Orkney – the Second Leg


Our recent visit to Orkney was not meant to be about retailing or shops, but inevitably just wandering around Stromness and Kirkwall one can’t help but look at the retailing.  As I noted in the earlier blog, the overwhelming sense I got was of a busy sector with limited vacancies and a dominance of independent businesses.  There are some of the usual chains but it was notable how many stores were local and independent.  I appreciate this is a snapshot of early summer/late spring, but it was encouraging.

What was also interesting was the historical aspect to both towns.  Both Stromness and Kirkwall have distinctive urban plans and hold the interest accordingly.  They are full of vennels, gunnels and other cut-throughs and the main street is both pedestrianised and with car access  (though speed limited due to its nature which enables dual use).  It is an interesting mix which the council has worked hard to protect, preserve and promote.  I was interested that just after we left Orkney, the council won a major award (the RTPI Silver Jubilee Cup) for their work on the townscape of Stromness.  It did not surprise me.

One of the delights was looking for ghostsigns in the current fabric and there were plenty to choose from.  In many cases, as shown below, these were interesting but perhaps run of the mill.   Nice tiles and old name boards etc. but nothing that is too out of the ordinary.

However one store really caught the eye.  The initial impact comes from the tiled doorway entrance and the fascia mosaics, which have been partially, and unsuccessfully obscured.  This is Fugaccia’s and a quick inspection beyond the door points to the floor and steps also being original and in place.  The store is currently a clothing and knitwear store, but clearly has had a different history.

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The staff member inside readily acceded to me asking to take photographs and indeed said that lots of people seemed to want to photograph the floor!  On the wall inside the shop was the announcement of what Fugaccia’s was originally – The Stromness Soda Fountain, claimed to be ‘one of the finest soda fountains open in Scotland’.  A little more can be gleaned here.   Whilst not in its original usage, it is good to see that the design and quality of the original store is retained.  It is simply gorgeous; just a shame about the “vandalism” of the mosaic fascias.

And I leave with another store front, this time the Post Office in Kirkwall from 1960.  The doorway and lintel just speaks of heritage and confidence and is in stark contrast to modern day post offices and shops.  Where did we lose the desire to design nice things?


Posted in Architecture, Art Deco, Environmental Quality, Ghost Signs, High Streets, Historic Shops, History, Orkney, Places, Planning, Post Offices, Regeneration, Retail History, Scotland's Town and High Streets, Shopfronts, Signage, Small Towns, Streets, Streetscapes, Stromness, Towns | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Tiles and Sardines


For those who catch up with me on Twitter, a few weeks ago we had a long weekend in Lisbon – no, not for Eurovision – and I said I would do a post on retail things of interest we stumbled across.  As previous posts on Lisbon (Time Out in Lisbon Part One and Part Two) have shown, I am a fan.

There are faded edges to the city, and it is struggling under the volume of tourists, but it remains a very distinct place.  The old shops of Lisbon were a feature of my previous blog, and I am not repeating that here.  Instead my shop focus is on the ghostsigns or other tiled signs of shops.  Wherever you look shops in Lisbon exhibit fabulous reminders of the past.

The tiles (or Azulejo) are a fabulous feature of the city and can be seen almost everywhere.  They can be a little over the top, but the patterning and design work is amazing. The history of tiles in Portugal can be seen in the excellent National Museum of Tiles and it is well worth the visit.  Amongst its many displays is the pre 1755 earthquake tiled map of Lisbon.  Close examination of this produces the fabulous old market scenes shown below.  This market is the precursor to the now refurbished Time Out version covered in my previous blog.

Whilst on our travels we also came across an exhibition of M.C. Escher – someone I have been fascinated by for years.  The regular tile patterns of Lisbon are in many ways highly similar to some of Escher’s work, though the art of the impossible he developed goes well beyond regularity.  The exhibition ended with a section on modern use of Escher’s ideas and on the use of impossibility.  Typically there were some retail examples including the IKEA posters from a few years ago, shown below.


So what about the sardines?

Anywhere you go in Lisbon, fish is a feature, and the sardine within that.  My childhood memories of tins of sardines in paper wrapped cans were brought home by the array on offer in specialist shops.  Some of these shops seemed very touristy, and one on the theme of a Vegas casino, decidedly vulgar.

But, I was taken by another, which appears to be run by a producers association.  This had added a layer of history and explanation in quite a simple format.  A pick ‘n’ mix approach encouraged engagement and purchase as shown below and sales seemed to be brisk.

As interestingly, next door was a simple sardine tapas bar using the products and again operated by the producers – very good it was too.


Sardines in tins may not be to everyone’s tastes, but the idea of producers taking their product seriously, promoting great design and heritage and selling the product in various ways in shops and restaurants strikes me as a very good one.  Where is our Scottish equivalent?  Baxters on the A9 (also elsewhere) north of Stirling proved short lived.  Beyond that I am struggling, and whisky shops do not count in this.  The Portuguese example was beyond the point of production, and owned and operated by the producers.  We do really miss a trick in this, though a recent visit to Orkney saw us frequent the Orkney Fishermans Society fish shop and it showed what could be done, though perhaps not with the same Lisbon panache!


Posted in 3D Printing, Architecture, Azulejo, Cooperatives, Fish, Food Retailing, Historic Shops, History, Lisbon, Markets, Producers, Retail History, Sardines, Shopfronts, Streetscapes, Urban History | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

HoF: House of Fools?


Thursday’s much trailed announcement that House of Fraser was aiming to close 31 of its 59 stores in the UK and was seeking large rent reductions on those that remain, all as part of a seemingly contested CVA, was the lead story across the country (and on most of the front pages of the national newspapers the following day), particularly in places where towns or cities were affected.  The coverage focused on a number of dimensions, often around the history of the stores and locations involved and, quite rightly, the several thousand workers likely to be affected.

Quite expectedly, attention turned to the ‘death of the high street’ and the impact HoF closures will have.  They will have an impact, no doubt, but we also need to reflect on the broader picture.

Department stores have been in difficulty for some time; both in themselves and as part of the travails of mass and middle market retailing.  C&A and BHS as well as Woolworths and the woes of Debenhams and M&S point to a broader problem.  The decline of the Department Store is not new – I think Stirling had 13 between the wars and only one now – and is symptomatic of changing behaviours and product and place availability. Department stores can succeed, by only by adapting to modern demands. House of Fraser has not done this.

The question for HoF is what makes them out as distinctive or different – and the answer in many cases is not much.  Many of the products can be found elsewhere – online and in other physical brand stores – and there’s little enough ‘wow’ factor from other elements or products to pull in the volume of consumers needed.  Add to that a relative lack of investment over a period of decades in many of the HoF stores, and for many consumers they are something of an anachronism. There has been a lack of transformation and investment in many of the stores, something competitors, such as John Lewis have been much better at (physically, online and multichannel).

That is not to say that HoF have not had ill-winds to face externally.  The rent and rates of operating large units in town and city centres is a problem for all retailers in that situation. The calls from politicians and others on Thursday for ‘bright ideas’ about “the death of the high street” and business rates seem to be ignoring the active increase and burden on such businesses placed by government and a total failure to view the need for a more level ‘playing field’ between physical and online retailing (and if we value towns and cities, in town and out of town).  Hand-wringing by governments and politicians over the health of the high street and closures such as HoF are cynical denials of the fact that their inactivity has helped create the situation. We have written more on this in our Town and Country Planning Column last year.

It is a sense of bias or lack of balance that is also behind the increasingly contested view of CVAs.  They are now, in some quarters, being viewed as a play to reduce the rent bill from landlords rather than a vehicle to obtain a going business.  The fairness of this claim is hard to assess, and I doubt any CVA is entered into lightly, but there is no doubt that the balance of costs is being more carefully looked at. In the case of House of Fraser, given HoF sold a large number of the stores slated for closure to landlords in sale and leaseback deals a while back (and presumably made some comments about the income flow accordingly), the property owners are crying foul the property owners are crying foul. It will be interesting to see what happens here.

It is also worth pausing and asking what this plan says about House of Fraser in the future and whether indeed the CVA will work (if accepted). The axe to the chain is dramatic and does say that HoF can not really make a business work in many of the major cities of the UK (a point well made by Richard Hyman on twitter and his blog). It is all very well focusing on costs and cutting (and it is needed), but we have to go back to investment point above. Where is the plan for HoF to expand sales and income and attract customers. Will this 28 or so strong chain be good enough for the future competition. At this point there seems to be little evidence that this has been given enough thought. Without it, we will not have heard the last of the decline or demise of HoF.

Finally, one also can’t but help reflect on history when looking at some of the stores to be closed e.g. Cardiff, Edinburgh or Wolverhampton, amongst others.  These are status buildings with a storied past that are integral to the streetscape and sense of place.  One hopes that their merit will be recognised and sympathetic uses found; there must be opportunities to be creative and protective here.  We can’t afford a spree of cookie-cutter clones replacing iconic units.  More unlikely or romantically perhaps, maybe there is an opportunity to remove the dead hand of centralism (HoF) and get back some of these great independent stores and names e.g. Howells, Binns, Beatties, David Evans and so on.  After all it is Jenners (180 years old  Jenners) that is the surviving store in Edinburgh. Perhaps this is more likely in some of the smaller towns affected by the closures.


Posted in BHS, Buildings, Cardiff, Consumer Change, Costs, CVA, Department Stores, Edinburgh, High Streets, Historic Shops, Internet shopping, Jenners, John Lewis Partnership, Online Retailing, Oxford Street, Places, Retail Change, Retail Failure, Town & Country PLanning, Town Centres, Urban History | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment


There has been a lot of doom and gloom around in the last few weeks about the state of retail and high streets across the country.  There is clearly a new changed set of circumstances around consumer behaviours and the profitability of physical retail spaces.  But, as we have argued previously, a lot of this is overstated and the data sources often claim about things they never measure.

In the last couple of weeks we have had surveys about multiple retailers being reported as reflecting all retailing, spending on (some) cards being seen as representative of all spending, eight large places in Scotland masquerading as the entire country and so on.  Yes, there are issues and changing patterns, but let’s be a little more careful in our considerations.

This was brought home to me a couple of weeks ago during a holiday on Orkney.  There are only two places on Orkney that could qualify as towns – Kirkwall and Stromness (see usp.scot).  I’d never visited the islands before and did not know what to expect.  Wandering around a place – and in a week of unbroken sunshine – is not a good indicator of the issues or the state of the town, but I was taken with both.

The lack of retail vacancies surprised me – I could see only one in Kirkwall and that was a recent move.  Independents predominated and the economy seemed highly cash based.  The Tesco van was ubiquitous however and Tesco faces off on the same road against Lidl and the Cooperative in Kirkwall as well as local stores.  The Dealz (shown below) is soon to be a Poundland (according to the Orcadian) and prices dropped as the ‘island markup’ is removed.  Both towns felt busy and well used.


Orkney is of course well known for its tourist attractions and at the Bishop’s and Earl’s Palace an Historic Environment Scotland staff member put me right on a few things.  On learning I was from Stirling she asked why I was not a HS member given Stirling Castle was on my doorstep.  As a Stirling resident I get in free to Stirling Castle and so I indicated that there was no need for membership given I get free entry into the best HS attraction in Scotland!

That led to a friendly debate about the historic merits of Orkney (which in her eyes I had clearly insulted) and Stirling (with Bannockburn and the Wallace added to the Castle).  Her killer blow though was when she asked me to compare Kirkwall’s approach to tourists to that of Stirling.  Scale helps, but she pointed to the well organised, clear, coordinated action to make visitors (and especially the cruise ships) very welcome at Kirkwall (and beyond).  When we were there three ships came in, one with c4500 passengers.  All businesses know when, where from and who is on the ships and have a note sheet of weather and events for the week.  Tourist buses and organisations flow between the (excellent) historic and outlying sites and the town facilities.  Yes it is easier with cruise traffic, but the approach puts Stirling to shame.

I am making two points in this post.  First, I doubt that Kirkwall or Stromness has appeared on the surveys reported earlier; yet they are every bit as reflective of Scottish towns and the reality on the ground as are Stirling, Aberdeen etc.  Secondly, these towns have come together to make the most of what they have and build action from the bottom up.  Whilst I am certain both have issues I can only imagine, Stromness and Kirkwall appeared (yes on a glorious early busy summer week) to be thriving, independent oriented towns.  It is not all doom and gloom out there and we need to remind ourselves what can be done at a local level.

Just down the road from our cottage was a food truck – obviously with a splendid name (see photo).  It came highly recommended and indeed provided delicious and good value food (steak sandwich a firm favourite).  I tried my luck at a discount because of my name, but got a firm ‘no’.  But then a free Tunnochs teacake appeared with my coffee.  Lovely stuff.

Leigh's Van

The title of this post was a variant on a suggestion from a kind colleague of mine when she saw the photo below after my accident on my final day on Orkney (there is more on twitter if you are that sad).  You really can’t get respect from colleagues these days! Don’t let my misfortune put you off visiting a glorious part of Scotland.

Yma o Hyd

Posted in Community, Cooperative Group, Creative Places, Environmental Quality, Food Tourism, Heritage, High Streets, Independents, Lidl, Orkney, Personal, Places, Pound Shops, Poundland, Public Realm, Retail History, Scotland's Islands, Seafood, Small Shops, Small Towns, Stirling, Tourism, Town Centres, Towns, Understanding Scottish Places, Urban History | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

“We’re in the Money”

A couple of weeks have gone by since the notion of a merger of Asda and Sainsbury began to be debated in the media.  During that time I wondered whether to add to the coverage via this blog or to let it lie, and let my comments on radio and TV in Scotland speak for themselves.  But in the end the Mike Coupe audition for ‘best tactless singing’ in the run up to Eurovision won the day.  What was he thinking?  And even more so, what are his customers and his suppliers now thinking?  Crass doesn’t begin to cover it.

So what can we say about the proposal?  It seems to be Wal-Mart throwing in the towel in the UK, so if it does not go ahead it is hard to see where this will leave them.  This is not, in my view, likely to be concluded soon, and with Asda head office likely to be more affected, there may be some strategic personnel jumping ship/cherry picking in the meantime.  For Wal-Mart this is a rather risky throw of the dice, but as I argued in 2011 they had been rather forced into Settling for Second Best (download my paper Settling for Second Best).

Most of that risk is embodied in the experts used by the Competition and Markets Authority.  Surely they have to look at this with a rather critical eye and take their time to do a thorough job.  After all if they can look at single or small numbers of overlap stores in other takeovers, then surely this raises real competition issues.  But then I had convinced myself that Tesco and Booker would be a drawn out investigation and could ultimately lead to sell-offs or refusal.  How wrong was I?  Perhaps the rise of the discounters and the threat of new entrants and the internet, as well as the change to the two markets approach, renders the CMA mute?  (or is that moot?)

Assuming that the CMA regains its voice and orders store sell offs or closures, then this is where it gets interesting.  Are there buyers out there, and does it matter if there are not?  Some stores would be attractive to existing players in some locations, though might not help Sasda or Asbury or whatever we call it.  Some may not be attractive (or allowed).  But could a new entrant e.g. Amazon make a move and how might that be realised and responded to?  Maybe shutting down is a more attractive idea (if allowed?).  Whatever, I can’t see any circumstances where the Mike Coupe ‘no store closures’ can be true.  There will be job losses.

These losses will also be felt by the two company’s staff and by suppliers.  If the 10% reduction in prices is to be met, then there will need to be savings in overheads, buying and distribution at least.  This will mean facilities will close and staff will be lost in stores, distribution centres and head offices.  Suppliers will be expected to pony up their contributions as well, which will be easier for some (the larger) than others (smaller ones).

And finally, what of the competitive effects?  Tesco will be back as #2 in the market if this is allowed and the UK will be a duopoly.  Do we really want this to happen?  There will also be quite an effect in some non-food markets and segments and here power may also be seen and executed.  Will this be good for the consumer?  I suspect Asda and Sainsbury customers will be worried about their own brand dilution.  Price cuts always play well, but not if the costs are a limited choice and confusion.  But then, from Mike Coupe’s choice of song, does the consumer really matter and which executives will be around to see it through?

In case anyone wonders how Asda got to this point, I link below (for downloading) a range of papers from a while back that I  produced on the company since the Wal-Mart entry:

Walmart’s World– book chapter (2006) on Wal Mart and Internationalisation

Asda Walmart in the UK – book chapter (2006) on Wal-mart’s takeover of Asda and the implications

When tony met bobby – paper (2007) on the very odd meetings between the Government and Wal-Mart prior to the takeover

Settling for Second best – paper (2011) reflecting on the lack of progress of Asda ten years after thew takeover



Posted in Asda, Booker, CMA, Competition and Markets Authority, Consumers, Food Retailing, Government, Mergers, Policy, Retail Change, Retailers, Retailing, Sainsbury, Store Closures, Suppliers, Tesco, Wal-Mart | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Shops opening and expanding, queues outside: the High Street picture that’s not making the national news

I recently had an exchange with Iain Nicholson around media coverage of the high street. it followed my recent diatribe about data. I have known Iain for a few years and admired the work he has been doing in towns around Oxfordshire. I asked him if he’d like to put a viewpoint forward for this blog and he agreed readily. What follows is his take (and some photos) on town things.

You can read more about Iain at www.prbi.co.uk and he is on Twitter @prbi_Iain

“Carnage, ravaging, crisis, dying! Words that are becoming all too common in the gloomster national media reporting of the High Street and our town centres. Our experience of working across towns tells us it is tough and there are challenges to face. But carnage? Really?


Trouble is, the hysteria is hiding the good and, maybe more importantly, drowning out sensible conversation about what can and needs to be done, and the practical help we need from government and our local councils.

  1. The business rates system, as is widely agreed, is wholly unfit for purpose and we can point to cases where it’s a barrier to empty units being let – especially some of the available reliefs.
  2. Use Classes Guidance is equally unfit for purpose. The A1 category is not just for shops so non-shop uses can take on a ‘shop’ unit without needing to apply, with the predictable: “Oh not another…!” refrain as a result. In fact, it seems even a change to A2 uses, which would’ve been challenged as a loss of A1 before, are going through on the nod, so we see office uses taking on what were shop units, again reducing the retail core which can do so much for the attractiveness and variety of a town centre’s offer. If there were no demand from would-be shop tenants you could make the case, but our experience is that this isn’t so, and retail uses are being blocked out.
  3. Parking Policy – if it was health it would be called a postcode lottery. In (too) many places it’s a cash cow being run by councils with no account being taken of the impact on town centres.
  4. ‘Town Centre First’ Policy – it’s hard to find anyone who believes we have one! In our experience its current outputs are very lengthy council officer reports, developers commissioning consultants to write submissions that ‘answer’ the TCF criteria…and out of town retail centres approved (either first up or on appeal) that then inevitably damage the nearby town centre.

With concerted practical help on these policy shortcomings, the great work being done by town teams, town partnerships and BIDs in our town centres has a better chance to flourish.

Admittedly our own work has us in a small and local sample of town centres, but we won’t be the only ones to report shops opening and/or expanding. And it’s not just the “Oh not another…!” kinds, it’s antique shops, jewellers, toy shops, sports shops, interiors and upcycling stores and more.

And it isn’t just our towns that have seen pictures of queues outside #indie record stores and comic shops and bookshops and butchers.

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We’ve run successful pop-up-shop projects to create a pipeline ready to take on a town’s empties, giving businesses a town centre start to help overcome a significant barrier to start-ups – the typical landlord/agent requirement for 3, 5 or 10-year leases before they have the confidence and track record to warrant that. We take on windows of empty units to create attractive displays to improve their look while work to get them let continues. We’re encouraging businesses to share units, adding an extra offer to attract customers, dividing the rent burden and reducing the time each needs to staff the shop (especially valuable where those involved are designer/makers). We’re promoting what we call #morethanretail, where shop owners with a skill use it to run classes and workshops, as an extra income stream but also to generate a new customer base. We’re facilitating the take up of space by businesses outside the traditional ‘shop’ type (tho some have a retail/sales element) but which, in their own way, attract footfall that in turn supports other elements of the town centre mix. Examples include gyms, reptile rescue centres, galleries run by collaborations of artists, community spaces, kids play cafés, board game hubs & more. And we’re encouraging landlords to split larger empty units because the bulk of the demand we see is from smaller, #indie, businesses, so that splitting helps accommodate to them.

These approaches are all elements of a focus for our town team work on empty units. In each town centre we’ve worked we started with a rigorous audit of its empty shops to see what the barriers are to their being let, then worked with landlords and agents to overcome them. We were told recently by a senior place management leader that we were “sadly rare” in taking this approach. Maybe it’s time it became all too common!”

Posted in Car Parking, Consumers, Creative Places, Government, High Streets, Independents, Local Retailers, Localisation, Oxfordshire, Places, Planning, Policy, Producers, Record stores, Retail Diversity, Retail Economy, Retailers, Small Shops, Small Towns, Spaces, town centre first, Town Centres, Towns, Vacancies | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Try Before You Buy: A ‘Returns Tsunami’?

The rise of the internet as a channel of purchase and distribution has been a major transformation for consumers and also for many retailers.  Whilst distance selling including mail order had been present for centuries, the internet offers a radically different proposition overcoming distance and time in many cases.  As can be seen in the growth of sales volumes, consumers have taken to the channel.

There has also been a long tradition of academic research into the area of ‘rogue’ customers.  This has many facets but one angle has focused on customers who buy products (often clothing) in the knowledge they will return them – either after trying them on at home or after use!  This phenomenon existed before the internet, but has grown steadily.  Internet shopping has given such behaviour a tremendous boost.  With rapid delivery and relatively easy return, consumers have begun to order more products, try them on, select or use one or none and then return some or all of them to the retailer.  There are a number of issues with this.

For the consumer there is the possible hassle of sending back products and waiting for reimbursement.  Sometimes there is real cost as well as time in this. Retailers however have been trying to make this as easy as possible for consumers in the belief that this is great customer service which provides loyalty and protects sales.

For retailers there is the obvious real distribution cost, the opportunity cost of lost sales and possible damage, as well as the need to spend time and money on handling returns and organising repayment.  If not careful, the sheer volume of this work skews the business model and affects profitability.

Since starting this blog I have received a number of unsolicited reports and offers of material for promotion or publication.  I tend to be very selective as many have somewhat questionable statistics (and motives) and most are out to sell something.  I am flattered but hopefully not deceived.  Most get read and then forgotten.

But, one the other week did grab my attention.  It was on the ‘returns tsunami’ that the new internet retail model of  “Try Before You Buy” threatens to unleash.  ASOS is one of the leading pioneers of try-before-you-buy, launching its initiative in November 2017 in conjunction with payment partners Klarna. The firm has since been followed by other retailers including Top Man and Schuh.

Top Man

This option enables customers to order multiple items before deciding what they’d like to keep. There’s no upfront cost – shoppers simply pay for anything they keep after a certain number of days, usually thirty days following dispatch. They return anything else that they don’t want, for which they are never charged.  It means that customers can order and try items as they would in-store but crucially they do not have to wait for returns to be processed in order to receive reimbursement for goods that they don’t want.

For a consumer this offers a benefit of not paying for things immediately but the disadvantage of moving closer to the club or subscription model.  It adds another reason to order more products.  For retailers it perhaps provides some control of a current situation but does need to be well managed, certainly in terms of returns. They hope that once consumers have the product in their hands they will either love it or forget to return it and then get charged.  And yes, the authors of this report do have an angle, as they have systems to help make this work.

I am not sure how this will be taken up – by retailers or consumers – but there is a real point here whatever happens.  Internet retailing is changing how we shop and how we think about shopping, and retailers have to cope with the fall out from this.  Being efficient and effective for returns, for both consumer and business reasons, is now part of doing retail and some are doing it better than others. This is what marks it out from old style hire purchase catalogue retailing, where after all you also got the product before you paid for it.

The report can be downloaded here.

Posted in Asos, Availability, Catalogues, Consumer Choice, Internet shopping, Loyalty, Membership, Returns, Supply Chains, Sustainable Development, Try before you buy | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment