.  For a number of years I have been to the Royal Highland Show at Ingliston and have always thought it to be a large and busy event.  But the Royal Welsh really lives up to its billing as the Big Show.

The sheer scale is daunting and one day is barely enough to really take it all in.  My interest was in the retail provision and the efforts both national multiples, smaller retailers and the range of specialists put in to inform and sell products to the showgoers.  Food and clothing are the obvious draws (assuming we are discounting machinery, equipment and other outdoor requirements for farming and rural life) and the range and quality is impressive in the main.  The national retailers were there in their pavilions but it is the specialist food producers that are always fascinating for me.  The variety and quality is tremendous (as it is in Edinburgh to be fair).



The show format is one that is overlooked in many discussions of the retail sector but the Royal Welsh is simply too big to be overlooked.  The amount spent, the sales achieved and the deals done, let alone the boost to the local economy is far reaching.

The show  concept of course harks back to a long tradition of local and regional markets and fairs.  If we add in the modern version of these and yes I did go to the Lampeter Food Festival again this year,  then it seems their significance as a leisure and retail format continues to grow, and to be underrepresented in our thinking and our data.

The Big Show was an eye-opener and was tremendously well organised – even if I could not find my car for ages in the Park and Ride.  Very impressive all round.



Suspiciously removable “Welsh” sign – wonder where the next show is?


We stayed the night before the show in Ludlow.  We stupidly chose the day the 800 year old market does not trade, but instead used the excellent local independent stores and also visited the Ludlow Food Centre.  The latter, a few miles out of town was controversial when it opened  (for distracting trade from the heart of the town) but seems to have added to the overseas sense of Ludlow as a place for local and good food. A great place to visit and spend in a place that values localness and authenticity.

More worryingly though, many of the local shops had posters up bemoaning their rates increase and its unaffordability and its unfairness.  The example below was not the highest increase I saw, but is typical.  If we want to have such vibrant local food (and business) cultures we have to revise this ruinous state of affairs.  The rates (and the corporation) tax system is not fit for purpose and is destroying the very elements we need to cherish and encourage.



But back to the show – if you can’t make the big ones, go to your local shows.  Great food, interesting events and a reminder about the value of community in its widest sense.

Posted in Farmers Markets, Festivals, Food and Beverage, Food Quality, Food Retailing, Markets, Producers, Rates, Retail Economy, Retailers, Rural, Sustainability, Tax | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment