Checkout the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee

In 2022 the May Bank Holiday will be moved to June and an additional day is being added to the list of bank holidays, so that there will be a four-day weekend.  This is all so that there can be a celebration of the Queen being the Queen for 70 years.  Leaving aside various elephants in the room, this will be the first time such a milestone has been reached, though not the first such celebration of this monarch’s monarchical milestones.

The Government has promised four days of events that ‘will mix the best of British ceremonial splendour and pageantry with cutting edge artistic and technological displays’, starting on the 2 June 2022.  We shall see: anyone remember the Diamond Jubilee?

I also wonder if you remember her Silver Jubilee? Depending on your age, God Save the Queen by the Sex Pistols might jog a memory? I remember it, though mainly through the lens of hindsight rather than in real-time, but for a very different reason.  June 1977 saw, what is in my view, one of the major turning points in British food retailing history. It was planned for, and took place over, the Jubilee weekend.

Tesco changed direction. And the rest as they say is history.

The Tesco built by Jack Cohen was not in great shape in the mid-1970s.  Riven by infighting in the board room, seemingly strategy less and failing in its competition with Sainsbury’s and others, and wedded to Cohen’s deal with Green Shield stamps, the business was really struggling.  After what was effectively a boardroom coup, ‘Operation Checkout’ was mounted.

The strategic decision was made to offer deep discounts on particular products and to focus on having good prices on other lines, paid for by removing Green Shield Stamps.  This was an attempt to re-focus perceptions on the price and quality offered by Tesco and was in effect a complete re-positioning of the business.  ‘Operation Checkout’ was launched in June 1977 and became the defining point between the old and new Tesco.

All stores were closed on the Saturday (4th June) of the Queen’s Jubilee Holiday weekend.  The windows were whitewashed.  Behind them staff removed the trading stamp publicity and materials and re-signed, re-merchandised and re-priced the store for the new approach. Daisy Hyams, by now a legendary Buying Director, focused on setting new prices for the entire business to attract sales and secure margin. Tesco announced that the stores would re-open on the Wednesday, which pushed competitors into responding with deals and price cuts on TV and other advertising.  However Tesco delayed the opening of the stores for a day (to the 9th June) and launched their own publicity almost without competition.  Closing the stores for this length of time was a remarkable step.

The impact of ‘Operation Checkout’ was remarkable.  Turnover and market share rocketed (7.9% to 10.8% in a month). Consumer loyalty rose in terms of first choice and repeat business.  The repositioning in the consumer’s minds had worked. Tesco had a renewed sense of direction.  The business for the customer was now different. Turnover rose by 36% in a year, though profit fell by 3%.

The relaunch was thus vindicated though not without trauma and consequence. The impact of ‘Operation Checkout’ was fundamental for what it told Leslie Porter and Ian MacLaurin about Tesco. The surge in volume was so great that the systems broke down. Stores could not get products, deliveries were taking days to be unloaded and advertising was focusing on products that stores could not stock. MacLaurin commented that for the first time they realised Tesco were in the distribution as well as the retail business. This recognition saw them totally reorganise supply chain operations in the coming years, to a point where they were world leading in efficiency. Despite a number of small store closures in the early 1970s the stores themselves were still too small and variable to meet the new demand, and they were often in poor locations. Throughout the business there was recognition that there was no control and understanding of what was really going on across the store base.

There was a break with the past, but if not followed through then the change would not be sustainable. The radical restructuring of the business from Checkout in 1977 into the 1980s (centralisation, superstores and all that) would set the groundworks for the dominant chain Tesco become in the 1990s and beyond. It all began though, with Operation Checkout over the Queen’s Jubilee Weekend.

I wonder if any retailer today will be as bold as to shut down for the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee in 2022 to set a new direction? Some could perhaps do worse.

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

The Architecture of England’s Co-operative Movement

Over two and a half years ago I attended a seminar at the Engine Shed in Stirling called ‘Talking Shops’ and my blog discussion of the event can be found here.  In that post I noted the presentation by Lynn Pearson (@lynnpearson67) on Co-operative architecture and hoped that her book on the subject would not be too long in the making.

Well, the good news is that it is out, being published a few weeks ago by Historic England and Liverpool University Press.  As anticipated, it is a fascinating and excellent read and a worthy addition to Historic England’s other books on retailing and architecture, adding greatly to our understanding of the topic.

The book is organised chronologically from the origins (pre-origins) of the Co-operative Movement and continues until the present day.  Thankfully though the emphasis is on the history and not on the present state of retail architecture (including Co-operative).  The focus is on England, with occasional digression to Wales and Scotland (including a photo of the brutalist Norco in Aberdeen, which I visited when I moved to Scotland almost 40 years ago).  The volume is lavishly illustrated and for me the historical photos (many from the author’s own collection) are the highlights (and see below my link to a blog by Lynn Pearson on her best/favourite).  The photographs do though bring to the fore the sheer loss of fine buildings we have had to endure.  They also show how damaging and ridiculous many of the modern fascia intrusions into designed buildings actually are). Thoroughly researched, well referenced, this is both a visual and written treat.

The early chapters also brought home to me how central such Co-operative stores were in towns and places.  In the 1980s we often talked about ‘grounding the capital’ in retail development, particulary in the context of out of town superstores.  Here though the book shows how the Co-operative Movement grounded not only its local retail capital but also built for social capital.  Large buildings, multi-functional spaces, halls above the ground floors and so on, these were central, town, community hubs of the sort we have lost and now desperately need.  Retail (and other services) has become too divorced from its community, and the need to bring that community together.

The photographs also show how cutting edge the Co-operative Movement could be over the decades/centuries, both in design as well as organisation.  From the remarkable large central shops (and other uses for the town), through the art-deco and design leading shops that came later, the architects and architecture made a Co-operative statement, something that has perhaps only been seen in Manchester more recently.  But there were also the symbols (in brick and other forms), the artworks and the mosaics and murals (see graphics below).  Whilst Ships in the Sky has gained a degree of notoriety over its (non) listing and the threats it faced, there are other examples that need protection.

As I wrote two and a half years ago in the “Talking Shops” post, we need the past to build a better future.  This book points some of the way in this regard.  I really enjoyed it – and learned from it.

If you want a taster of some of the gems that form part of the history in the book (and my photographs here do not do justice to the orginals and are a personal selection for different reasons), then Lynn Pearson has also written a blog for the Liverpool University Press where she explores her 10 best Co-operative buildings – and provides the photographs from the book to illustrate her choice. She also runs a blog that includes a lot about Co-operatives and other interesting things.

Lynn Pearson (2020) England’s Co-operative Movement: an architectural history.  Historic England/Liverpool University Press.  ISBN 978-1-78962-239-3

Posted in Architecture, Art Deco, Buildings, Community, Cooperative Group, Cooperatives, Corporate branding, Corporate History, Department Stores, Design, Historic Shops, History, Hull, Localisation, Places, Retail Change, Retailers, Town Centres, Towns, Uncategorized, Urban History | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Convenience and Local Shop Retailing (and the new @Coopuk @StirUni)

On the 22nd October the Co-op opened its latest convenience store, at the heart of the University of Stirling.  This was the first Co-op franchise in Scotland and is part of the growth of the Co-op and the convenience and local store sector.  At the University, we are delighted to see it appear on campus, in our refurbished Atrium, and look forward to all staff, students, visitors and the community benefitting from it.

As noted widely (and as the graphic below shows), the pandemic has seen many local, convenience and community stores gain trade, especially in the early stages of the pandemic and lockdown.  Many seemed to have fewer supply problems, but also provided a vital local and community service, and expanded these services (including online and delivery).  Many consumers had not previously really experienced the transformation of the sector and the high standards and quality provided.  Hopefully many will continue to support local stores as things ease, recognising the benefits they offer.

Source: SGF The Scottish Local Shop Report 2020

The size, importance and transformation of the sector have been analysed in the recently published (by the Scottish Grocers Federation) Scottish Local Shop Report 2020 (the Scottish companion piece to the ACS Local Shop Report).  This is a comprehensive analysis of the sector in Scotland (and also has some UK figures).  It shows, for example that the over 5000 such stores in Scotland directly employ c47,000 people and they invested £62m in their stores last year.

Less obviously, the owners/managers are often female (39%) and/or from ethnic minorities (47%).  They offer more services than many expect (bill payments, free ATM, cashback, click and collect and a post office for example).  Their community involvement is impressive both in physically and commercially obvious terms (their local sponsorship and engagement) but also in the ‘community glue’ sense.  Being local, their staff and customers are often active travellers (walk, cycle to store), so reducing congestion and pollution.

These are just a handful of the figures from a comprehensive and informative report on the sector in Scotland. The report is well worth a read to get a better sense of the sector than I can give in a short post.  Better still, seek out your local store (including the new store at the University of Stirling if you can), if you don’t already and check it out.  What it offers may surprise and hopefully please you.  Such stores are an increasingly significant part of our retail mix, and one with many benefits.

The report can be downloaded here.

Scottish Grocers Federation – The Scottish Local Shop Report 2020, can be downloaded from the SGF here.

Posted in Association of Convenience Stores, ATMs, Community, Consumers, Convenience, Convenience stores, Cooperative Group, Cooperatives, Covid19, Entrepreneurship, Food Retailing, Independents, Local Retailers, Post Offices, Scotland, Scottish Grocers Federation, Scottish Local Retailer, Scottish Retailing, Self-checkout, Small Shops, Uncategorized, University of Stirling | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

COVID-19: How Scotland’s Improvement Districts are supporting businesses and communities

In any normal year, we would be meeting at this time in Holyrood for the Annual Parliamentary Reception for the Cross Party Group on Towns and Town Centres. This of course is no normal year. The event is instead being held online tonight (3rd November, details and registration via the link) and its focus is on the work of Scotland’s Improvement Districts in supporting local business and encouraging the public to safely use their local services. As the infographic below shows, they are using many approaches ot meet these local needs.

The event, Chaired by John Scott MSP (the Convenor of the Cross Party Group) will hear about Scotland Loves Local (Phil Prentice), the Local Focus and National Impact of Improvement Districts (Alison Evison and Roddy Smith) and then a Ministerial Address from Aileen Campbell MSP, Cabinet Secretary for Communities and Local Government.

Lowering the tone and quality I will then provide closing remarks. In trying to think what I could say, I was conscious that I could not do justice the many excellent local activities of the Improvement Districts at this time, so my remarks will be general. The news section of Scotland’s Improvement Districts website however provides many good examples of the local work that has been undertaken.

I intend to talk around the following:

The Scottish Government through these challenging times has provided direct funding of Improvement Districts, the ability to extend renewals via the emergency Coronavirus Legislation, Towns and BIDs Recovery Funding, Town Centre Capital Fund and the Scotland Loves Local campaign and funding support. Whilst the pandemic continues to present major issues in all aspects of our society and economy, the leadership, solidarity and support demonstrated by Scotland’s Improvement Districts, and enabled by Scottish Government, has been commendable from the outset.

The Scottish Government’s BIDs Resilience funding in March allowed us to ask BIDs to pivot from “business as usual” to create hyper local support structures. BIDs have since performed a range of vital activities to help businesses navigate their way through the complexities of Grant funds, Job Retention, Loan Funds and VAT and Tax deferrals. They have delivered PPE infrastructure, Marketing and On line platforms and either led or actively participated on local Resilience partnerships to focus on vulnerability. Their selfless efforts extended well beyond their levy paying memberships to help surrounding towns and settlements.

This local leadership, knowledge and agility has all underlined just how important Improvement Districts are to their local communities. A source of real encouragement has been the renewed positivity in the relationships between BIDs and Local Government – they agreed local responses and effectively delivered and indeed continue to deliver these across the country

Looking forwards, the next few months will be challenging but the solidarity and resilience shown by Scotland’s Improvement Districts throughout the year will no doubt help to see us through. The Scottish Government has just awarded the second round of BIDs Recovery funds to help maintain the momentum behind a safe and gradual reopening and our local recovery.

We have a national campaign building on localism, sustainability and community wealth – I would encourage all our cities, towns, improvements districts and neighbourhoods to back the Scotland Loves Local call to action, your support will help build a stronger and faster economic and social recovery.

We can extend the Improvement District concept even further – we already have a successful model for towns and cities, there are Digital, Food and Drink and Tourism Improvement Districts. Our focus will increasingly also be on creating more community focused improvement districts, a model which embraces businesses, communities and local stakeholders working together to develop and implement consensual visions and activities.

Looking beyond the pandemic, we need to renew our vision for a more sustainable and equitable Scotland. The Programme for Government has set some ambitious goals, a greener and fairer economy, the wellbeing economy, more social ownership, opportunities around housing, energy and digital to create better places for everyone, the 20 minute neighbourhood concept – Scotland’s Improvement Districts will be part of this ambition and will continue to support their local communities beyond the current crisis.
Posted in Bids Scotland, Covid19, Cross Party Group, Government, Local Authorities, Localisation, Scotland Loves Local, Scotland's Improvement Districts, Scotland's Town and High Streets, Scotland's Towns Partnership, Scottish Government, Town Centres, Towns, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

How is Coronavirus affecting the UK’s Retail Sector?

A couple of months ago, Professor Graeme Roy of the Fraser of Allander Institute invited me to try to answer the question posed at the head of this post.  He is part of / leading an ESRC funded ‘observatory’ (Coronavirus and the Economy) which has been publishing such summary works on the progress of the pandemic and the economy, mainly from an economic viewpoint.

I thought it might be interesting to do, and so agreed.  The outcome has just been published and the full piece can be found here.

How is coronavirus affecting the UK’s retail sector

I am not going to summarise or reproduce the piece here, but would rather encourage you to visit the observatory to read it, and some of the other pieces published there.  I think it is an interesting and informative collection.

My piece follows initially some well-known ground.  After noting the scale and importance of the retail sector it briefly recaps the essential vs non-essential issue of shops under lockdown.  It then covers again the impacts of lockdown as for example in panic-buying, altered demand, supply chain issues and then the rise of sales via the internet and in local stores.  Some of this I have covered in more detail before in various posts (retail armageddon, changing retail priorities, retailing, shopping and covid-19, the impact of lockdown, Scottish and online sales in lockdown).  The graphs below (the observatory piece has updated figures) show some of the differential impacts and the variations.  These are still going on and working through the system and as local lockdowns and restrictions are more commonly imposed, will have even more disruptive effects on general patterns. This can be seen playing out in Wales with the closure again of non-essential retailing during the “fire-break”, some revision to original rules on what could be bought, and the probability that such measures will be a frequent part of our winter.



In putting together the piece, I read a lot of commentary on the situation and came across various sources of data being used.  Some of these are more novel or radical than others, but there is a sense that if we could join up some of these sources and bring things together then we could get a much better, more comprehensive and consistent, data supply based around coherent definitions of place and activity.  At the moment the data is often very interesting but partial or restricted and so coverage and comparability remain an issue. National data tells us some things, but understanding the impacts and the situation on the ground, in towns and cities, is really very important. We are not that well served at the moment, though there are some very interesting “green shoots” of this approach, as some of the publications noted in my commentary are demonstrating..

Can we thus get to a comprehensive understanding of retailing and consumer behaviour at both a local and a national level, and do this consistently? If we could, then there might be a different sense of the impact of the virus on the retail economy and eco-system and what measures might be suitable for what places. We also might have a more realistic expectation of outcomes. At the moment, as the recent weeks have shown, there seems to be a lot of mis-information, rhetoric and assumption and not enough grounded evidence. Hopefully, from this pandemic a positive story around enhanced existing and novel data for the UK at various levels can emerge.

Posted in Academics, Cities, Competition, Consumer Change, Consumers, Covid19, Essential Retailing, Food Retailing, Internet shopping, Local Retailers, Lockdown, Non-Essential Retailing, Office for National Statistics, Panic buying, Retail Change, Retail Sales, Retailers, Retailing, Sales, Town Centres, Towns, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Great Expectations

I was not intending to add to my previous two posts on data and reporting (footfall and store openings and closures), but then I saw the coverage (looking at you again in the first instance BBC) of last week’s Scottish Retail Sales Monitor figures for September.  The headline that caught my eye was:

‘No recovery in sight’ for Scotland’s high streets.

Photot taken 23rd October 2020

To be fair the main page now reads ‘Covid in Scotland: No recovery in sight for retailers’ so the phrase (in that context) that offended me so much, ‘high streets’, may have been due to a rogue web/sub editor. 

The release for SRSM that I see has no data specifically on ‘high streets’ but is instead a sector level report (and as I have written before is always intersting and valuable).  But why this release contains a quote from KPMG saying ‘a slightly less bleak picture for Scotland’s High Streets’ is a mystery, but might be an explanation for the headline above and absolve the BBC a little. If there is data that is not published on high streets then it might be good to release it for many reasons.

However as I read the details in the SRSM I got a little more confused by the other phrase i.e. ‘No recovery in sight’. 

The SRSM reports on 5 elements at a Scotland level and the front page commentary compares the current month to the average of the last 3 months and the last 12 months.

The table below summarises that data and that page.

CategorySeptemberLast 3 monthsLast 12 months
Scotland LFL-6.3%-7.5%-8.9%
Scotland Total-6.0%-7.2%-9.9%
Scotland Food Total+3.7%+3.0%+3.4%
Scotland Non Food Total-14.2%-15.7%-20.8%
Scotland Non Food Online Adjusted-2.2%-3.0%-12.2%
SRSM: September 2020 (Published October 2020)

What I find interesting is that the September figure is in every case better than the 3 month and the 12 month averages.  I don’t see how the phrase ‘no recovery in sight’ can be justified.  ‘No return to growth’ is plausible (though food is in growth), ‘still fragile’ is accurate (both quotes in the release by SRC) and “not as good as we hoped for” or even “slightly less bleak” might be true, but September was an improvement on the previous 3 and 12 months.

The BBC reporting – if you read the headline – is that there is ‘no recovery’ and ‘high streets’ are where the problem is.  This narrative is what gets remembered and eventually hard-wired.  It is misleading on both counts.

Scottish retailing is in a fragile state as the SRSM shows.  There is no denying it has been impacted by COVID and I am not taking issue with that thrust of the SRSM. According to the SRSM it is also not doing as well at the moment as the UK as a whole, but that may be a different question to consider again.  Retailing faces many challenges as a sector, especially in non-food. Though it is interesting that the Office for National Statistics latest release seems to run rather counter to the SRSM.

My question though is what are our expectations here?  Implicit in the reporting and the SRSM release is a sense that we should have returned to ‘normal’ or ‘previous’ (pre-pandemic? pre-internet?) by now.  Why?  We remain in a pandemic; there are restrictions on movement; many remain working from home; much purchasing has been postponed or cancelled as no longer needed; consumers are nervous about the physical activity of shopping and their own economic futures and in some cases are reassessing their behaviours and needs.  All this is understandable. So, is 6.0% below last September (when none of those factors really were in play) an unreasonable expectation or outcome therefore (actually it is 4.4% if inflation adjusted as the SRSM notes)?

Retailing is a sector under stress (but was so prior to the pandemic) and there are real and understandable worries at a sector and a company/store level.  The more we can support retailers, especially around the coming critical months (if we go into “fire-breaks or lockdowns as in Wales, how consumers are going to react to Christmas and when the COVID rates holiday ends in March) the better. The “no recovery” and “it’s all a disaster narrative” may be themselves driving adverse outcomes. This is a sector undergoing structural alteration and consumers are re-evaluating and altering their behaviours. Retailing can recognise and react/lead this and be successful.

I am left wondering at whether September’s performance has rather exceeded my expectations therefore, rather than there being no recovery in sight? I think the data supports that view.

Posted in BRC, Consumer Change, Consumers, Data, Food Retailing, Non-food retailing, Retail Change, Retail Sales, Retailers, Scotland's Town and High Streets, Scottish Retail Consortium, Scottish Retail Sales, Towns, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Openings and Closures in 2020 – but of what?

Source: BBC (Note the elision of the numbers, the high street and the the term “chain store”)

The retail news cycle last Sunday was dominated by the Local Data Company/PwC report on openings and closures in the first half (well, to August) of this year. The headlines were positively apocalyptic, led by the BBC with its unambiguous statement:

“Coronavirus drives shop closures to new record” and the opening sentence “A record number of shops closed on UK high streets during the first half of this year”.

So that’s that then. The high street is dead and we can all stay away. But there’s just a few problems with this:

1. The report is NOT just about shops – it covers services and leisure as well

2. The report does NOT cover independent businesses, including independent retailers

3. It actually is NOT the UK, as Northern Ireland is not included

4. It does NOT cover all retail locations, but is not only about high streets

5. But the report DOES SAY that openings were at a three year high

Now, there are elements of reality in the broad statements beyond the headlines. Undoubtedly we are living through a period of change, But, the doom and gloom narrative for retail on the high street is just too convenient a hook for a report that is not solely on that topic. Why do we have to put up with this?

Interestingly, the press release from PwC and the more detailed document on their website paint a more nuanced picture. They talk (in the main) about store openings and closures and point to the sustained level of the former. They couch their story in a discussion of systemic change, too much space over decades, accelerated impacts, local high street growth, sectoral variations and the issues around COVID19 and ongoing regulations. This is not sugar-coated and they point to likely future impacts, but it is realistic and far more reflective than the media headlines (and it was not just the BBC, see Guardian (and note the headline states clearly “shops”) and Independent for example).  But, even their commentary talks about shops and retailers when the survey is not focused on these and when the coverage is partial.

There are also some more odd things in the press release and commentary. Two examples will suffice:

(a) That the high street recovery will not be based on retail alone – odd as the data here are more than retail yet the release focuses on shops

(b) That the 10pm curfew will have a devastating impact on the sector – odd as I don’t think that much of a proportion of shops are open after 10pm (see my previous post for more mis-reporting on this).

These are in my view sloppiness of thought and argument derived from the lack of a careful focus on what is actually in the survey (and what is not).

A final niggle, this time about the spatial coverage: the report says it covers “all high streets, shopping centres and retail parks in Great Britain”. The notes for editors in the press release says it is based on 1,925 “locations” (up from the 500 locations which caused so much annoyance to me a couple of years ago and the mis-reporting of “Scottish” data). Yet, the Ordnance Survey (who have been steadily producing some really interesting base data on high streets) state that there are almost 7,000 high streets in Great Britain (this must be right as it was a question of Richard Osman’s House of Games a couple of weeks ago). So, I wonder what is going on in these “other” 5,000 more local high streets? And I wonder if the pattern is the same – or not?

As I stated at the outset, there is no doubt that we are living through challenging and challenged times and many of the broad changes are commonly accepted and understood. But, as the Ordnance Survey notes, in such times we need accuracy and clarity in data (and in my view reporting) and I don’t think we are well served currently on either footfall to store openings and closures. The conflation of high street for retail when many trends are found away from high streets as well is another misleading shorthand. Less hyperbole and more thought about what the data actually is (and is not), and what it shows (or not), and less trying to fit to a story, might help us better understand our businesses and towns, and then do the right thing by them.

I find it remarkable that openings have held up over the last five years and especially in this year. Why is that not an equal part of the story? And that some towns and high streets have done really well during this year. But then that doesn’t fit the pre-planned story does it?

UPDATE 21.10.2020 0815

After scheduling the post above, last night I came across @Soult’s tweet on data issues in Durham, as shown below. Stuff happens I suppose, but some of the changes and alterations seem curious (where did Corby go? Did Durham and Newcastle get confused?). But my eye was taken by the heading of the graphs (by the BBC I presume and not the LDC/PwC) which captions the totals as shops. Are they actually shops? Or are they the retail, leisure, service, hospitality etc operations mentioned in the post above? You might argue it is does not matter if you are reporting on places, but I think it does matter both for places and for retail.

Posted in Academics, Churn, Closure, Consumer Change, Consumers, Data, High Streets, Local Data Company, Media, Ordnance Survey, Resilience, Retail Diversity, Retail Economy, Retailers, Small Towns, Town Centres, Towns, Uncategorized, Vacancies | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Footfall, Curfews and Data

There have been many outrageous statements made over the last months of the pandemic (and in terms of the subject of this post – footfall – in the months and years prior), but recent offerings have really taken the biscuit.  I’ve railed against the reporting of footfall figures before, but in my view this has now entered a new realm of stupidity and is becoming dangerous, harmful, wish fulfilment, potentially damaging places and businesses.

The heading that caught my eye and got me annoyed was bad enough “High Street footfall plunges after 10pm hospitality curfew introduced”.  What on earth does that mean?  But then there’s the photograph that accompanies it; so obviously a picture of an English high street at 10pm on a late September night – NOT!

Source: City AM

Followed by one of the all-time classic sentences that make absolutely no sense.

“High street footfall dropped sharply last week following the introduction of a 10pm curfew for pubs and restaurants… the government imposed a curfew on hospitality venues from Thursday, which has caused high street shopper numbers to drop”.

What?  ‘Caused’, ‘Shopper’ numbers to drop because I won’t be able to stay in the pub after 10.  Really??

It gets better still: “The ban on pubs, bars and restaurants opening past 10pm pushed footfall down 52.4 per cent after 11pm.  However retail park and shopping centre visitor numbers rose 1.1 per cent and 0.9 per cent respectively”.

Again, what does this mean?  Are the retail park and shopping centres footfall figures comparable i.e. after 11pm?  If not, why are they there?  And why 11pm?  Why not 10pm?  It is almost as though the largest figure possible is being sought so as to confirm a pre-conceived idea.

There can be no doubt that hospitality is concerned about the ban.  There is also little doubt that footfall numbers are not where they were.  Why would we expect anything else?  We are in the midst of a pandemic, there are lockdowns across the place and people are worried and have changed behaviours in work, shopping and leisure.  Comparisons are always to the pre-covid situation, and always positioned negatively, as though pre-covid was some sort of nirvana and the expectation of the levels of activity we should be having now. We should be thinking about what our expectations are, and how we imporve the situation, not mixing up shoppers, footfall and late evening curfews into one mess of a story.

But the press coverage of these figures and the press releases which frame the story (as most press seemed to simply regurgitate them) did highlight one valuable lesson:

Footfall figures are not shopper numbers, and are not retail sales.

The conflation of footfall with shoppers has to stop.  The data have shown clearly these are workers in some cases, drinkers in others, leisure seekers in more, as well as shoppers.  The totality is not shoppers in the retail sense and to conflate these with high streets is equally a false narrative.

Footfall figures have a place in our understanding of activity, but are in serious danger of being mis-used and identified with a dangerous single narrative.  Activity has changed and we need to understand the elvels and the changes. But, we need to understand what lies behind the figures and what they tell us over specific places and longer periods, and not simply strive for the current news cycle headlines.  The constant search for publicity is helping no-one, not least the businesses they report on. The businesses and towns struggling through these unprecedented times deserve better.

This is the first of two posts this week which whilst on different topics have the same base theme: the inadequecy of some of the reporting on retail and high streets during the pandemic

Posted in Consumers, Covid19, Government, High Streets, Media, Places, Public Policy, Retail Policy, Shopping, Towns, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Week 26 in my Greenhouse

Anyone who follows me on twitter will have become used to Saturday pictures and tweets about the progress or not in my greenhouse.  On the 28th March I began (week 1) and here we are at week 26 – half a year later.  Lockdown and the pandemic in vegetables and the occasional flower.

I have not used this blog for personal things, with odd exceptions; a sort of retail related Welsh rugby story (yes I’m still bitter Alain Rolland) and the death of my father (which is also rugby related).  So this is an exception, but there is a (minor) retail component.

I am doing this because week 26 seems a good place to stop and twitter is not expansive enough for some reflections.  I am stopping because the future week 27-40 something reporting the miserable state of the greenhouse is too much, even for me.  But as they say, I’ll be back.  And this time probably from February not late March.

We always grow things and I like doing it from seed; normally and mainly tomatoes and chillies.  But this year as we thought through the pandemic in March we expanded into a wider range and added potatoes, beans, courgettes and tried a few other things.  We normally get our seed from the wonderful Real Seeds and already had tomatoes (Galina, Dr Carolyn Pink, Ethel Watkins, Red and Green Zebras), chillies (Pretty in Purple) and courgettes (Verde di Italia, Biopees Golden and a Patty-Pan) in hand.  As lockdown hit us we added potatoes, runner beans (we had Czar from Real Seeds) and peas/broad beans from Suttons, as others had no stock due to increased demand.

Pretty much all of these worked; Maris Peer, Arran Piper and Charlotte potatoes, Scarlet Emperor runner beans and Sutton broad beans and peas.  Burpees Courgettes and Patty-pans were disappointing.  Some old beetroot and radish seeds failed.  Our herbs, again from Suttons, worked brilliantly (thyme, basil, sage, coriander, rocket and some lettuce).

Doing all this helped me get through the lockdown; I was one of the fortunate ones to have such an outlet.

As I said we saw a lack of product in many online stores and Suttons took their time but came through. Garden Centres of course were badly hit by lockdown.  We used a local one to get some pots and compost and they were brilliant in delivering (Torwood Garden Centre).  They took orders by telephone and next day delivery happened like that.  We’ve visited since they’ve been allowed to open, and they’ve done an impressive distancing job.

The other thing we started (not before time) due to lockdown was composting.  We had to wait for our composter due to high demand, but it seems to be working.

My flower sideshow saw our Nemesias and Rudbeckias really work, but the star of the show has been single dahlias from seed.  Never done that before and they’ve been brilliant.

In terms of retail spend I suspect I have spent a little less than normal though it is hard to assess.  The composter was an addition.  I missed going to garden centres and lockdown and thus avoided temptation, but we did buy things we needed online or over the phone.  Service and availability was understandably slower and lower than normal but we got everything in the end.  Retail coped, but the cost one suspects in lost sales has been high especially as so many garden centres rely on their café.  Perhaps though if people have had a good experience of growing from home they will continue next season.

And for my trusted gardening followers, there may be occasional tweets from the greenhouse, but then I may well be back once I start the new season.

Posted in Availability, Covid19, Food, Garden Centres, Gardens, Lockdown, Logistics, Retailers, Retailing, Rugby Union, Seeds, Twitter, Uncategorized, Wales | Tagged , , , , , | 2 Comments

Commuting and Retailing in Town Centres

It is not an unusual state of mind these days, but I am puzzled over a couple of things that have been the topic of discussions (or in the first case the media as well) I have been in over the last week or so.

The first is the approach, perhaps best articulated by members of the UK Government, to shame people back into work.  ‘Get back to work’ is the instruction; which comes as a surprise to many who had never stopped working but had just changed their mode and place.  The aim seems to be to save service businesses in big cities. The Scottish Government wanted no part in this and their advice remains work from home if you can.

Many people have told me that the novelty of working from/at home has worn off somewhat and that they miss aspects of their formal work sites.  But in the same sentence they rail against the unpleasantness (money, time and environment) of their daily commute, especially into our larger cities.  If the best we can envisage for our future is to continue to cram people into tin cans of various shapes, sizes and forms and force them to travel large distances and for substantial times and then herd into crammed buildings, all to do much what they could do from home or from a more local co-working centre, then we really have not got any ambition, imagination or sense.  The ‘daily commute’ became a swear word for a good reason.

There appears a challenge underway to the status quo, which as there are beneficiaries and losers is an issue. The eventual outcome will not be the extreme lack of commuting as it is now, but will see a reasonable transformation.  We will see a move back, but hopefully not wholescale and not to the previous levels – we can use technology to be more productive.  Cities have many attractions for many people and given them space to breathe will be a good thing.  People getting back their lives by reducing elements of their jobs they hate – and which are essentially unproductive – is also a positive thing in terms of individual and corporate wellbeing, as well as the economy and the environment.  Local places around cities can benefit from this.

My second puzzle has been the refrain that the problem with town centres is that they are too dependent on retailing.  This is then followed by the claim that out-of-town retailing and the internet have destroyed town centres.  I must confess to now beginning to challenge people when I hear these statements being made in the same discussion.

If town centres are too reliant on retailing then it is not because there is an insatiable, unending and overwhelming demand for retail space in your local town, which is driving out all other uses.  It is because lots of these other uses have also moved away from the town centre.  Which is why I also get very irritated by out-of-town retailing being blamed for the town centre problem.  As I have pointed out, all too often I suspect, we have decentralised so many things beyond retailing (you can see my example of Stirling in Julian Dobson’s book and in one of my presentations on this blog.  The problem is decentralisation per se and the lack of reasons to visit a town or abilities to live, work and play there.  The over reliance on retail in town centres is due to the under-presence of a breadth of other activities.  This is where we should be focusing.

For towns, these two issues may be about to collide.  Working at home is not the perfect solution for all, nor for all of the time.  Combining it with working locally – in a range of spaces and combinations to be developed – can be a boost for local places.  These new spaces need to be in accessible town centres and not reused decentralised offices or shops or retail warehouses or industrial estates accessible only by car.  No doubt there will also be a need/desire to work at times and points collectively, both locally and in large cities and offices.  It is the mix of all this, and the control it could give people that is interesting and exciting, as well as producing a more healthier and sustainable set of activities and places (and individuals).

Posted in Cities, Commuting, Decentralisation, Government, Localisation, Places, Reinvention, Retail Parks, Retailers, Retailing, Shopping, Stirling, Sustainability, Town Centres, Towns | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment