Going Self-Service – a 70 year old revolution?

A few weeks ago a journalist rang and asked about the introduction of self-service retailing into the UK.  A particular question was about the way in which retailers converting to self-service in the 1940s and 1950s knew what to do and what principles they followed.  That made me think (yes, I know) and I half-remembered reading something a long time ago.  A rummage around and I came across the book I recalled – Going Self-Service? by Patrick Galvani and Arthur Arnell, dating from 1952 (that was not when I read it).

Self Service 3

As with such things, once found I can’t resist reading them again and this ‘practical guide to profitable self-service retailing’ is an interesting set of ideas that have endured and photos and tips on introducing self-service.  It is clearly a cheerleader for self-service. The authors were pioneers themselves and their confidence has of course been borne out.  But in re-reading the book (I last read it c1980) a number of other things struck me.  Some were issues that had always been in my mind but a couple were new.

The obvious element that comes through the book is the small scale of the stores involved.  It has always been the case that self-service in the UK began in small stores and helped energise the move to supermarkets and superstores, but the scale of the shops is strikingly small.  The UK photos in the book also stand in stark contrast to the UK and Canadian ones, where the scale of the stores is more apparent.

Self Service 4Self Service 2

The arguments for self-service are also well rehearsed and whilst targeted at the retailer also encompass the benefits for the consumer.  These also are well known and long-lasting and the benefits of being a first-mover are also extolled.  The perceived downside of self-service – shoplifting – (or pilfering as the book has it) – is tackled but the claims made that the social service support for the population will reduce the need to pilfer and that counter service has a higher rate of loss seem a little odd.

Galvani 1

Less obviously perhaps, on re-reading I was struck by the, with hindsight, clear need for a range of ancillary services to be developed at the same time.  The book ends with adverts for supplies of lighting, shelving, flooring, packaging, baskets, tills and check-out systems, price tickets, paper bags etc.  This is the paraphernalia of self-service that would not have needed to have been considered in the same way or to the same extent by traditional counter-service retailers.  I had not fully appreciated how the shift to self-service both required and assisted in the development of extensive ancillary industries.

Finally, and this is missed in the mists of time, the photos and the narrative point to the need, even as self-service is introduced, to maintain some counter service.  Rationing still existed at the time the book was published and so service counters were still needed to manage some products and the rationing system itself.  Another stark difference to the American examples.



It is interesting that many of the principles set out can be seen in the operation of modern stores.  The scale and the detail has changed but the similarities are there.  I was also taken by the opening sentences of chapter one:

“… the troubles facing a retailer have slowly increased.  Competition, staff problems, lower margins, higher wages, shrinkages, wastage, rising overheads ad various other difficulties have forced many a shopkeeper to close down and make others wonder whether or not it is worth while carrying on”. (P9)

The answer to these problems, according to the authors was self-service.  This of course ended up exacerbating competition and encouraging the development of new formats.  The same problems are with us today in grocery/retailing and seen in the stresses on the sector.  The ‘how to’ book on automated stores and intelligent automated reordering can only be around the corner.  The drivers and pressures seem very similar today.


Galvani P. and A. Arnell (1952) Going Self-Service?  A practical guide to profitable self-service retailing.  Sidgwick and Jackson Limited, London.

Posted in Consumer Change, Customer Service, Express Dairies, Food Retailing, Historic Shops, History, Retail Change, Retail History, Retail innovation, Retailers, Retailing, Self-checkout, Self-Service, Small Shops, Tesco, Uncategorized, USA | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Multiplier and the Glue: Locally owned convenience stores and the local economy

Journal cover

Longer term readers of this blog will possibly recall a long standing interest in the impacts of small convenience stores on the local economy. This has taken the form of some discussion about what may be termed ‘the local multiplier’.

We have continued this work, in association with the Scottish Grocers Federation and some of their members. Some results from this research have just been published (see reference below) and I summarise this work here. The timing is rather apt as the ACS has also just produced its annual Local Shop Report, which again emphasises the scale and significance of the sector.

Our work is very much at the detailed level and attempted to consider not only the economic but also the social impact of local convenience stores. Much focus has been on the economic side (the ‘multiplier’ for the local economy) but we argue that the social function (the ‘glue’ for the local society/ community) is every bit as interesting and important.

Using both focus group and case study work our (Dr Maria Rybaczewska and myself) research attempted to understand the scale of local economic and social interactions and operations. This is not as straightforward as it seems, as sensitive data is needed and this data is also often collected and structured in incompatible ways in each of the businesses.  Some social dimensions tend to be understated: ‘of course we do that’.

Nonetheless, the work highlights the social and community emphasis of the retailers and the reasons and benefits they felt they achieved. On the economic side a range of direct impacts was identified and again the cohesion element of these was brought into focus. Figures were difficult to compare and impacts will be locally conditioned, but overall the combined social and economic effects were clear and consistent. Socially such stores are a lifeline for the community and sometimes very specifically for local residents.

It is interesting to speculate on how these impacts and elements differ by organisational format; this though was beyond the scope of this paper. ‘True’ independents will likely have different impacts and depth of engagement than corporate retailers or affiliated convenience stores. This remains work in progress. The main function of the paper is to emphasise the social impact of stores, rather than the routine consideration of economic impact alone. This paper shows how such retailers’ contribution to the local economy and community often goes under-acknowledged.


Rybaczewska M. & L. Sparks (2020) Locally owned convenience stores and the local economy. Journal of Retailing and Consumer Serviceshttps://doi.org/10.1016/j.jretconser.2019.101939

Please contact maria.rybaczewska@stir.ac.uk or  leigh.sparks@stir.ac.uk if you want further details or if you want the author copy of the manuscript it is available in the University of Stirling’s research repository (STORRE): Locally-owned convenience stores and the local economy at http://hdl.handle.net/1893/30104

Posted in Academics, Community, Consumers, Convenience stores, Customer Service, Independents, Local Multiplier, Local Retailers, Relationships, Retail Economy, Retailers, Scottish Grocers Federation, Scottish Local Retailer, Uncategorized, University of Stirling | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

London’s Welsh Dairies: The Welsh Milk Trade

As a child I remember people mentioning the ‘milk train’ between London and South Wales, but was never sure if it was first up or last down or both. Before I married, my fiancée and I went to stay in Bermondsey with her aunt who had been in the milk trade in London, but was now running a local shop. Over time I became more aware of the strong Welsh links to London, centering historically on the milk business, developing out of droving activities. The Welsh had dominated the London milk business.

On our recent trip back to west Wales we ended up in a lovely book store in Cardigan (Awen Teifi Bookshop). Whilst my wife decided how many Welsh language books she could actually carry, I browsed and came across a book on the London Welsh milk trade, the families and their shops. Published by Y Lolfa in 2018, it had not come across my radar before.

Book Cover Dairies

The book tells the story, in both English and Welsh, of the milk trade between Wales (and especially Cardiganshire/Ceridigion) and London. It begins with the droving history but focuses mainly on the migration from Welsh speaking rural farming west Wales to urban sprawl London and the reasons, economics and cultural shifts within this. It is a tale of product distribution and industrialisation but also so much more.

At one level the book is inherently Welsh; being all about families and relationships and placing people in the patchwork of community of place, both in Wales and then in London. But it also contains a fabulous treasure trove of pictures of the retail stores that these families operated and some insight into the supply of milk to the growing English capital.

TH Jones Clapham Junction

These pictures are for me the essence of the book. They are a first class compendium of shopfronts (and very occasionally shop interiors) drawn from their family histories and memorabilia. As we found out with our Sanders saga, store interiors are often lost to history (anyone who wants to share any let me know) but these shop fronts provide a time capsule of retailing and products (not only milk, though getting milk direct from the cow in the back of the shop in the early days is one notable distribution solution). The quality and pride shine through.

Most of these stores are now long gone of course, defeated by retail progress and change (and sometimes by war-time bombing damage). But some still remain – albeit in other uses – and a few photos at the end of the book make this point. One in particular stood out (see below) and I am pleased to note that this is Grade II listed. Next time I am in London I want to seek it out.

J Evans cropped Conway Street

J Evans Conway Street interior

Original Photos of 35 Conway Street London by Leighton Morris

The author – Megan Hayes – sums up the history she portrays succinctly in terms of markets and change:

The drovers provided London with cattle bred on Welsh pastures, while dairy cattle keepers provided milk for the growing population of the city. That trade ultimately adopted and developed, by and large, by a population of dairymen mostly from Cardiganshire. Later, economic pressures led to their demise, yet some dairies survive to this day in the hands of people who are proud of their roots and origins

It is all too easy to be nostalgic for what was a very hard life – in the book, the families note that the milk business was a tough life, day in and day out – and we should try to avoid this. But we can I think revel in some of the shops and the people who created and ran them. This book allows us to do just that.

Megan Hayes (2018) Y Lon Laeth i’r Ddinas: Hanes Llaethdai Cymry Llundain/ Cows, Cobs and Corner Shops: The Story of London’s Welsh Dairies. Y Lolfa. ISBN 978-1-78461-526-0. £14.99.


Posted in Books, Buildings, Consumer Change, Consumers, Customer Service, distribution, Food, Food Retailing, Heritage, High Streets, Historic Shops, History, Independents, London, MIlk, Retail Change, Retail History, Sanders Bros, Shopfronts, Signage, Uncategorized, Urban History, Wales | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Poundland and Sports Direct

It has always baffled me; if Poundland lived up to its name and everything was a pound, then why was the average basket size not a round pound number?  Anyhow it is a moot point now.  The announcement that Poundland is to sell products at various price points between 50p and £5 has rendered the ‘everything’s £1’ slogan even more obsolete (they had introduced some price extensions before).

This was always going to happen.  The fixed price retailer ends up being up against it over time; especially where there is some inflation or price as a driver begin to dominate a market.  They end up having two approaches (not mutually exclusive) if they don’t move prices:

  • Reduce the size of the product but keep the price point
  • Reduce the quality of the ‘ingredients’ in the product.

Either way over time the danger is that the consumer ends up feeling short changed and disappointed. When you then see extreme competition in the market from the likes of Home Bargains and B&M, plus some pressure from Aldi and Lidl, then the pressure really mounts on the price points.

Adding variation to the price point also allows extension at the higher end of the market position and so allows for sensible range development.  This is also the historical lesson from Woolworths and Marks and Spencer who also had fixed price for some time.

If Poundland have a vacancy for a signwriter to remove the ‘Everything’s £1’ from their signs, so too Sports Direct have a vacancy.  In their case it is more serious as they seem to be in search of an auditor, and have a deadline looming soon.

The recent saga of Sports Direct would be comical if not yet again so serious.  The company had to delay its results as a ‘last minute tax liability’ from Belgium had got in the way.  I am not qualified to understand the phrase ‘last-minute tax liability’ but it sounds dodgy to me.  Throw in a valuation for £605m and I’d also be hiding under a rock.  What is happening?

Sports Direct say that the bill (which they dispute) arrived just before sign-off on audit and that this development has nothing to do with long standing (2004) auditors Grant Thornton stepping down (despite them seemingly being on track to be re-appointed only hours before).  The need for new auditors does seem to have come as a surprise (though they are being investigated by the FRC over their 2016 audit). There seems to be a lack of groups stepping forward, citing conflicts of interest.  Given Mike Ashley owns most of the high street I am not sure what these conflicts are.  Even in the midst of results and auditor turmoil he bought Jack Wills (promptly sacking the chief executive, closing 8 stores and saying he wanted to pay no rent on all the others – you sort of get the modus operandi) to add to his collection; though he does now regret House of Fraser, which he seems to think is now in a terminal state.

Of these two stories, the Sports Direct one is the more serious in a number of ways.  It does point to the lack of capacity/choice in the audit system and to the pickle Sports Direct keeps on getting itself into. The government may have to step in to find an auditor. Whilst it is admirable that at least Mike Ashley is trying to achieve things in retailing, the proof of it working is in short supply.  For those working in all these businesses, let us hope ways through this are found.

Posted in Accounting, administration, Auditors, Closure, Department Stores, Finance, Government, House of Fraser, Jack Wills, Landlords, Mike Ashley, Poundland, Pressure, Pricing, Rents, Retail Failure, Retailers, Retailing, Sports Direct, Strategy, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

UK Grocery Market Share 1997-2019

One of the by-products of our data rich age, is that more data is available ever more frequently.  Our attention spans have collapsed and if we don’t get a weekly, daily or hourly update then we begin to panic.  And then having got that immediate fix we eagerly await the next one; the next high.  All the while our ability to act is diminished and we cease to function strategically.

So this post is using ‘slow data’.  As I have published before, for over two decades I have been using the Kantar July UK market share data to consider the longer-term trends in the UK grocery market.  This is not difficult or flashy and it has required now almost a quarter of century of data points.  But it makes a pretty graph and does allow us to pose some questions.

UK Share 1997-2019

If you look at the graph above, and then compare it to the one I did last year (here) then the obvious conclusion is that nothing much has happened – and after all, there is only one more data point.  And that at one level is right.  But think more deeply and the graph illuminates two of the major stories of the last year.  The ‘not in your lifetimes – copyright CMA’ merger of Asda-Sainsbury is readily explained by the 15+ year stagnation of market share in both; the graph measures the failure of the leadership of both and helps explain their firm belief that 1 + 1 always equals 2 (it does not always in retailing). Secondly the recent further trimmings of the store estate and operations by Tesco point to their continuing worry over the now thirteen year decline in market share.  How can this be halted or even reversed?

For each negative there is of course a positive and in this graph, as before, it is the relentless march of Aldi and Lidl.  They continue to gain market share and still have huge expansion plans.  Both are bigger than Waitrose and at present growth rates Aldi will overtake Morrisons in the next two to three years.  Put Aldi and Lidl together and by next year their combined market share will be bigger than Asda and almost as big as Sainsbury.

To put this in further context, and as shown in the graph below, the CR3 ratio (the market share taken by the largest three market shares) in 1997 was 55%, a figure that grew in a decade to 2007 to peak at 64.3%.  By 2014 it was down to 62.5% and this year its decline has accelerated further to 57.4%.  There is a good chance CR3 will dip below its 1997 level in the next two years. This is becoming significant.

CR3 Grocery Market Share

So, to conclude with some questions:

  • What next for Sainsbury and Asda? The powers that hold sway in each must be very disappointed and seem to lack a Plan B.
  • How much more cutting and trimming can Tesco do before they look just like anyone else?
  • Can Morrisons figure out a way to stop being caught in the middle?
  • Do Aldi and Lidl have the momentum to sweep up for years to come or is there a ‘natural’ limit?
  • What will the M&S and Ocado tie up bring?
  • Is the groundswell of local food stores and offers hitting any of the major players yet?


If you really need a new data fix then the big 3 all lost market share in the recently published August data.



Posted in Aldi, Asda, CMA, Competition, Competition and Markets Authority, Food, Food Retailing, Grocery, Lidl, Longitudinal Data, Market Shares, Morrisons, Retail Change, Retailers, Retailing, Sainsbury, Tesco, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Shopfronts – some recent sightings


Some people have been a bad influence on me: @historicshops @KA_Morrison (see Building Our Past) and @ghostsigns spring to mind. Their encyclopaedic knowledge – and delight in and willingness to share – means that I am forever on the search for shopfronts and traces of the past that might interest both myself and them. So any new town I visit I tend to spend far too much time peering into doorways, taking photographs of entrances and shopfronts or trying to decipher vague lettering high up a wall. But, however much I try, I can not match up to the experts.

Over the summer I’ve meandered around a bit of Yorkshire, some of Shropshire and Herefordshire and then the smaller places of West Wales. A few shops stood out for me, so I thought I’d share them here.

Genuinely I do find them interesting for a number of reasons. They say something about a place, not only then but also now. What was it like? How many survive and in what state of dereliction or re-use? Are they all very similar and so on? But they also make me think about the perseverance and quality these stores espoused. They were statements of ambition; something we can not say about any modern shop in my view. Which means we’ve lost something quite precious.

So what did I see?

I’ve dealt with the elephants of Halifax in another post (and have tweeted about the blue elephants of Swansea), but I also did like the jewellers shown below.


In Hereford there were a number of shops that caught my untrained eye. The Philip Morris store with slightly angled windows was interesting. But the main one was the ex-butcher with some lovely tiles still in place (shown at the head of this post).


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West Wales saw a range of shops in Lampeter/Llanbedr, Cardigan/Aberteifi and Llandeilo. Some unusual triangular windows in Lampeter, a few odd signs and floor tiles in some shops and some lettering give a glimpse of the past – the same was true in Cardigan, with both places showing traces of Melia’s. In Llandeilo some nice re-use was underway as well as a range of tiling and design.


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A final word though for a couple of oddities. I loved the beehive on what I thought would have been the Llandeilo Bank, but I have now been told (thanks to Kevin Thomas for this) was the Lloyds Bank. And in a nod to the complete transience of today’s modern retailing the lower photo below is from the dead supermarket (ex Co-op then Budgens – closed in Spring 2017) on Cardigan’s riverfront. They don’t make them like they used to.




Posted in Architecture, Buildings, Corporate branding, Corporate History, Design, Heritage, High Streets, Historic Shops, History, Places, Public Realm, Retail History, Shopfronts, Signage, Small Towns, Spaces, Streetscapes, Town Centres, Towns, Uncategorized, Urban History | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Halifax – with Elephants

When I was 10 months old my father ‘forsake the amateur code’ (copyright Welsh Rugby Union) and ‘went north’, joining the Halifax professional rugby league team. This was a life changing decision in many ways for his family; not least because four years later when we returned to Wales, I apparently spoke with a broad Yorkshire accent. Thankfully that soon disappeared!

Some 58 years later, I have never been back to Halifax, but felt that at some time I should see where I spent the first four years of my life. This decision was given recent imperative by a burning desire to see the Piece Hall, having been impressed by it and its renovation on a couple of pieces on TV. So a few weeks ago, down south we headed; a staycation with a busman’s holiday of looking at some shops thrown in.

On the way we stopped off at Fountains Abbey and mused a litlle on Henry VIII.  But even in its current state the Abbey demonstrated the grounding of wealth and status that is the hallmark of the powerful. It reveals the vast wealth that can be extracted from the country’s resources; and which to this day we squander.

A similar combination of feelings grabbed me in the Piece Hall. Built 240 years ago as a commerce and trading site for the natural wealth of Yorkshire, it is deeply impressive and symbolic. It is fantastic that it is brought back to use and is a fabulous witness to what can be done. It is also a sensational public event space, standing with the great European urban spaces, though I would not swear about an equivalency in weather.

Halifax today has 20% less people that in its Victorian heyday and the buildings speak to this. The Borough Market, the Town Hall, the Victorian Theatre, the Minster are all central testimony to the wealth of the time; fine buildings all. As are many others, though often in decay or shuttered. Either we don’t create wealth like we used to; or it is solely used for personal greed (shout out to Philip Green here).

Another silent witness to changing times and impermanence is the wonderful Burton building from 1932 complete with a pair of foundation stones and a lovely collection of elephants. It is now a McDonalds; a company not exactly reknown for building anything of value (and for me that includes the Big Mac).


Following in the footsteps of @soult we also spotted a Woolworth ghost sign, so covered another cultural base.

This reuse of things/places was a recurring theme as we also visited Dean Clough Mills in Halifax and then just down the road the World heritage Site of Saltaire in Bradford. Both are astonishing in their scale and their energy today. Dean Clough is a thriving workspace and art collection/space. We managed to see the last day of Conrad Shawcross’ Chord in the ‘new’ Jute Shed space. At Saltaire the Salts Mill has been used as a tremendous art space and Hockney’s ‘The Arrival of Spring’ is shown off to great efffect. Throw in the Hepworth Gallery at Wakefield and we were all cultured out.


I am not sure why it has taken me 58 years to get back to Halifax. It is a fascinating part of the world. It brought home to me the changing fortunes of our heritage, places and people. Why are we so reluctant to help those who want to keep this heritage and our buildings and towns alive? We ought to be incentivising re-use, and penalising the bland, identikit rubbish that mars and scars so many of the edges of our towns. The foundations were built for us; why are we so keen to kick them down?

Posted in Buildings, Burtons, Corporate History, Design, Ghost Signs, Halifax, Heritage, Historic Shops, Markets, Places, Public Realm, Regeneration, Retail History, Rugby League, Streetscapes, Town Centres, Towns, Uncategorized, Urban History | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment