Brexit isn’t Delivering

Neil Saunders provides a valuable service by culling newspapers on a daily basis for retail stories and putting them up on his twitter feed. This saves time for me and also provides a good snapshot of retail sentiment (He does other things with GlobalData Retail which are also worth checking out). The gallery image above is some of the stories of Saturday 9th October, and tells a story of the retail problems that are crashing upon us.

According to the Prime Minister the queues at the petrol stations, the shortages on the shelves, the lack of turkeys, the Christmas stockpiling apparently already underway, the inflation worries and the likely slaughter of tens of thousands of healthy pigs but not for food, is all part of the Brexit master plan he conceived in 2015. Or as many commentators have it, Johnson is “economically illiterate”.

He thus swung wildly between saying on last Wednesday it is all big business’ fault, they are on their own and they need to sort themselves out, to then appointing, less than 48 hours later on Friday, the ex-boss of the largest of large food retailers to the Government, to save Christmas by sorting supply chains out.

In the Brexit referendum Johnson notoriously said ‘F**k business’ and this is about the only thing he is living up to, even as it damages and offends high profile Brexit supporters such as the bosses of Next and Iceland.  Lord Wolfson is in despair at what’s going on and to come, beset by labour shortages, high pay rises and supply chain woes.  Next will manage through in all likelihood, as they have done so well for so long.  Others though will not be so fortunate and as Richard Walker pointed out smaller firms and those unable to afford to invest in a capital-labour swap are going to go out of business if the trends continue. Tuesday’s employment figures showed job vacancies at a record high, with the largest increases in vacancies in the retail sector.

It is clear that Brexit isn’t delivering, especially when it comes to supply chains.  This was entirely predictable (others were clearer than I on this, but my piece from June 2016 has stood the test of time, and in hindsight was even understated), but has been made much worse by the pig-headed refusal of the Government to plan a transition.  In supply chain terms Brexit is a highly damaging disruption, but it could have been implemented smoothly and the worst effects managed.  Same end, but different way of getting there and without massive collateral damage on the journey.

Business has been told by Government to stop whingeing and pay up.  If nothing changes then the Government needs to realise that the whingeing hasn’t actually started yet.  The lack of workers in supply chains (drivers and warehouses and increasingly shops) will not be solved by raising wages – the labour force is not there, and it will take time to get skills or add technology (and as above, smaller businesses will be unable to afford some of this).  The same is true in other sectors from hospitality, to care, to the NHS (and I don’t see the Government stepping in to force the NHS to pay higher wages, nor for teachers and so on).

Add that the need to use storage to hedge for transport flow issues, at a time when there is a warehouse shortage and increased difficulties in product flows across newly created borders.  Almost six years on from the referendum debate the mythical technology solution to cross border trade remains just that, mythical, like so much else of the Government’s approach to supply chains and business.  Forty years of creating and refining flow based systems has been broken at quite some cost, and with a complete lack of understanding (or worse, care) of the consequences.

There is no doubt Covid has exacerbated some of this, but Covid is not the root cause of the issues.  There are global supply chain problems but the lesson this tells us should be not ‘look everywhere’s bad’ but ‘when an integrated system gets disrupted, problems reverberate for some time’.  And Covid was that disruption. In the end though the system will sort itself out, except for countries which have put themselves outside their biggest markets and decided to build barriers. Yes, thanks to the UK Government for the Brexit dividend (not).

The cherry on top of all this for businesses is the rising cost of fuel/energy.  This will add a lot more to retailer operating and supply chain costs.  And the UK has no real storage facilities, in contrast to Germany or France etc. These will feed through to consumers, already hit by increased taxes and their own increasing costs. Pay rises are unlikely to be able to keep pace, and we know where that ends. Higher wages for higher skills (so does that mean HGV drivers are unskilled? Or explain why the Government wants to remove skills from the HGV test and increase drivers hours?) becomes pretty meaningless if inflation outpaces the wage increases.

Across the board Brexit has raised the cost and complexity of supply chains.  Other factors have certainly added to that.  Resolving the broken supply chains will be expensive.  Price rises are inevitable and there will be increased inflation (as already been idenitifed by the Bank of England).

Brexit, accelerated by Covid, has broken our supply chains and we will pay the costs of this. No amount of high wages/high skills rhetoric (did I hear that once in the Brexit campaign?) will cover this up.  The lack of understanding at the heart of Government of supply chains is coming home to roost, and beyond Dover.

The Prime Minister now says it is not his nor the Government’s role to solve business problems.  But it is his role and responsibility to create the conditions for the country to prosper.  He, like our supply chains, is struggling to deliver.

Posted in Availability, Brexit, Christmas, Consumers, Covid19, distribution, Employment, European Union, Frictionless, Government, Logistics, Next, Panic buying, Referendum, Retailers, Supply Chains, Wages, Warehouses | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Scotland – The Recovery : A Turning or Tipping Point for Towns

Holyrood Events (@HolyroodEvents) have invited me to speak at a conference this week. As can be seen from the poster above, the conference is on “Scotland – The Recovery”. They have asked me to speak on the issue of towns and ouir recent report on the “The Future for Scotland’s Town Centres”.

The focus of the conference starts off with recovery from Covid, My presentation though is aimed at reflecting what we mean by Recovery, from what and for whom? In that sense it is similar to my thoughts about resilience presented earlier in this blog – who benefits from returning to the previous situation? (build back better – ok, but for whom and who decides this?). I thus argue that we have a once in a lifetime opportunity to take radical steps to meet covid recovery, climate change and our deep inequalities. This though will require some brave and ambitious thinking.

In my normal way, I provide a pdf of the overheads I will use below, and whilst I tend to speak “off the cuff” the text below is roughly a summary of what I am saying.

“March 2020 was the month that Scotland changed, as Covid took hold and lockdown become a reality.  The First Minister described the time during March as Scotland facing the ‘Biggest Challenge of our Lifetimes’ and one that where ‘Life Would Change Significantly’.

This presentation argues that those words apply just as much to our towns and cities as they do to meeting Covid, and even more so now as our towns and communities seek to recover, not only from Covid but from our 60 years of neglect and harm.

In the decade or so since the Fraser Review, we have taken a range of positive steps to improving our town centres, most recently in town centre regeneration, community wealth building, 20 minute neighbourhoods and the investment in the place based investment programme.  These follow innovations in Town Centre First and the Place Principle.

The key question though is whether this is enough given the issues of Covid recovery, the climate change emergency and the focus on health, wellbeing and inequalities that Scotland requires.  All these have impacted communities and towns and town centres.

This is why in the review of the Town Centre Action Plan, which I chaired for Scottish Government, we asked what more we need to do for town centres, and as pertinently, what we need to stop supporting as those activities are damaging town centres.  This is why in order to deliver our vision we suggested three areas of recommendations.  Two of these (policy, plan, data and focused funding on specific initiatives) follow previous patterns, but deepen. strengthen and further align all the good work underway (though there is more of an ask on the types and level of funding).  The third, a radical rethinking of tax and funding is more controversial and challenging.

We know that the economy has changed as it has digitised.  Inequalities across Scotland have been maintained and amplified despite decades of work.  We also know the climate emergency is here, now.

Towns can help Scotland meet the challenges of these big issues.  They are when done well, anti-disaggregation and decentralisation.  They can provide the focus for local, more socially and economically sustainable and equitable communities.  Town centres in particular also have embedded resources on which to build, both in terms of buildings and access, but also in making good places.  They are more sustainable than the alternatives. Yet, we undervalue and under-support them in the main.

We will not succeed by doing the same things that we have for the last 60 years, only a little less badly.  If we don’t change course radically then it will become too late to collectively address many of our complex problems.  This requires large behaviour changes of organisations, governments, and people.  If we don’t organise ourselves to achieve this, then we are a tipping rather than a turning point and our recovery will not be what the country needs.

We need to recover, not only from Covid, but from the harms we have inflicted on our towns and communities.  Only then will we have the places that people can be proud of and that meet the challenges we face in terms of people, the planet and the economy. Towns are part of the solution and can deliver so much more, if given a fair chance.”

Posted in 20 Minute Neighbourhood, Community, community wealth building, Covid19, Government, Healthy Living, Internet shopping, Local Authorities, New Future for Scotland's Towns, Online Retailing, Places, Recovery, Regeneration, Scotland, Scotland's Town and High Streets, Scotland's Towns Partnership, Scottish Government, Social Inequality, Sustainability, Town Centre Action Plan, Town Centre Action Plan Review Group, Town Centre Review, Town Centres, Towns | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A Gardening Year in Review

I don’t often use the blog for non-retail or personal posts but made an exception this time last year.  At the start of lockdown in March 2020 I started a weekly tweet about my greenhouse and last September I reflected on my gardening year in this blog.

This year my tweets have been perhaps less effusive and a little less frequent.  But they have kept a record of the 2021 growing year.  So I thought another post on 2021 in my greenhouse was warranted.

As twitter followers know I tend to grow from seeds (mainly from Real Seeds) and being a creature of habit start things off at the same time in the same way.

The first conclusion from this year was, despite good germination, the early part of the season was slow and lot of seedlings failed to kick on.  At one point, from comparing photos from this and last year, I reckoned plants were a month behind.  I also lost chillies, aubergines, courgettes and tomato seedlings for the first time, as early Spring was cold and damp (or so it felt).

But those that survived, did indeed catch up and prosper.  We have had a brilliant tomato season, even though our Galina failed.  I ended up with too many Green Zebra.  The Rose de Berne were superb.  Blue Fire was spectacular but produces too little yield to persevere.

Runner beans (Czar, Scarlet Emperor) were great.  Peas and Broad Beans (Sutton Standards) were fine.  Potatoes (Maris Piper, Arran Piper and Purple Majesty) were excellent.  A dwarf French Bean (Aida Gold) was an outstanding introduction.  A dwarf house tomato also showed small can be exceptional, and as I write the two plants in the greenhouse are still producing.

Rhubarb, plums and carrots also produced, though a squirrel stole my one apple last week.  Pavelec long red chillies were great and my one Blue Hungarian squash was/is huge (7.7 kg), and has recently been turned into soup – a lot of soup.  A ginger experiment continues to look good and my herbs (with the exception of all basils) have been a steady source of flavour.

So, a really odd year.  Slow and wet with a lot of early seedling losses, but most came good in the end.  Thanks to my colleague Malcolm MacLeod who gave me San Marzano and Tigerella tomatoes and Pot Black aubergines to fill gaps, we had a broader range than before.  I did though kill the melon plant he also gave me.

I have many of my seeds for next year already; some from Real Seeds but quite a lot harvested from this year and saved.  I will stay with most of my normal tomatoes, keeping Rose de Berne but dropping Blue Fire.  A smaller squash seems more appropriate and I need to rethink courgettes and aubergines.  I have added a Rhondda Black runner bean as an experiment.  Can’t wait!

Posted in Covid19, Food, Gardens, Home, Lockdown, Seeds, Twitter | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Discount Food Stores in the UK: Kwik Save and Shoprite

Following on the recent post on Axe Stores, I have dug out some of my early slides on Kwik Save and Shoprite and their stores.

I have written academically on both of these companies, quite some time ago.  For anyone interested the pdfs of a number of these papers should be able to be downloaded from the links below.

(with Lord J D, Moran W and Parker A J) Retailing on Three Continents : the discount food store operations of Albert Gubay.  International Journal of Retailing, 3(3), 1-54 (1988).

Spatial-Structural Relationships in Retail Corporate Growth : a case study of Kwik Save Group P.L.C.  Service Industries Journal, 10(1), 25-84 (1990).

Restructuring Scottish Grocery Retailing : the rise and demise of Shoprite and Wm Low. International Journal of Retail and Distribution Management, 23,10, 28-36 (1995).

Investment Recommendations and Commercial Reality in Scottish Grocery Retailing. Service Industries Journal, 16, 165-190 (1996).

Challenge and Change: Shoprite and the restructuring of grocery retailing in Scotland, Environment and Planning A, 28, 261-284 (1996).

Kwik Save began in North Wales in the 1950s and was founded by Albert Gubay (see my post on him here).  Gubay was a charismatic entrepreneur who went on to found retailers in four countries and build a large property business.  Kwik Save was the UK’s pre-eminent discounter for a number of decades, albeit of the ‘soft’ variety compared to European models.

The slides presented below are scanned versions of 35mm slides I obtained via Grahame Seabrook.  They show the very basic style of discounting that existed in the 1960s.

By the early 1990s, foreign discounters were entering the UK (Aldi, Lidl and Netto) and an Isle of Man company – Shoprite – saw an opportunity to expand into the UK.  Its first store was in Bridge of Allan near the University and the photos below show its exterior and interior (plus exteriors of Linloithgow and East Kilbride).  Shoprite expanded rapidly in Scotland but then rather ‘crashed and burned’ and failed to make its mark.

It is of note that the impact of the German discounters was a very slow burn.  They rather missed the British market in the 1990s and were fought off by incumbent major retailers.  They did rethink, relaunch and played a long game of meeting British market needs.  The recession of 2007/8 proved important as well and the result is a combined c15% market share today.  Both Kwik Save and Shoprite are no more.

As a footnote to this, it was announced that the Co-operative Group (who had taken over the Shoprite Bridge of Allan site) had obtained planning permission to knock down and rebuild the original Shoprite store.

Posted in Albert Gubay, Aldi, Axe Stores, Bridge of Allan, Cooperatives, Discounters, Food Retailing, Kwik Save, Lidl, Netto, Retail Failure, Retail History, Retailers, Shoprite, Wm Low | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Town Centres in Wales: Bounded Muscularity?

A few months ago I, together with Phil Prentice (STP), had a long discussion with representatives of Audit Wales around enhancing town centres.  This came in the wake of the review I chaired, and the report I authored, for the Scottish Government, published as a ‘A New Future for Scotland’s Towns’.  (In passing there will be more news on this in due course as the post-election Government gets fully underway, though very good to see place continue to feature strongly in the Programme for Government).  I also attended an interesting webinar run by Audit Wales on the theme.

So I was expecting a report from Audit Wales, and it was duly launched at another webinar on the 2nd September.  I was though not expecting a second report; as the organisers said, you wait a while for one report, and a second comes along as well.  The second report was by Foundational Economy Research (FER) for the Welsh Government, and looks as though it was held back so the two could come out at the same time.  This makes sense, as whilst both reports are very different, they are clearly linked and interesting.

I was particularly interested in the FER report as one of its three case study small towns was Bridgend, my home town and a place I have watched decline over several decades.  It is a good example of my frequent saying that we spent 50-60 years trashing over towns and town centres, so don’t expect an instant miracle after some nice words about town importance and one round of ‘shovel-ready’ capital funding. The report exposes a litany of decisions which have hollowed out Bridgend, the full consequences of which are now being understood. Recovering from this is not likely to be simple, nor fast. Some Bridgend data from the report is provided below.

There are strong points made in the reports and much by way of analysis to agree with.  Some of the recommendations, actions and policy directions chime with our work in Scotland.  But it was interesting, and amusing perhaps, to hear our “New Future for Scotland’s Towns” report and recommendations for the Scottish Government described as ‘too muscular’ to be taken on in Wales.

This puzzles me.  The analysis (see the Audit Wales and FER reports and ours) points in one clear direction, but the steps suggested to be taken in Wales are perhaps the easy, not the right, ones.  I fervently hope we don’t make that mistake up here.  There might be a timing issue, but we can’t park the difficult decisions and actions for too long.  The clock is ticking economically, socially and environmentally.

The Audit Wales report presents some practical steps for the Welsh Government.  These include revaluation of Non Domestic Rates (NDR), improving car parking and transport, simplifying funding and making it multiyear and revenue inclusive, better internal Welsh Government alignment and integration and the better use of existing tools and power.  A lot of this will be familiar to us in Scotland.  The report also uses data from, and links to Understanding Welsh Places, which partly grew out of Understanding Scottish Places, and which is now a model for our next USP upgrade.

The FER report points to the automobility disconnect of places (overly car borne for disaggregated trips), too much new edge-of-town housing being developed with no facilities and with a car focus, the tension between planning policies and business models focused on cheap and easy out-of-town sites and the need for local community agency to deliver for unique places.  This diagnosis is again familiar to Scotland. The steps to ‘tilt the balance’ are drawn in broad outline, namely change to business models, place fiscal and regulatory constraints on out-of-town developments (existing and new) and develop district centres based on active travel.

Both reports are worth a read, even if they don’t focus on your home town. There are really positive things here, and the alignment with Scotland is clear, but does it go far enough and is it ‘muscular’ enough?  As the Audit Wales final key message says:

But to deliver this we need to get serious.  The FER report concludes with a section headed ‘Can the Welsh Government do co-ordinated policies?’, which is suitably provocative.  The slide below from the seminar suggests they want to, but can they get there (the blue is the hardest area, but the one with the most chance of having a lasting impact)?

As we await the response from Scottish Government to our Review of the Town Centre Action Plan, I can still hope that Scotland will indeed be appropriately muscular, and that Wales in due course will get also there.

Posted in Car Parking, Government, High Streets, Out of Town, Places, Regeneration, Retail Change, Retail Policy, Scotland, Scotland's Town and High Streets, Scotland's Towns Partnership, Scottish Government, Small Towns, Town Centre Action Plan, town centre first, Town Centre Review, Town Centres, Towns, Understanding Scottish Places, Understanding Welsh Places, Wales | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Convenience Stores and the Covid-19 Pandemic

This afternoon I am very pleased to be presenting at the Annual Conference of the Scottish Grocers’ Federation in Glasgow.   The novelty of doing this F2F is slightly offset by the wisdom of doing so, not because of what I might say and the reaction I might get, but because….. well you know.

The invitation was to discuss in 10 minutes or less convenience stores and the Covid 19 pandemic.  Where to start?  The slideshow below is the presentation I eventually came up with and the text following is an accompanying summary to the slides.

In March 2020, the world changed in Scotland and for retailing.  It is hard now to realise how rapidly it unfolded, but also of course how persistent it has been.  There is an interesting extended timeline available produced by SPICe, just to remind you of some things that went on.

Retailing in a very short space of time was redefined and classified into essential and non-essential, with considerable consequences.  Lockdowns became the norm with some initial panic buying but a longer-term focus on staying local and the extension of technology (for example online retailing but also contactless cards).  For convenience stores they were at least essential, but they brought new patterns, challenges and costs, as well as returns.

The impacts can be divided into sales shifts and behavioural questions.  “Hospitality” (in the broadest sense) sales switched to retail, digital sales rose dramatically and local businesses gained sales.  Convenience stores saw sales increase, basket size grow and market share expand.  This has dropped back a bit in 2021 but is still a positive story.

Behaviourally, the pandemic made many consumers (and others) focus on what was important to them and their communities.  There has been great questioning of how systems are structured and why, and who benefits (and who does not) leading to issues over sustainability and equity.  Convenience stores are at the heart of this, serving many communities, including some of those hardest hit by the pandemic.

We are now though, albeit in a bumpy fashion, beginning to live with the virus.  Physical shopping has grown, reducing the online peak.  Hospitality has opened up, and some travel.  Larger retailers via larger stores have regained some market share.  Previous patterns are re-establishing.

It is also the case though that new patterns are emerging, albeit all of these have very distinct demographic impacts.  Working from home has become a bigger thing.  Digital embeddedness has become more normal and where people live, work and move around is altering.  For convenience stores as this unfolds there will be opportunities, but in some areas, challenges.

So, what are my reflections?  Convenience stores did a great job, well.  They provided a vital support network for many individuals and communities.  More people realised what convenience stores are all about and can deliver, in person and increasingly digitally.  In all of this, the vital importance of ‘local’ has become ever more recognised and supported, with businesses and consumers reacting very positively.

As the First Minister said in March 2020, this is ‘the biggest challenge of our lifetimes’.  In meeting that challenge convenience stores play a vital role in delivering for people, places and the planet.  They can serve the needs of all communities and people in Scotland.  To do so we need to build on the recent progress and develop a system that ensures we are stronger and more locally resilient for the future, to the benefit of the local communities.

Posted in Community, Consumer Change, Convenience, Convenience stores, Covid19, Essential Retailing, Food Retailing, Independents, Internet shopping, Local Retailers, Lockdown, Pandemic, Panic buying, Retailing, Scottish Grocers Federation, Sustainability | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Axe Stores (this is a description not an instruction)

At the end of July I received an email from a freelance journalist, Steve Cain, seeking any information on Food Giant and Axe Stores. In normal times I know I had material somewhere in my office on Food Giant.  But Axe Stores rang no bells with me.  I tried a couple of colleagues, and Steve Burt responded as below:

This then led to a more detailed focused search via Google (the clue was PAM) which revealed the following piece in a book by Christopher Moir and John Dawson (Chapter by Grigor McClelland – Founder of the Manchester Business School, whose family firm was Laws Stores)

Source: Moir C and J A Dawson (1990) Competition and Markets: essays in honour of Margaret Hall

More importantly perhaps it led to Facebook page and a picture of an Axe Store and a post by an ex-manager.


For Steve Cain’s purpose this was fine and he has used the material in a piece which is published today in a host of local newspapers, and can be downloaded below. It contains the Axe photo from Facebook as above.

Beyond marvelling at the memory and database of my colleague, the outcome about Axe Stores was of some interest generally, but raises some questions about retail history and internationalisation.

We do not know why an Italian company chose to come to the UK.  The choice of Hintons is a little ‘left-field’ to say the least.  Why did this relationship break up?

Steve Burt’s memory was of a north-east of England chain, so the link to the stores in the South-West of England was unexpected.  But why would you run stores in two such dispersed parts of England?   How did this work and how was it managed?  Why did Axe Stores end? On these questions we have no answers … yet.

Steve Cain’s piece is about things we had forgotten that no longer existed in the food discount retail field.  Whilst circumstances meant I could not help on Food Giant (I know I have more) I at least learnt something about a chain I knew nothing about.

There is more to learn though and if anyone has anything of interest about Axe Stores please get in touch.

This episode has encouraged me to dig out my old 35mm slide collection of retail stores, much of which was scanned 15 years ago. I know that has a lot of 1970s and 1980s photos including interiors of discount stores of the time.  I can see an intermittent series of posts coming on these and other oddities.

Posted in Aldi, Axe Stores, Closure, Corporate History, Discounters, Food Retailing, Hintons, Historic Shops, International Retailing, Kwik Save, Laws Stores, Lidl, PAM Group, Retail Failure, Retail History, Retailers, Retailing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 7 Comments

The Great Tapestry of Scotland in Galashiels

A good few years ago, Anne Findlay and myself published a paper on the changing retail structure in the Borders using longitudinal data.  We titled this ‘Weaving new retail and consumer structures in the Scottish Borders,’ reflecting the weaving history of the area and the inter-dependencies across the area.

Weaving has appeared in this blog before when I covered the work of Anne Findlay in helping design and then stitch a panel for the Scottish Diaspora Tapestry.  The panel – of course- had a retail theme being on Thomas Lipton (there is a range of various books about Lipton available and a nice blog post at Building Our Past on Lipton and his stores) – and its side association with William Low.  We were also lucky enough to host the travelling exhibition of some of that Tapestry in the University.

Last week, a different tapestry project finally opened to the public in a new permanent home for the Great Tapestry of Scotland.  Housed in a purpose-built building in the High Street of Galashiels this is intended as a suitable home (the weaving history again) and an attractor in the heart of one of the major Border towns.

The Great Tapestry of Scotland buikding in Galashiels

The building of the home in Galashiels has not been without some controversy and the new building too involved the removal of existing buildings, so it and the location have been both a little contentious and long awaited.  The building itself is designed by Page\Park (disclosure –oI work with them on a development under way at the University of Stirling) and it is an interestinge setting for the Tapestry (an unusual artefact to house) in my view. It is certainly a dramatic presence on the High Street.

The Tapestry itself is a wonder – the story of Scotland in 160 panels.  It is a visual and historic delight and I could spend a lot of time on the individual panels as well as the grand sweep of the Tapestry.  It is a delight and there are some fascinating facts, stories and comments in the written descriptions and narrative. It is also not without humour, as with the accurate but harsh commentary on Scottish rugby post the first international.

I was also taken by the panels on the New Towns of Scotland. From East Kilbride to Cumbernauld, this has been a challenging but interesting facet of Scottish urban change; something that has been covered in this blog before.

The location of the permanent display in the heart of a Borders town is a deliberate statement.  It could have been in one of our major cities, like so much else, or on some greenfield out-of-town site aimed at the car-borne.  But here, on the Borders railway, in the centre of Galashiels, the intent is clear.  This is intended as an asset for the town and the Borders.  An attractor for Scots and national and international visitors, preferably by more sustainable transport.  It is also set up as a catalyst to get people to explore and spend in Galashiels and the Borders.

Towns need assets and attractors.  The Great Tapestry of Scotland, whilst new, has in a way, come home.  It is a delight in its own right but adds to the strengthening of Galashiels and the Borders.  Let us wish it every success.

Posted in Architecture, Buildings, Community Assets, Culture, Cumbernauld, East Kilbride, Exhibitions, Great Tapestry of Scotland, High Streets, New Towns, Places, Regeneration, Scotland's Town and High Streets, Scottish Borders, Scottish Diaspora Tapestry, Streetscapes, Thomas Lipton, Town Centres, Towns | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“Against All Odds” – Independent Business Success Stories

Over the last decade or so Bill Grimsey has carved out a niche in directing a review team to look at high streets, town centres and retailing and to present ideas for what we should do about improving them.  Summarising this body of work in a few words is not fair, but the emphasis has been on better place management, less reliance on chain businesses, more advanced use of technology and a fairer taxation system, especially replacing rates.  The original reviews (the first one a counterpoint to Mary Portas, and the second a few years later) and a more recent bounce back from Covid report (albeit as it now appears, early in the pandemic) are available online, and are worth reading – if nothing else as a antidote to the vacuous UK Government ‘strategy’ recently produced.  At least Grimsey knows his subject and takes it seriously, as opposed to a government led by a man who notoriously said “f**k business” and seems to be intent on doing just that.

So, the news a while back that Grimsey and his team were looking at the pandemic impacts on the independent retail sector was of interest.  The report was produced a few weeks ago. It is quite long, although with lots of glossy photographs, and strikes me as something of two competing parts.

When, ahead of publication, I saw the press release for the report, I will admit my heart sank.  It focused on a story of a debt mountain for independent businesses and a forecast of a ‘tsunami of closures’ (echoing a BRC statement of the previous month).  As soon as I read this, I could predict the headlines and press take-up, as that soundbite fits right into the currently preferred narrative about towns and high streets. It reinforced beliefs; and so to many said nothing new. Sure enough that is what happened – another pile on of gloom and despair (Guardian and BBC as just two examples).

However, the report is entitled ’Against All Odds’ with a subtitle focused on adaptation and survival, and it is that narrative that more than half the report focuses on.  Case studies of success stories abound, with fabulous examples of local and community support, business adaptation and true innovation in the teeth of the global pandemic.  Yes, independents have had it tough; there has been genuine unfairness around (supermarkets and others selling non-essential goods is but one), the playing field is not level, but was despair the right part of the story to lead with and to focus the press release on?

As the report notes, local independent retailers and services have kept society and communities together.  They’ve shown phenomenal levels of innovation, refocusing businesses, collaborating, adding social media and digital services and online sales where possible, and repositioning products and services to meet altered consumer demand.  They also provide a (human) sense of community and distinctiveness that consumers are valuing as we emerge from the pandemic.  An infrastructure, digital and physical, to support them is emerging. This is not to deny Grimsey’s essential point; this progress has been hard won and comes at a hefty (debt) price, and thus, an unfairness is perpetuated. But this story has two parts and only one was the focus of the media.

The question we should be focusing on is how do we do build more of this independent success?  What further support can be provided?  Here the Grimsey solution of loans into grants (and his comparison with government action along these lines in France is telling about giovernment seriousness and priorities), a fairer system overall, a stronger voice locally and nationally for small operators, a sales tax instead of rates and so on make sense.  We should be concerned about the pressures independent businesses have been (differentially) put under and we should seek to reduce these burdens.  But focusing on a ‘tsunami of closures’ as the starting point seems to me to allow those in power to shrug about inevitability.  So, Bill’s tweet asking why the UK Government has collectively ignored the report (and the underlying issues), was possibly a predictable outcome. We need a more direct challenge to what we should value, what is important and why and what we have to support and should not be supporting (as Grimsey did on pandemic rates relief return for large essential retailers).

So please read the Grimsey ‘Open All Hours’ report but do so with a view of looking at celebrating and amplifying the brilliant, positive stories and then working as hard as you (we) can to make sure far more innovation and success of this form becomes the norm locally and internationally.  In that way maybe we can rebalance the narrative and better reflect the reality, whilst working to remove the inequity. The battle for the type of places and retailing we want has only just started, but I don’t think it can be won by a doom and closure narrative.

Posted in Bill Grimsey, Closure, Covid19, Finance, Government, Home Delivery, Independents, Innovation, Local Retailers, Online Retailing, Rates, Retailers, Retailing, Small Shops, Start-ups | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Economic Trends in the Retail Sector, Great Britain: 1989 to 2021

In late July, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) produced a short article on economic trends in GB in the retail sector since 1989, examining how retail sales fit in with the wider economic climate, including over time, long-term trends seen, recent growth rates and some international comparisons.

As we are all aware the retail sector is a large component of the national economy.  Since 1989 the volume of retail sales has doubled compared to a 17% rise in population and a 68% rise in household disposable income per capita.  Within this headline doubling there are both consistencies and massive alterations.

The food sector remains the largest sector, though of course its make-up has changed since 1989 in terms of the size and location of stores, the range of products carried and the development into discount and convenience operations.  Between 2013 and 2019 there was a slight decline in the food sector, but this reversed during the pandemic and the boost food stores had through differential lockdowns.

Elsewhere in other sectors, the equipment, games and toys sector grew very strongly (451%) whereas alcohol and tobacco volumes have fallen (76%) as have books, newspapers and periodicals.  The latter sector has of course moved considerably online (and e-books are classified as a service so not in the retail sector here).

This rise of non-store sales is of course the marked story over the period since 1989.  But the article notes that this is not an even pattern with non-store sales halving to a low of 4.4% of retail sales in 2003.  Now, and pandemic accelerated, the figure for this measure in this series is 16.5% in 2020.  Online retail sales (a different measure to non-store sales) have increased from 3.4% of all retail sales in 2007 to 27.9% in 2020.

Perhaps suprisingly the increase in total spend online and in-store since 2007 has moved in a broadly similar way, until the pandemic (see figure from article below).  This perhaps counter-intuitive result (if the belief is a switch/substitution effect to pure online from in-store) is ascribed by the ONS to the rise in total population and household income, shifting convenience store patterns and the increase in retail sales overall in value terms.


The international comparisons show quite remarkable divergence.  In the countries examined, the UK and the Netherlands stand out for online retail growth between 2000 and 2020.  Overall (i.e. all retail) the UK, Canada and France saw the greatest rises in retail sales volumes between 1995 and 2021, in start contrast to Japan and Italy where retail sales have shrunk.


This is a very short article and perhaps there is not a lot in it that will come as too much of a surprise to many.  It is very useful though, and interesting to see the long-term changes and to put some data on some sector and international comparisons.

ONS (2021) Economic trends in the retail sector, Great Britain: 1989 to 2021.  Available for download at:

Posted in Consumer Change, Covid19, Food Retailing, Internet shopping, Lockdown, Longitudinal Data, Office for National Statistics, Online Retailing, Retail Change, Retail Economy, Retail Sales, Retailing | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment