An Unholy Trinity: Brexit, Marmite and Toblerone

Last week was all about a divided nation. Were you cheering or crying when Marmite was removed from Tesco’s shelves?

The delicious irony that Dave Lewis, CEO of Tesco, used to work for Unilever, the makers of Marmite and various other food and non-food products, was of course the cherry on top of the public spat between the two companies.  A national Marmite shortage was threatened as Tesco refused to accept a major price increase from Unilever on this and other brands.  Of all the things we might expect from Brexit, a Marmite crisis was not one of them.

But, just in the nick of time a (secret) deal between the two companies saw the disaster averted. Nonetheless, it was a good story and one that produced more than a few headlines and commentary. Marmite was not the only product affected, but it was Marmite that made it  such a great story.  Marmite – a product you either love or hate – removed from retail shelves by the plunging pound, brought on by Brexit – another conception you either love or hate.  And despite David Davis’ ludicrous assertions in Parliament, 51.9% is NOT ‘overwhelming’; we are very much split on Marmite.

The origins of the public row seem to lie in Unilever wanting to bring in a 10% price hike on many of their products. Tesco – though other retailers were involved, albeit less publically – rebelled against this, saying they could not absorb such a price rise and would not pass it on to their customers.  Unilever said the price rises are needed and necessary as the pound has fallen so much since the Brexit vote, pushing up the import prices to the UK and raw materials generally.  Given Marmite is made in the UK,  the rationale seemed to be spread a little thin. Despite the press headlines, the price rise was for a basket of products, though most of them also seemed to be made in the UK. Sympathy for Unilever was in short supply.

Pictures  of empty shelves began to appear quite quickly, as in the one below of the lack of Flora in my local Tesco. Online shopping for such products seemed to be even more adversely affected.


Where has all the Flora gone? Tesco, Stirling, 15th October 2016

In one sense the specifics don’t matter – not that they ever did in the Leave Europe campaign anyhow. It was all about perception; and Tesco won that hands down. The plunging pound will no doubt drive up import prices.  This will lead to products being more expensive and increased inflation.  Manufacturers and retailers will battle to try to get their share of costs covered (manufacturers) or sales and competitive position protected (retailers).  But, in the end we will no doubt see prices for consumers rise or products shrink further.

My second photo below is a snip from a Twitter exchange over the weekend (courtesy of @retailbarcode). A lot of tweets I saw focused on Marmite or on Naked Wines increasing their wine prices (by 5%). But this one took the opposite approach, and is least a product made elsewhere. Toblerone explained that due to price increases some of their UK bars were going to shrink , by a factor of 10%+. I bet the price remains the same or increases as well. This is a harbinger of things to come I suspect.



Tweet from @Retailbarcode


For Tesco, hot on the heels of some better financial results, being seen to be on the consumers’ side harks back to the Jack Cohen anti-RPM days and is a good stance especially if they fear competitors may not want to pass on price rises (notably the discounters). They certainly came out of the affair with more positive publicity. But the brands Unilever produce are some of the ‘big beasts’ of the food branding world.  Consumers love them – well not so much Marmite – and will want to see them in stock.  Whether they want to see the price tag attached as Brexit takes full hold on our lives is another matter of course. Food deflation may well be a thing of the past, due to the aftershocks of the 23rd June, as the pound and today’s inflation figures show.

It is worth noting that other yeast extracts are of course available; but they are not Marmite. I wonder how many substitutes were rejected in online deliveries this week?

Posted in Availability, Brands, Brexit, Buying, Discounters, Food Retailing, Internet shopping, Marmite, Pricing, Product Sizes, Relationships, Stock, Supply Chains, Tesco, Toblerone, Unilever | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments



At a period when there seems to be an anniversary at every turn, on the 21st October there will be the 50th remembrance of a truly shocking event – Aberfan.  Seared in the memories of individuals and communities, especially across South Wales, Aberfan stands as testimony to collusion, cover-up and ‘corporate’ mis-management.

On the 21st October 1966, thousands of tonnes of coal tip waste slid down a mountainside and devastated the mining village of Aberfan.  The black mass crashed through the local school; 144 people died, 116 of them young children.  Only 25 children from the school survived.

I lived in a different part of South Wales, but this anniversary resonates personally like few others.  I suppose this is due to the sheer scale of the event at the time, the television pictures which seem vivid in my memory, that in later years I would often have to drive past the village and of course that at the time in 1966, I was the same age as many of the children that died.

This of course is nothing compared to those who lived through it and the families of those who did not.  Gaynor Madgwick was severely injured in Aberfan school. Her brother and sister died there.  She has now written about the events of the day (and weeks, months and years that followed) and the last 50 years, both from her own understanding and the pursuit of truth and sacrifice of her family and others, and from interviews with those closely involved – families, doctors, visiting dignitaries and so on.  In so doing some of her own remembrances are challenged and re-assessed.

For me, this is a remarkable and powerful book about a man-made disaster and its aftermath, but told in a personal way.  The story it tells is as vital today as ever, when we often see the pursuit of business activities placed above the needs, desires and welfare of individuals and whole communities.

The book starts with a searing introduction by veteran broadcaster Vincent Kane.  It is a sharp counterpoint to what follows, pulling no punches in holding people to account, not least himself and his own profession for their silence and then aggressive negative coverage of the aftermath and the community.

Cofiwch Aberfan

Gaynor Madgwick (2016) Aberfan.  Y Lolfa Cyf, Talybont. ISBN 978-1-78461-275-7. Available for purchase from bookshops and direct from Y Lolfa.

Posted in Campaigns, Community, Disasters, Governance, Government, History, Personal, Places, Regeneration, Regulation, Social Justice, Wales | Tagged , , , , , | 1 Comment

Pontypool vs Penarth: Rugby and The High Street and Town of 1951

This post has been ready for some time, but I thought I would publish it today, as it is National Sporting Heritage Day. If you are reading this on the 30th in Stirling then the University is hosting a pop-up event on our Commonwealth Games Archive between 1-5 pm. This post is about some of the personal sporting heritage that I possess.

Readers of this blog will be aware that my father played rugby.  Since his death I have occasionally tried to sort out and organise some of the artefacts he left. A few weeks ago I started looking at his rugby programmes and something caught my eye.

His rugby career began aged 19, when he started playing for Pontypool.  Quite why Pontypool is another story given he lived miles away, and quite why Pontypool tried him on the wing, centre, second row, lock (No 8) and wing forward in his first few games must be another.  But they persevered and he played over 20 games for them in his one and only season in Monmouthshire.

But what caught my eye was the programme for Penarth vs Pontypool in early March 1951.  This was one of the few ‘away’ programmes amongst a collection of ‘home’ Pontypool ones for that year.  It was the adverts that seemed so different.  So, I took a closer look at the Penarth programme, and a home Pontypool one from two weeks later.  Scanned versions of both programme are in the slideshows in this blog.

These I feel can be used as representatives of these two towns, as the programmes seem to be essentially the same all season, varying only in team sheets and club secretary updates and a column or two.  Most of the pages are unchanged in every programme – for cost reasons one suspects.

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The volume of adverts, at a time of rationing (one butcher asks for customers to register), is impressive, but the nature, style and content got me thinking.  The table below summarises the two programmes by the number of adverts by line of business.  The sheer variety is immediate, but closer inspection reveals, I think, more.

 Categories (38) Penarth   Pontypool  
CTN 3 2
Printers 1 2
Menswear 2
Radio Engineer 2
Laundry 1
Grocers 2 3
Butchers 1 1
Radio Hire 1
Garage 2 1
Ballroom 1
Paint merchants/home decorators 1
Electrical 1 1
Barbers 1 1
Chemist/Opticians 1
Florists 1
Shoes 1 1
Fishmonger 1 2
Hotel 1 1
Cinema 1
Watchmaker/jeweller 1
Hairdresser (M) 1 1
Brewery 1
Builders Merchants 1
Photography 1
Auctioneer 1
Removals 1
Fish & Chips 1
Heating/plumbing 1
Café 2
Ironmonger 1
Coal merchants 1
Drapers 1
Furniture 1
Welding/engineer 1
Bus/coaches 1
Undertaker 1
Painter/decorator 1
Furnishings 1
Chivers Preserves 1
Total 29 32

Firstly, the adverts are essentially written only – there are few illustrations – and they bear very little by way of branding or logos.  They are to an extent visual, but design is about typography alone.  Is this a marketing or a publishing technology constraint?

Secondly, the adverts are very much for local businesses.  This is especially so in the Penarth programme, but even in the Pontypool one it extends only to a few surrounding local villages.  The adverts represent a local community supporting a local team and the close cultural and locational place bonds are apparent.  In the Penarth programme the business addresses suggest a tight grouping as well, focused as they are on the main shopping streets.  This local dimension also links to the lack of branding.  Many of these businesses are of course no longer trading.

Thirdly, there are some common elements across both programmes but also possibly surprisingly, large differences. The variation is really impressive and paints a picture of these local communities.  The CTN and grocers adverts are the most numerous (including in Pontypool, Daniel & Son, ‘the oldest and the best, still going strong as ever, over 160 years today’), but common elements include barbers, butchers, fishmongers, printers, garages, hotels and men’s hairdressers.  The differences, to my eye at least, tell a story of ‘posh’ Penarth vs the industrial or working class Pontypool, with the latter containing coal merchants, welders, ironmongers and amongst the grocers the Abersychan and Pontypool Co-operative Society.

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Finally, there are some (for today) oddities.  There is no mention anywhere of television (then nationally in its relative infancy) but there are radio engineers and radio hire.  Perhaps the strangest is the Pontypool undertaker who as well as funeral furnishings, cremations and embalming, offers out his Rolls Royce hearses and cars for weddings, concerts and ‘outing parties’.

These two programmes are snapshots to a bygone age of locality, place and community.  Some 65 years old, the adverts (and indeed the programmes themselves) point to the tight inter-linkages within community.  This local sense of place has been swept away in recent decades.  This is not to romanticise this past – or the retailers whose adverts are in the slide shows – nor to claim it was better then – I don’t know, but doubt it – but rather to highlight the changing nature of our places/towns, our high streets, people and businesses, through these cultural artefacts.

I have a feeling that this theme of change as seen through the artefacts my father left me might be one I revisit on occasion, and that there is much more to be done using this collection of programmes including more work on these two in particular.

In case you are wondering, at the end of his first senior rugby season, in Pontypool, my father was ‘enticed’ back to his home town, Bridgend (and a couple of interesting letters in his papers show how this happened).

And keen readers will recognise the name Sidoli in the Pontypool programme (both in rugby terms and in cultural terms); an example of the Italian influence throughout South Wales and its effect on our diet – chips, ice cream and coffee.

Posted in Advertising, Community, Cooperatives, Design, High Streets, Independents, Local Retailers, Places, Retail History, Rugby Union, Small Shops, Towns, Urban History | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Boldly Going to the Borders

The 8th September this year was notable for a couple of anniversaries.  In 2015 the Queen formally re-opened the Borders Railway.  It was also 50 years since the first episode of Star Trek was broadcast; may retailers ‘live long and prosper’.  The Scottish Grocers Federation (SGF) celebrated the first of these anniversaries by hosting a Study Tour to Galashiels and beyond, to think about change, investment, competition and opportunities.


Which is why over 50 people commandeered one of the coaches on the 10.24 from Waverley to Galashiels and headed for the Galashiels Interchange Transport Hub.  Once there – on time, in comfort and accidentally accompanied by various walking groups and quite a few Americans – the SGF members heard from the  Scottish Borders Council, Abellio, Borders Blueprint and Scotland’s Towns Partnership.  These speakers set the scene, considering macro change in environments and how changing investment and patterns brought opportunity.  Whilst Borders towns are not all in the most robust of health, there is a sense of opportunity and potential in the right places.

The afternoon was more obviously retail focused with presentations and discussions on trading and developments from SPAR, Hawick, Tweed Bank Stores, Galashiels and Tempest Brewery before we headed by coach for the excellent Co-op store at Earlston.

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This was a very different emphasis to last year’s ‘taking on the discounters’ day out in Musselburgh, focusing as it did on broader ideas of opportunities, investment and competition.  So, what themes emerged?

For many, the perception is that the Borders is beautiful but remote.  But the coming (again) of the railway and a focus on the assets and opportunities that these connections bring alive, demonstrates that there are possibilities for retailers by both focusing on the new markets and behaviours and on the distinct identity and local pride of the Borders.

This identity, pride in place and sense of history, but with modernity, came through in the discussions about retail practices and the ways in which retailers can, and are forced to adapt, both in in-situ practices but also on new sites.  The Co-op at Earlston was a first class store visit to one such example.

There is no doubt that retailing in the Borders, as elsewhere faces challenges.  The historic town centres (and rivalry) are still a focus, but the decline of the textiles industry, the move to out-of-town premises including for retailing, have altered the status of their cores.  But the investment in the railway and other facilities and infrastructure promises new patterns of opportunity.  New connections mean new opportunities to be moulded and created.  This will not occur overnight and will need sustained vision.  How can retailers gain from the first-class transport interchange at Galashiels or the future presence of the Scottish Diaspora Tapestry (main site here)linked to the railway?  How can retailers ‘capture’ the trade of the Americans and the walkers who accompanied us on a really dreich day on the train?  New thinking is required to match the new ambition.

This Borders identity and mentality also shone through in the resilience, self-reliance and pride in place of retailers and producers.  Local producers and products, such as Tempest Brewery or through Born in the Borders (their shop/café in the interchange as well as their main site) are providing a distinctive local flavour and colour to stores and places.


The study day was about recognising that change bring opportunities and not only headaches.  The Borders and Abellio are very keen to see new transport infrastructure and economic development policies combine to encourage retailers to think about the potential opportunities for investment and strengthening businesses and communities.  It is time perhaps to ‘boldly go’ (to the Borders).

Posted in Consumer Change, Convenience stores, Cooperative Group, Food Retailing, High Streets, Local Retailers, Places, Retail Change, Retailers, Rural, Scotland's Town and High Streets, Scotland's Towns Partnership, Scottish Borders, Scottish Diaspora Tapestry, Scottish Grocers Federation, Small Towns, Town Centres, Towns | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Retail Change in Scotland at Local Authority Level 2008-2014

The ‘last post’ (given the topic that may not be my most apt phrasing) focused on the Scottish level publication of the Scottish Annual Business Statistics 2014.  I am following up here with a look at the data at the Local Authority level.

To recap, this data source provides data from 2008-2014 on a range of retail measures at the SIC07 level.  I am focusing here on the data for shops, employment (headcount including owner-operators, self-employed etc.) and turnover at the LA level.  There are other data on GVA, labour costs and so on, but I do wonder, given the fluctuations that I observe in the data, about their value at this level.  I am also, as noted in the previous post, a little unsure of how internet sales are included or not and very much doubt they are really accurate at the Local Authority level.

The national picture is one of a decline in shops (by 6.8%), employment headcount (by 3.8%) but an increase in turnover (by 16.6%).  But what does this look like at the LA level?



The table above provides the data and some change calculations.  We can look at three elements in turn:

  1. Shops: Glasgow and Edinburgh have the most shops with Orkney and Shetland the fewest – no surprise there! But the different patterns of change are more varied.  South Ayrshire, Midlothian and East Lothian saw shop numbers grow, with the biggest declines being in West Dunbartonshire and Inverclyde.  Other steep declines were in Falkirk, Perth & Kinross and the Scottish Borders.
  2. Employment: The patterns for employment and employment change mirror in the main those for shop numbers, though there is no complete matching. Orkney and Shetland seem to be growing retail headcount from a very small base, but there are large declines in Falkirk, Inverclyde and West Dunbartonshire.
  3.  Turnover: These figures are more variable than might be expected perhaps. The scale is as expected in the main, but with a national 16.6% increase it is perhaps a surprise to see declines in East Ayrshire, North Ayrshire, South Ayrshire, Perth & Kinross and Stirling.  The particular reasons behind these vary and are due one suspects to consumer spending power and connectivity.  The biggest increases are seen in Na h-Eileanan Siar, Shetland, West Lothian, Scottish Borders, Angus and Orkney, which are an interesting collection of locations.

The second table, below, looks at employees and turnover per unit and how this has changed.



It is unclear how meaningful these data and calculations are at this level, but overall they seem to suggest that the headcount per store is rising in most places, as is the turnover per store. The exceptions in the latter case are the Ayrshires.

The discussion in the last post raised a few questions about these data, their meaning and the possible future trajectories.  Given the uncertainties perhaps all we can say is that the retail sector is undergoing a transformation in many dimensions.  Here, it is clear that at the LA level there are different trajectories.  These figures of course hide the patterns within local authorities and say nothing about the profitability of these businesses nor about the interventions that LAs can, and might have to make.

At the Scottish level the figures rather surprised me in that they do not fully show the change I feel is underway.  Given the recession and the change in shopping patterns I had expected a bleaker picture.  At the Local Authority level, there is more variability, but it is more difficult to discern patterns.  There seems perhaps to be some degree of enhanced self-reliance and expansion in island and some rural communities/local authorities (though not all) and there is a particular pattern of decline in the Ayrshires.  I would be interested in other thoughts/views on any patterns that can be discerned.

There is of course an issue with using Local Authority data as it masks as much as it reveals, with pattern across settlements within any local authority likely to be divergent.  It is a shame data such as these are not routinely produced at the place/town level (though the upcoming v2 of USP will say more on business change at town level).  I suspect we are in for a lot of change across the country in coming years, as retailing and shopping continues to transform, and that this will exhibit variability across the LAs. As the behaviours change so the structures underlying the sector are altering.



Posted in Closure, Consumer Change, Data, Employment, Local Authorities, Online Retailing, Places, Retail Change, Scottish Retailing, Shop Numbers, Statistics, Towns, Understanding Scottish Places | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Retailers Urge Holyrood Policy Change to Stem Decline”

Under the headline “Retailers urge Holyrood policy change to stem decline”, Scotland on Sunday on the 11th September (article here) reported on a ‘call to arms’ from the Scottish Retail Consortium (SRC) arguing for more support from the Scottish Government for retailers.  This is a version of a theme the SRC has been pursuing for some time – the cost of doing retail business and the fiscal drag on the sector – though in this case more on the imbalance of costs between physical and digital and the changing structure of the sector.  The SRC probably didn’t write the headline nor the opening paragraph claiming ‘a severe haemorrhaging of Scottish retail jobs and shops’ but the turns of phrase were eye-catching.

My curiosity was piqued as I did not immediately recognise the data source. I blame the recent warm weather in Scotland for distracting me from the late August publication of the Scottish Annual Business Statistics 2014 (yes 2014, so we are talking “recent” data here). Please take care if you download as it is 292 pages of numbers. This source provides a time series from 2008 – 2014 at SIC07 level, disaggregated in various ways.

The Scottish figures for the retail sector are as follows:

2008 2014 % change
Shops 24256 22612 -6.8
Employment (k) 260.3 250.3 -3.8
Turnover (£m) 23054 26875 16.6

Note that employment here is headcount (including self-employed, owners etc.) and not FTE or labour input.  There are also figures on GVA, but the article did not pick up on these, so I am ignoring them here.

These national figures got me thinking.  Their characterization in the newspaper article was as:

  • “Severe decline”, “haemorrhaging”
  • Worthy of policy to stem this decline
  • ‘Unfair’ (my word) given the growth of the internet.

But, is this what the data tells us?  Four main things emerged from my mental gymnastics on the numbers:

  1. The period covered is 2008-2014 i.e. effectively the period of the onset of the ‘great recession’. During this period Scotland lost 6.8% of its shops and 3.8% of its retail headcount.  But, and here’s the thing, during this same period sales on the internet as a proportion of all retail sales in Scotland rose from c3% to c11%.  Given this switching of behaviour should we not have seen a much bigger loss of stores and jobs?  Has physical retailing really been that badly hit?  Is this decline actually ‘severe’ or unexpected? We have in Scotland seemingly lost 10,000 jobs (actually headcount) in the six years here which cover the greatest recession we have ever seen and in internet retailing the fastest switch in consumer behaviour patterns ever known. This seems like a reasonable trade-off to me.
  2. Linked to this, if we spent the period from the 1970 to the 2010s rapidly expanding retail floor space, which we did, then should not the adjustment in this latter period given internet switching and the recession be more than we are seeing in these figures? In other ways is the characterization as a “haemorrhage” valid?
  3. Finally, I simply do not know how the internet is treated in these figures, if at all and could not find out in any of the 292 pages of the publication (I am happy to accept my eyes might have glazed over at some points and so I might have missed it, so please correct me if you can). The treatment of the internet worries me. If I buy a book online (heaven forfend), while I am in Newcastle, via say, the John Lewis website , but ask to have click and collect in the Stirling store, where is the sale logged? England, Scotland, Newcastle, Milton Keynes, Stirling? Have internet sales been captured  appropriately or at all  in these data?
  4. The data also says Scottish retailing has grown over this period as a proportion of UK retailing turnover from 7.1 to 7.7% which seems at odds with other sources, for example the Scottish Retail Sales Monitor published by the SRC.  However if true, has Scottish retailing done that badly and why therefore would we need a policy change?

These data are interesting if a little perplexing, and raise a few questions.  It is clear, as the SRC state in the article, that we are in a period of structural change.  As yet, we have not fully understood either its dimensions/impacts or how we embrace it correctly in tax and other (eg data) terms.  Our levers are mainly on the sectors/places under strain, and in that the SRC is surely correct as seen in the taxation and rates issues.  We have to consider continuing and accumulating stresses on the sector, and that these data say nothing about profit and there could be tipping points/cliffs ahead.  Retailing is challenged, and I am not sure this has fully worked through the system yet.

The data should give us pause for thought and then considered action.  But I don’t feel they are as dramatic as has been stated here – for example I don’t see -6.8%, -3.8% or even +16.6% as haemorrhaging.  Trying to stop the internet seems a futile endeavour and thus we are likely to see more closures and floor space reductions as well as sectoral shifts.  Where I do agree with the article and the SRC is that the current playing field is not level; the more interesting question is whether we wish it to be so?  Perhaps after all these data show a sector embracing technological change and working through it?

I will follow up this post with one looking at local authority data for retailing from this source.

Posted in BRC, Closure, Competition, Consumer Change, Costs, Data, Employment, Internet shopping, Online Retailing, Profits, Retail Change, Retailing, Scotland, Scottish Government, Scottish Retail Consortium, Shop Numbers, Statistics | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment