Dead or Alive?

A few weeks ago I was reading an interview in the Guardian and the interviewee, the writer Barbara Kingsolver, said about the Great Barrier Reef:

“You’re hearing about everything that dies, you’re not hearing about everything that’s still alive.  If you think it’s dead already then you’re not going to be bothered.  I almost think people gravitate towards “It’s too late” because they then don’t have to put themselves out.  Only if you love something will you inconvenience yourself to work on its behalf”.

I think it is a great quote and on reading it thought immediately about our work on towns (and to a degree on high streets).  As we have debated here before, the narrative about the high street in the media is almost universally negative, mainly around the metaphor of ‘death’.  The blame is attributed often to the rise of online shopping and its seemingly inevitable grab of market share.

Yes, this is happening.  But even if current growth rates continue, 80% of retail sales will be through physical stores in 2025.  Yes, out-of-town retailing is a presence and we have too many shops in the wrong places.  But some high streets are thriving and new businesses are springing up and testing the ground.  Some of these are previously online only businesses. Quite a lot of them are local businesses.

If you only hear bad news, you believe the retail world has caved in.  And you won’t be bothered to do anything.

What though can you do?  Every time you shop online you should ask, could I make this sale locally, through a “real” store and with a “real” person?  Could this be an independent store with the spend kept in the local area?  If you shop online for convenience then ask yourself do I actually need that product now, this instant, or even tomorrow?  Why has speed become the single vital factor in shopping?

But more than that, you can ask whether the online and the multiple mundane provides what you are looking for?  I love towns and places and markets – and yes I do despair at the state of some of them – and find they provide novelty, difference, exploration and experiences (I write this seated in Grainger Market in Newcastle and having bought great local bread and cheese, as an example of difference and experience).  They are worth valuing and I am inconveniencing myself in working to make them better places, through our Scotland’s Towns Partnership activities. It is a tough road and will take time. Some places may prove stubbornly intractable. But there are real signs of community led local regeneration and a re-localization and development of towns.

We must change the narrative if we want vibrant social and economic spaces.  Show you care by your actions and don’t succumb to the over-stated negative. it is not too late.

Posted in Community, Consumers, Local Retailers, Localisation, Regeneration, Reinvention, Scotland's Town and High Streets, Small Shops, Small Towns, Town Centres, Towns, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 5 Comments

“Destination High Street – Restoring Vibrancy to Scotland’s Towns”


The invitation from the Architectural Heritage Society of Scotland (AHSS) and the Scottish Civic Trust was to present a keynote address to their conference on ‘Destination High Street’.  As both Professor of Retail Studies and Chair, Scotland’s Towns Partnership I was asked to speak on ‘Thinking the Unthinkable ……’.

Well, the day has come; on Wednesday (7th November) I will attempt to do justice to the topic.  The programme for the day can be found here and the slides that I hope to be able to use can be downloaded here, as is my customary practice.  But, rather than simply providing the slides on this blog, I thought that this time I would add a few words about the themes of my presentation.  These are reflections in many ways of some conversations over recent years and the mis-understandings I perceive.

What follows below is thus not a write-through of the presentation, but instead selected topics I intend to cover.

Boiling the Frog: the metaphor of boiling the frog (gradual changes kill you as you don’t notice them) seems rather apt for town centres/high streets.  We have spent the best part of 60+ years decentralising and destroying towns and we are now at the point where the cumulative effect can appear to be terminal.  Reversing this will not be an overnight operation.

The Wrong Question: if your question is about saving the high street, then you’re asking the wrong question.  High Streets are reflections of towns and it is towns that are in crisis, not just high street retail. We need to save our towns and the high streets will survive as a consequence.

A Retail Revolution: retailing is suffering across the country (in-town and out-of-town) as the over-expansion of the last 40 years collides with the technology and consumer changes.  Throw in biased and unfair cost structures and taxation regimes and we should not be surprised at where we are and what is happening.  This revolution has a long way to go, whatever sticking plasters are applied to high streets via however many budgets.

The Wrong Narrative: But not all places or retailers are dying.  Some are positively thriving as they adjust to the new realities.  Too often the media sing the siren song of death, but the reality is nowhere as negative.  Physical retail has its place for consumers and some physical retailers are doing well.  There are success stories and we need to shout about and learn from them.

Towns and Places Matter: Towns are a defining feature of Scotland and our communities.  We have to make them positive choices and embrace this adaptation and community, thinking beyond retail to living, working and playing in our towns and places.  Community focus, especially in smaller towns will be a vital emphasis.

‘Thinking the Unthinkable….’ has a number of possible connotations and implications.  It is unthinkable we have let things get to this position.  It is unthinkable our current tax approach dates in the main from the late 1500s.  Our nostalgia or inertia holds us back in many ways.  But what changes could we make that are currently unthinkable?  Some thoughts to frame a discussion:

  • Retailing is a consequence not a pre-requisite for a town – treat it as such
  • Products go to people not the other way round – what are the implications of this?
  • Environment in the broadest sense (including heritage) is fundamental to place identity
  • Rates need to be phased down and digital taxes phased up (and a balance of taxes is needed within and across retailing and between retailing and other sectors)
  • VAT needs reformation for town centres and redevelopments
  • Local independent businesses should get preferential treatment
  • Places have to build belonging and stories and become places of interaction first not transaction
  • Technology has to be embraced and not seen as the opposition.

It is not really that unthinkable; the unthinkable is that we would sit idly by and let our towns and communities suffer.


Posted in Architecture, BIDS, Buildings, Community, Community Development, Consumer Change, Consumer Lifestyle, Creative Places, Design, Development Trusts, Environmental Quality, Government, High Streets, Historic Shops, Internet shopping, Local Retailers, Online Retailing, Places, Public Realm, Rates, Retail Change, Scotland's Town and High Streets, Scotland's Towns Partnership, Small Towns, Social Inequality, Streets, Streetscapes, Tax, Town Centre Action Plan, Town Centre Living, Town Centre Review, Town Centres, Towns, Understanding Scottish Places, Urban | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Twin Towns

Twin Towns

To anyone with a Welsh background and an interest in films, Twin Town conjures up a film of 20+ years ago which was described as a Welsh Trainspotting, though less successful.  Lock up your sheep and pretty much anything else, was I think one strapline.

I am not sure why that came to mind, as an altogether more friendly and pleasant experience took place last week when Carnegie UK Trust hosted a celebrity event for the six towns involved in their Twin Towns UK project.  As a member of the Expert Reference Group (not the other ERG) I attended and learned first-hand what these towns had been up to.

The origins of the project are in the Flourishing Towns theme of Carnegie UK Trust.  The notion was that by “twinning” distinct but similar towns lessons could be learned and projects advanced in both places.  This was not traditional town twinning but rather a facilitated matching service leading to lasting benefit for places.

From an initial set of towns, three pairs made it through to Phase Two and these pairs reported their work at the event in North Shields.  It should be noted that this was a distinctive project from the outset in that no expectations or guidelines were set down, but rather the towns were encouraged to make what they wanted from the opportunity.

The outcome, as presented by the town pairs (Whitburn/Oswaldtwistle, Broughshane/Wooler and North Shields/Merthyr Tydfil) was fascinating and illuminating. I won’t go into details of what they did, but instead provide some overall themes.  Details of activities and reports will be available via Carnegie UK Trust in due course.

So what themes emerged?

  • All towns found it enormously beneficial to have to hold a ‘mirror’ up to themselves and to engage with critical friends. They ended up learning as much about their own town as they did about the pair.
  • The pairs (which were selected by the ERG) did find similarities and learnings that could be adapted for transfer. This has led in each case to enhanced confidence, capability and economic and social benefits.  These will continue.
  • The use of digital media to communicate and build communities was under-developed before the project, and has become a key feature of the current developments. It is perhaps a little puzzling why this need is a surprise to many places.
  • The need to tell a story and change the narrative were writ large across the places. There is much to build on, to be proud of in most towns, and once engaged, communities demonstrate this pride and ‘brand’.

More widely, the project lifted horizons and made people and groups take stock of their own and distinct place.  This proved highly influential in changing thinking.  The efforts of the people involved was great and their pride rightly shone through in what has been achieved to date.  These varied from the introduction of markets, the takeover of assets and their renewal, historical themed walks and trails, various clean up and improvement initiatives and some more energetic sporting initiatives. Small beginnings it may seem in some towns, but these are necessary steps.

There will now be a period of reflection as various reports will be finalised and published.  Keep an eye on the Carnegie Trust UK website and social media streams for updates and learnings, and especially the words and videos of the towns themselves.


Posted in Carnegie UK Trust, Collaboration, Community, Heritage, High Streets, History, Markets, Places, Regeneration, Small Towns, Town Centres, Towns, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Business Rates vs Online Tax

The upcoming Budget has as normal seen a flurry of ‘advice’ for the UK Government’s Chancellor.  Much of this is special pleading, especially in the light of the so-called End of Austerity.  Within this though the issue of business rates has again come to the fore.

This time of year the September inflation rate (CPI) sets the rise in business rates for the next year.  The BRC has calculated that without amelioration this increase will cost retailers an additional £190m.  This comes at a time when retailers and business rates have been in the news, with considerable adverse opinion and their impact is blamed for the decline of the high street. Retailers account for almost 25% of the rates revenue – an unfair burden given the scale of the sector (One of many issues with rates)

One of the topics that has been pushed by some in the media and has been picked up by some leading retailers (most notably Tesco) has been the suggestion of a tax on online sales (an “Amazon” tax).  This seems to be gaining some traction (though is not without its critics) despite a lack of clarity over how in practice this would work.  We may get some indication in the Budget – or maybe not.

The criticisms have come in a variety of guises, and have been bundled by some as a Luddite reaction to change and retail disrupters.  They argue that success should not be penalised and that the issue is not rates or physical stores versus online stores but large multi-national corporations refusing to/avoiding paying their fair share of tax by manipulating their in-company transfers and sales.  Fix that they say and all is fine.

I don’t really buy that argument.  Yes, the tax avoidance should be tackled, but in addition to consideration of the changing sales mix and shift in retailing.

I am reminded of the work done (and we at Stirling did some of it) around the time of the deregulation of Sunday trading.  One of the absurdities of the situation was regulations being enforced based on the 1950s list of products enshrined in the legislation.  Products had changed since 1950 but the law had not.

The same seems to me to be happening now.  Consumer behaviour has changed and the taxation base has not kept up.  Out-of-town trading and operating has emerged and online retailing has mushroomed.  In a decentralised and now digital world we are persisting in a tax based on physical centralisation and analogue trading.  If we do not change track then the situation will continue to deteriorate in physical stores and high streets.

This does not mean that we should abandon all property taxation, but we need to reflect the new consumer behaviour and build a system that flexes with change.  This means some form of online tax probably related to the point of distribution and/or receipt and some form of property taxation (and one that probably better reflects distribution’s role in retail and other sectors).

We also have to consider more carefully what we value and tax accordingly.  Do we want vibrant town centres and a diversity of businesses and trade?  If so we need to adjust their costs base and taxation accordingly.  This does mean higher taxation than now on single use sites (see Barclay proposals in Scotland, though the SNP seems to be cooling on an out of town store increase) and amelioration for small independent traders (and this would be better if automatic).  It could mean changed VAT rates for towns (allowable post Brexit) and for re-development/re-use of historical and upper-storey buildings.

Business rates have had their day as the way in which to tax retailing and provide local authority revenue.  We must step in and change them, to reflect the modern retail and consumer sector, and rebalance the burden of taxation.

In short, the world has changed and taxation needs to catch up.

Posted in Barclay Review, BRC, Digital, Government, High Streets, Internet shopping, Large Store Levy, Local Retailers, Online Retailing, Rates, Retail Failure, Tax, Town Centres | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Ghosts in the Rockies


Probably the best ghost sign collection I have seen – Missoula, Montana

In one of the many ironies of destroying my knee in May, we were left with a race against time to see if I was fit enough to go on a booked holiday in late August and early September. Would I make it to our walking holiday in the Canadian Rockies and northern Montana?

Well I made it, but not to do any walking. Recovery remains a work in progress. But, in a compensatory fashion it meant we spent more time in small towns and discovered a collection of ghost signs, historic stores, store museums and various other historic retail artefacts. It was not the focus of the holiday (honest) but we accidentally came across some fun retail things.

So what follows are some of my holiday snaps – those with a retail history theme. As can be seen from the photo at the head of this post, some of the ghost signs and history were spectacular.

Buried deep in the Montana wildness, was the ghost town of Garnet. In a relatively difficult ravine, the town is in the state of preserved decay. I could not explore much, but the shop on the main street had a collection of artefacts and gave a sense of the past. Having to dig it out of the snow each year must be a fun pastime. I loved the wooden skis.


In contrast to the preserved oldness of Garnet, the museum of Fort Steele in British Columbia was an altogether different experience. Whilst some of the shops and street buildings were being allowed to decay as being too far gone, many had been restored and preserved. Not all were from the original settlement, and some were being reused in a modern way (the bakery, the hotel etc) so the whole settlement was hardly original, but there was considerable interest in just walking around and in the old stores.

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More generally, in all the small towns we visited there were reminders of the past in the form of ghost signs and great retail design. The brick work in many of these places lends itself to painted signs, and the photos below (from Kalispell, Hamilton and Banff) are a reminder of this lost art.



As ever, we are at the mercy of what survives, and whilst these examples are wonderful there is a sense of their fragility and lack of permanence.  What we preserve, allow to decay, or protect present real and difficult choices. Enjoy these reminders of the past while we can.


A better photographer would have been able to show this Coca-Cola sign in a better state, Kalispell



Posted in Advertising, Architecture, Buildings, Canada, Corporate branding, Downtown, Ghost Signs, Heritage, High Streets, Historic Shops, Places, Retail History, Signage, Small Towns, Streetscapes, Urban History, USA | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Three Go To An Exhibition


It was not quite my shortest visit to Singapore, but it came close; a couple of days launching a new partnership with Amity University and our annual graduation ceremony with SIM.  For reading on the plane I had grabbed a book from my desk which I’d been meaning to read for some time – Silence of the Archives by David Thomas, Simon Fowler and Valerie Johnson.

My interest in the book stemmed from our experiences of trying to recreate Sanders Bros; a major inter-war food retailer which left no archive after it was taken over and broken up.  We have been trying to accumulate as many artefacts and details as we can.  Whilst this process is easier now in the digital/internet era than it was, it still leaves questions over the meaning of the surviving pieces, their interpretation, but also what can not be found anymore.

As the Silence of the Archives debates, what is in an archive or collection, and what is not, and why, are vital questions for all of us in many contexts.  Little is truly value-free.

This took on particular relevance, as en route to the flight back, I took in (together with two retail colleagues) an exhibition at the National Library of Singapore entitled Selling Dreams: Advertising in Early Singapore.  We spent a fascinating 90 minutes or so looking around.

The artefacts used – mainly print and visual material – are taken from the National Library Collection.  The exhibition explores the advertising approach in the early years of Singapore.  Most is historical or pre-dates independence, with little after the 1960s.


Much of the exhibition allows a consideration of the early life of Singapore as seen via advertising.  This is focused on colonial times; the aspirations of ex-pats and the creation of society form a theme, as do the issues of living in a tropical, developing country.  As the imagery shows, themes of home country and identity are pervasive.

Our interest was a retail one of course and the exhibition contains much of interest.  A section on the grand department stores shows the building of retail Singapore and the colonial lifestyle.  More interestingly a section on the adverts of the lost shops of High Street provides a different window on retailing than seen in Orchard Road which supplanted High Street.


A couple of items allow a glimpse of what Orchard Road was – a taxi office at 1 Orchard Road for example and a provision shop at 223 (photo from 1965).

There are other themes that could be explored and some are seen in the slide show below, not least what is acceptable in advertising now as opposed to ‘then’. Still not convinced about Durian Jam though.

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Whilst the entire show is not given over to colonial theme, it is a focus.  This may be due to design, but it also probably stems from what is in the National Collection.  A dominant focus is commerce (as the second issue of the Straits Times and its shipping (and retail advertisements) show) and commerce was obviously a colonial occupation.  Voices of others – for example the consumers of the stores, grand or especially otherwise – are routinely not heard and have been lost.


I have made a linked point before in discussion of my Argos catalogues.  Viewed as ephemera by the British Library, they were deemed unworthy of presentation.  But what a window on changing products and consumers they can provide.  Choices of inclusion or exclusion will set challenges for the future.

If you are in, or passing through, Singapore, go along and take a look.  You might, like us, bump into one of the designers/curators of the exhibition.  He asked why we were looking at the retail section so intently.  Our answer – we are three retail academics – rather unnerved him I think.  But who knows, perhaps they will think in the future about an exhibition on Singapore’s retail history.  One of my colleagues has thousands of photos from the mid-1980s onwards and can be encyclopaedic on retail changes in the last 30 years.  It would be a shame if this ‘window’ was also lost.


Thomas D., Fowler S. and V. Johnson (2017) the Silence of the Archive.  Facet Publishing: London.


Posted in Advertising, Architecture, archives, Department Stores, Historic Shops, History, Retail Change, Retail History, Retailers, Singapore, Urban History | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Challenging Times in Food Retailing, continued

The pressures in the food retailing sector – especially for the ‘legacy’ operators – are well known and continue to build. The rise of the discounters (see the last post), the continuing growth of the internet and the consumer demand for convenience all continue to ramp up the pressure.

In recent weeks two examples of a fight-back have emerged, though neither is certain to survive or to have the desired effect.

Tesco have been righting their ship for some years now; a process of range reduction, store closures and mothballing and the focus on core business and customers, including on ‘farm brands’.  The merger with Booker has added another dimension.

But a couple of weeks ago they upped the stakes by opening their long-rumoured discount store.  Jack’s, in a nod to Jack Cohen and his ‘pile it high, sell it cheap’ mantra and the company’s origins, opened a couple of stores with up to 15 promised soon. It is too early to see how this will develop (and 15 stores is a pinprick on the scale of Aldi and Lidl) both because the roll out is so experimental (reasonably) and customer reaction remains in the curious and honeymoon period.

A few things strike me from afar – and I have not yet been down to see a Jack’s in operation.  The emphasis on Jack’s brands, as opposed to using the Tesco farm brands, slightly worries me.  It seems to be placing a distance from the core brand – which I understand – but will it work given the offer in Aldi and Lidl?  The store opening pattern seems also rather random, and I wonder about the logistics and how this will work, without being cost additional.  The cost reductions in store development and operations sound reasonable but will they last and deliver what customers want?

It will be interesting to see, and to watch how this develops over time.  Fight back or dead end?

The second slower challenger in the fight-back is the ongoing CMA consideration of the Asda – Sainsbury merger.  As predicted a full investigation will take place.  The initial findings pointed to a huge overlap (430+ locations) where competition would be reduced.  The traditional remedy for this would be a sell-off (to whom?) but the scale of this would likely kill the deal.

Yet, a closer look points to how this is an extreme case.  The methodology used is the traditional one of separate markets.  The full investigation is likely to consider much more carefully market definitions and overlaps.  The exclusion of the discounters from local competition is perverse as is the treatment of convenience stores.  The market has changed and I suspect the CMA will have to reflect this in renewed calculations. Claiming the discounters are not part of the core grocery market is simply absurd now – Jack’s or no Jack’s.

If the CMA do rethink and reanalyse, then the number of overlaps is likely to fall.  How much is not clear, as there will undoubtedly still be some overlaps.  The big question is whether the final ‘sell-off’ number is large enough to scupper the deal?  We have to wait and see.  I remain unconvinced by the lack of any compelling reason for the merger in business and customer terms, beyond scale, and the plans post-merger remain opaque.  But if the CMA does look at the modern food retail market and not a partial construction, then the merger may have moved closer, despite the full investigation headlines and the suggestions of a problem for the merger.

Posted in Aldi, Asda, CMA, Competition, Competition and Markets Authority, Consumer Change, Discounters, Food Retailing, Internet shopping, Jack's, Lidl, Market Shares, Mergers, Networks, Store Closures, Tesco | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments