Towns, High Streets and Resilience: A Question for Policy?

“It is all too easy to talk about “bouncing back to where we were” without asking which “we” is counted and without asking whether “where we were” is a place to which a return is desirable”. (Vale, 2014, p198)

Some time ago I was invited to contribute a manuscript for consideration to a Special Issue of the journal Sustainability entitled Urban Retail Systems: Vulnerability, Resilience and Sustainability and edited by Herculano Cachinho and Teresa Barata-Salgueiro. The pandemic delayed the work on this paper and the Special Issue, but did have the benefit of allowing me to spend more time thinking about the right topic and focus. This became especially interesting in the light of chairing the Review Group of the Town Centre Action Plan. The referees have been very supportive and the paper is now available as a full-text here.

One of the phrases that has become very common in discussion about the pandemic and towns has been the concept of resilience. I have used it on a number of occasions, but perhaps unthinkingly (or at least with insuffucient care). This has become more apparent as the debate for post-Covid has switched to “return to normal” or “bounce back”. The often-stated desire to return post-pandemic to “normal” is confronting questions over whether the pre-pandemic “normal” was resilient, sustainable, or indeed desirable. Let’s be clear, what was going on before was not working and any return to that state or a bounce back without thought will fail society, community and I believe economy.

The aim of the paper is thus to consider how the current narrative in the UK (“death of the high street” and the decline of the town centre) has arisen, how this relates to the oft-demanded concept of resilience and what the implications might be for policy. Both conceptual and practical questions and contributions are identified and developed. It is necessary to note that this situation and narrative in the UK does not hold for every place, nor of course for every country. Large cities and towns and places elsewhere may be dominated, for example, by over-tourism or gentrification or be faced by other challenges. Different countries have experienced various dimensions of these issues in their towns and cities, and to differing extents and speeds. Within this, however, urban resilience and the place of retail is a common theme. The focus of the paper on Scotland provides thus both specific situations and responses but also allows wider principles, concepts and lessons to be considered.

The paper concludes as follows:

The “death of the high street” has become a commonplace way, especially in the UK, of describing the situation faced by retailers and town centres. Assailed by over half a century of disaggregation and decentralisation, retailing has become increasingly divorced from the communities it once served, and from their town centres. Discrete, car-borne trips to individual, decentralised spaces have become the norm for so many activities, including retailing. Public policy in the UK has more recently aimed at directing retailing to town centres and at protecting town centres. This has had some success, but the crisis of town centres has continued to develop, not least because the retail sector is experiencing massive change, now requires less space and is under severe commercial pressure. Sectors beyond retailing have been increasing their off-centre space and contribute further to the removal of functions from town centres. This has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

This is the background to the rising interest in the concept of resilience for both the retail sector and town centres. Resilience, as shown in this paper, is a concept that has attracted increasing interest and its application to town centres and retailing has developed widely. Key topics include what makes a town resilient and how do we increase resilience of town centres, the retail sector and individual retailers? Increasing resilience has mainly focused on improving the attractiveness of town centres and retailers. Public policy in the UK has attempted to support this through protecting town centres, trying to improve the viability of town centres by easing new developments in town centres (housing, commercial and others) and by trying to reduce the extent of new competition. This, though, has only made small inroads to the situation. This may be because decentralisation in many sectors continues apace and the competition for town centres is already strongly established.

The example of Scotland used in this paper places policy towards town centres (and implicitly the resilience of town centres, high streets, and retailing) in a broad national context. Scotland has led the way in the UK in the last decade over how to try to support and enhance town centres. There have been successes. It is recognised, however, that even this approach does not go far enough, especially when new National Outcomes based around the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals are considered. The intersection of resilience and sustainability has become more important.

There is widespread acceptance that town centres need to be resilient. There is increasing agreement over what makes a good town centre. These reflect a set of implicit assumptions about benefits and desirability. Supporting “good” things has been seen as the way to deliver this resilience and positive places. The critique of the concept of resilience provided in this paper, and which implicitly underpins the proposals in the recent National Review in Scotland (and other work being undertaken by the Scottish Government), points to the need to confront a wider set of tensions. It also indicates a need to revisit the reasons we intervene in the market, particularly in the light of demands for places (towns) to be healthier, greener, and more sustainable, given the climate emergency and sustainable goals. Five tensions are considered here.

First, in the context of town centres and retailing, there needs to be more clarity around the concept of resilience and particularly the purpose of resilience. The current assumptions about the benefits of resilience for a location need to be explicitly outlined for (by) that town and the community; too often this is not done, and it is not clear who benefits from resilience, why and to what effect.

Secondly, the focus in town and town centre resilience is often on capacity to rebound, absorb or counteract type constructs. The reality, however, may well be that the system is not working for the local community or town and there are many problems of access, unmet demand and a lack of wider, local inter-relationships and networks. Resilience thus has to encompass the idea that there could well be a considerable challenge to the existing order of things, ways of acting and types of organisations and impacts, if a place or town is to be resilient. Towns are about communities, and thus resilient towns need to be about resilience for the benefit of that community. The origins of the issues might differ in various towns and indeed countries, but the underlying principle holds.

Thirdly, there are clearly locational and sustainable tensions in town centre resilience. Many towns have been challenged by the ongoing decentralisation of activities (not just retailing). These are increasingly being recognised as unsustainable development, with wider detrimental effects. The challenge posed by the concept of the 20-min neighbourhood is about making locations work for the community using active travel modes, by having residences and facilities located in reasonable proximity. The challenge is to stop supporting damaging decentralisation and unsustainable activities. One approach is to rethink the cost structures of development. This implies changing cost burdens, including a greater recognition of the inappropriate balance currently between in-town and out-of-town development and operations, new build and renovation cost disparities and the imbalance between private and social costs and benefits.

Fourthly, there is a more fundamental issue over how the system works and for whom. The dominance of a small number of large firms in many sectors and their reliance on their national and international networks cause issues for the resilience of towns and local businesses. Community Wealth Building as a concept focuses on how activities are performed, who performs them and how well they perform them in terms of how they are organised, who is engaged and who benefits. This implies a different definition of resilience to encompass local networks and inter-relationships and to view these as integral to the resilience of a town. Developing resilience thus becomes a local matter about building capacity and diversity. This is readily applicable to towns and retailing.

Fifthly, these tensions and their potential directions of development bring the issue of why intervention occurs in the market. The current system has seen places and people left behind and without access to basic needs and facilities. In many towns, the current system makes things too hard for too many people and increases and perpetuates various inequalities. The widespread dominance of distant firms and businesses (and of that one model of operation) reduces local opportunities and leaves towns at the mercy of decisions taken hundreds, if not thousands, of miles away. All this is damaging to health, well-being, and local prosperity. Within this, the fact that policy makes it easier and cheaper to develop away from existing towns and town centres exacerbates the problems. Intervention is required as things are not working, especially to the benefit of many local communities, but also increasingly in terms of broader environmental sustainability.

The practical conclusions from this analysis imply a rethinking of policy to be more radical and more in tune with this revised concept of resilience. This must be not only about supporting activities but of stopping others. It requires national level policy frameworks but implementation at the local and community level. Individual towns are distinct, and those differences and their local needs should be accommodated at the local level, if resilience is to be developed and mean anything. This is important whatever the sources of the issues around the sustainability and resilience of town and city centres.

Conceptually, this paper is aligned with the stronger critiques of the use of the concept of resilience in social science. Resilience needs to be rethought and its underpinnings made explicit. Currently, too many papers on resilience in the urban, town or retail context ignore issues of space and scale, power relations and their consequences, and view protection of the prevailing status quo as inherently of benefit (“return to normal” or “bounce back” post-pandemic are the current manifestations). A conceptualisation is needed that is broader but more locally adaptable and one that recognises that the current system and position of towns and town centres were created within a system geared to do just that, and that consequently, resilience might well be about creating a new, more locally engaged situation. The “death of the high street” narrative in the UK reflects a socially constructed situation, but one that is not inevitable; it can be reversed by rethinking and stating what is important in our social, economic, and cultural identities at the town level.

Leigh Sparks (2021) Towns, High Streets and Resilience in Scotland: A Question for Policy? Sustainability, 13 (10), 5631 DOI: https://doi.org/10.3390/su13105631

Posted in 20 Minute Neighbourhood, Academics, CLES, Community, community wealth building, Covid19, Government, High Streets, Pandemic, Public Policy, Resilience, Retail Change, Retail Policy, Retailers, Retailing, Scotland Loves Local, Scotland's Town and High Streets, Scottish Government, Scottish Retailing, Social Renewal, Sustainability, Town Centre Action Plan, Town Centre Action Plan Review Group, Town Centres, Towns, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Scotland’s Towns Partnership: A (Covid) Year in Review

Towards the end of each May, thoughts at Scotland’s Towns Partnership (STP) often turn reflective. As we head towards our Annual Towns Tea Party and our AGM (2nd June), we look back on the year. This year has of course been a year like no other, so that reflection on what we have been doing is all the more vital.

STP works alongside the Scottish Government to create stronger, more sustainable, vibrant communities. STP is the trusted national body for Towns and Improvement Districts, providing a single entity driving partnership, collaboration, progress and innovation across a diverse and complex environment. The Partnership provides expert brokerage between public, private, academia and social sector stakeholders.

A range of resources and services to stakeholders who work to improve and regenerate towns are available and these include resources and toolkits such as:

Understanding Scottish Places (USP), USP Your Town Audit, Town Centre Toolkit, Place Standard, STP Funding Finder, News & Resource Services.

and services such as:

STP learning events, Scotland’s Towns Conference, Funding Consultancy, National Towns Campaigns, Competitions

Details of all of these can be found on the website.

These resources and services remain important, but the last year has been mainly about Covid-19 activity and providing funding support to Scotland’s towns and businesses. Over the year, supported and funded by the Scottish Government, Scotland’s Towns Partnership and Improvement Districts Scotland have supported 357 place-based organisations with Covid-19 resilience and recovery funding. Over £3.6m was allocated across four funding streams:

  • Covid-19 BID Resilience Fund (BRF),
  • Towns and BIDs Resilience and Recovery Fund (TBRRF) (coordinated in two streams, for Towns and BIDs respectively) and,
  • Scotland Loves Local Fund.

Every local authority area in Scotland received funding from at least one of these funds.

The Covid-19 BID Resilience Fund (BRF) was launched in April 2020. During that month, STP asked Local Authorities to pause collection of BID Levies for a minimum period of 6 months. Where a BID agreed a critical response role with Local Government, the BRF resourced this via a £1m COVID-19 BIDS Resilience Fund. The fund encouraged BIDs to deliver emergency support around mitigation of the pandemic locally and encouraged a role to support their council, agencies, levy payers and other businesses, neighbouring districts and towns, local communities, and charities. This funding directly secured at least 81 FTE jobs related to and enabling BIDs to support hundreds of businesses in their district areas.

The Towns and BIDS Resilience and Recovery Fund (TBRRF) towns stream was announced in July 2020 and was intended to support localised response activities contributing to town centre and high street resilience and recovery.  Projects included PPE and public health infrastructure, ‘open for business’ directories, virtual high streets, ‘Love Local’ campaigns and managing public spaces in order to address immediate priorities as lockdown restrictions are gradually eased.  The fund supported 189 towns across Scotland, substantially more than the 108 anticipated.

A separate TBRRF funding stream of £700,000 for Business Improvement Districts was opened for applications in September 2020. This funding facilitated BIDs and surrounding businesses with a range of initiatives to help local economies bounce back from the pandemic, including community resilience measures, e-commerce platforms, and schemes to ensure social distancing and hygiene measures are in place, in line with Scottish Government guidelines.

The Scotland Loves Local Fund was launched in October 2020 to improve and promote local place and communities through capital or revenue grants of between £500 and £5,000. Projects included small scale local improvements, including those contributing locally to net-zero targets and supporting localised responses in town and settlement centres, such as, ‘Love Local’ marketing campaigns, environmental/place improvement, digital trading infrastructure, safe trading facilities, town signage/maps and local marketplace initiatives.  With 193 individual town applications and 35 awards to multi-town partnership projects, the fund supported 261 towns across Scotland.

Since the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic a key focus of STP’s communications has been the Scotland Loves Local campaign. This has been led by STP and largely funded by Scottish Government augmented by support from a suite of strategic partners. The campaign is designed to encourage the public to ‘think local first’ and support their high streets safely and in line with public health guidelines. Since its launch the campaign has had huge public impact, coinciding with growing public support for local shops and services.

During the year of course, the Review of the Town Centre Action Plan was also published as “A New Future for Scotland’s Towns”. I was delighted to be asked to Chair it, and again thank all those that were on the Review Group and all those who got involved through whatever mechanism. The hard work of turning the thoughts and recommendations into actions is beginning and will continue over the year. The ambition for our towns should be welcomed and if powerful change is implemented now, then they do have an excellent future. I won’t reflect more on the Review here as it has been covered in in this blog at some length, though I will return to its implementation as it progresses.

It has been some year for Scotland’s towns and for Scotland’s Towns Partnership, as well no doubt for all those involved as partners or others in this critically important place based agenda. Come along (virtually) to the Towns Tea Party and the AGM and let’s celebrate and reflect on what has been achieved in the face of real adversity.

Posted in Bids Scotland, Covid19, High Streets, Local Authorities, Pandemic, Place Standard, Scotland Loves Local, Scotland's Improvement Districts, Scotland's Town and High Streets, Scotland's Towns Partnership, Scottish Government, Town Centre Action Plan, Town Centre Review, Town Centres, Towns, Uncategorized, Understanding Scottish Places | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Independent Retailing During and After the Pandemic: Tell your Stories

In my last post one of the statements that garnered quite a lot of attention was

As an example, I am hearing of (and locally seeing) quite a lot of local independent businesses opening up, and a better realism of what the stock of store units should be. Both are positive signals of retail change. Maybe we could speed these processes up by targeted investment and replacement and better and faster support for independent retailers?

My own observations, as well as what others are telling me from various places across the country, suggests that there has been a growth in independents opening in the last wee while.  We also know of many who have, during the pandemic, pivoted to online (often non-food) or seen strong local trade (especially food, some of whom have also gone online).

Around these independents have developed some stronger supply systems from wholesalers and producers whose markets have been hit (again often in food, but perhaps some non-food Brexit effects) and also support and technology systems and apps allowing retailers to collaborate sectorally and locally and to move online rapidly and successfully.

But at the same time we may be missing the detail and other stories, good and less good (some may have closed never to reopen). For example my watching brief of #IndieHour (twitter on Tuesdays at 8pm) saw a recent discussion about the speed or otherwise of the financial support from governments and through local government.  In some cases there was nothing but praise, and in others sheer frustration, if not despair, at the lack of timely support. In one case this varied depending on the side of street the shop was.

In Scotland, the #ScotlandLovesLocal campaign and the support for businesses through BIDS and other town funding sometimes routed through Scotlands Towns Partnership (we have chanelled c£3.6m into business and communities on behalf of the Scottish Government) has been strongly backed by many businesses, local authorities, politicians and media companies.

One of the advantages of the independent sector is its vast scale, but that also means much happens locally or great stories or issues remain hidden. We need to know more about what worked or did not work during the pandemic in terms of support and operations; and we need to know what more could be done as we re-awaken economy, society and the sector (and its support channels).

It is this that Bill Grimsey (of the Grimsey Review, Grimsey Report 2 and Build Back Better) is wanting to uncover for his next report from his team. 

Grimsey (@BillGrimsey) has campaigned for greater government support for small businesses and said there was a dawning realisation that independents have an essential role to play. “Smaller shops and hospitality businesses have been undervalued by government for years … but two things have happened during the pandemic that’s challenged this thinking. Firstly, there’s been a rise in localism with people coming to value smaller, local shops and commuting less. Secondly, many major brands have gone bust and disappeared for good from our high streets leaving huge gaps behind … A few years ago, everywhere wanted a Debenhams but now towns are realising that the clone town model is over. Independent shops and hospitality are key to developing a distinctive identity and unique sense of place.”

Grimsey is thus inviting Independent high street businesses (and wholesalers, trade bodies and others that have interest in the independent sector) to share their pandemic experiences, highlighting the challenges they faced, the action they took and the help (or lack of) and support that they received from local and central government, third sector bodies and their local communities.

Independents (and others) are being invited to email their experiences to highstreetreview@gmail.com

Four questions can help structure any responses (but all responses in any form are welcome). Have you made changes during COVID in any or all of the following ways and how successful have these been and what problems have you faced?

Business Format

How the business gets goods and services to consumers? (e.g. example, have you traditionally just sold goods through physical outlets and now set up online ordering and delivery? Have you set up a click and collect service? Have you closed aspects of the business and opened others?).

Marketing activities

Have you targeted new groups of consumers? Have you changed the range of products and services that you offer? Have you made changes to branding? Added new products/brands? Have you communicated with customers in different ways e.g. developed a social media strategy? Have you changed pricing strategy? Have you made changes to the way goods and services are presented to consumer e.g. re packaging? Have you adopted any new technology? Have you implemented any new systems to deal with customers?

Governance

Have you taken on more/less staff? Have you collaborated with other businesses, either formally or informally? Have you changed ownership of all/parts of the business? Have you sold parts of the business? Or acquired new?

External influences

Have you accessed any external funding support during COVID? If so what was it and how useful has it been? What further support would have been useful?

In order a report can be published in June 2021, the closing date for getting in touch with Bill is 24th May.

Independents (and others) are being invited to email their experiences to highstreetreview@gmail.com
Posted in #IndieHour, Bill Grimsey, Collaboration, Community, Convenience, Entrepreneurship, Government, Independents, Local Retailers, Online Retailing, Pandemic, Retailers, Retailing, Scotland, Scotland Loves Local, Scotland's Improvement Districts, Scotland's Towns Partnership, Uncategorized, Wholesaling | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

“Soaring Vacancies” : perhaps or perhaps not?

The end of last week saw headlines about the number of vacant shops in Scotland. Typical Scottish newspaper examples included:

So, something of a downer to end the first week out of lockdown in Scotland and ahead of a bank holiday weekend.

The data were from the British Retail Consortium/Local Data Company survey of “shop” units and so Scotland was but one part of their regular GB study.  I don’t have access to the data (hence why “shop” above is in parentheses as some of the surveys go well beyond retail units) , only the headlines. One of the press releases can be found here, but what was said specifically about Scotland I do not know. Whilst some journalistic licence can be expected, the press release steer is quite clear (though some reporting was much more measured and factual than the newspaper headlines above – see Retail Gazette for example).  Some things about this concern me though (and I am aware this is a lonely but previously ploughed furrow – see here, here and here for a sequence of three pieces in the teeth of the pandemic, but there is also a longer history on this blog).

To quote from the press release “In the first quarter of 2021, the overall GB vacancy rate increased to 14.1%, from 13.7% in Q4 2020. It was 1.9 percentage points higher than in the same point in 2020”.

So in one year the rate rose by 1.9%. In the last quarter it rose by 0.4%. So the rate of increase probably slowed in the last quarter. “Soaring”?

First though a quick recap for those who have not been paying much attention.  Since March 2020 we have been living through a global pandemic.  During that pandemic in the UK there have been three long and deep lockdowns; lockdowns where many shops and other operators such as cafes, bars, pubs, restaurants, B&Bs and hotels were forced by law to shut.  Many workers have been on furlough or have lost their jobs. Consumer spending has altered and been markedly curtailed.  What spending there has been has often been directed through online channels, which have reached unprecedented sales and penetration rates.

And yet in Scotland (and elsewhere) according to the reporting of the BRC/LDC survey, shop vacancies are not as high as after the financial crash of 2008-9.  That’s right, they are lower (the newspapers report they are at a “six-year high”).  Yes they are increasing, especially in shopping centres, but they are not (yet) ‘soaring’ and are not at record highs.  All this in a longer period of sectoral structural change as well.

This position is testimony to tremendous work by, and resilience of, many, in the face of an unheard of set of problems.  Government support, the retailers themselves, rapid changes to business, rates relief, landlords foregoing rents, consumers supporting local stores where they can …. and so on. 

The vacancy rate rose by less than 2% in the teeth of a global pandemic and enforced lockdowns. I find the figure a remarkable, if a little surprising, testimony to people trying their best, and surviving.

Vacancy rates on their own are of course a very blunt and uninformative tool (as we wrote over a decade ago now).  We need the base data (so this commentary is not about collecting vacancy data, which is valuable) but there are so many more informative things we can say about places using it and the types of measures we should have.  We can consider sectoral issues, diversity, churn, persistent vacancy, YoY and LfL change, stock (shop unit) shifts and other measures. But these of course do not make a good newspaper headline.

We (retailers, consumers, landlords) are facing a period of huge change and the re-awakening is going to take time. I doubt it will be smooth.  I would not be suprised if some things do get worse before they get better, and we may indeed reach “record high headlines” (the potential reimposition of business rates will be a major issue for example, as will rent recovery). But then again, we might not, and there are some hopes for the re-awakening/recovery/re-opening.

As an example, I am hearing of (and locally seeing) quite a lot of local independent businesses opening up, and a better realism of what the stock of store units should be.  Both are positive signals of retail change.  Maybe we could speed these processes up by targeted investment and replacement and better and faster support for independent retailers?

More than anything perhaps we should focus more on talking up the sector and what it has achieved, especially during the last 15 months or so, and give consumers confidence about their shopping and the retailers they can now access. Constantly saying how bad places are is not going to speed the re-awakening or make it sustainble.

Posted in BRC, Consumers, Covid19, Data, Independents, Local Data Company, Lockdown, Online Retailing, Pandemic, Places, Rates, Rents, Retail Change, Retailers, Scotland, Scotland's Town and High Streets, Scottish Retail Consortium, Scottish Retailing, Shop Numbers, Shopping, Town Centres, Towns, Uncategorized, Vacancies | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Great Re-Awakening?

One week on from the first major easing of retail (and other) restrictions from the ‘Christmas’ lockdown in Scotland and everyone is wondering how it has been and how it is going?  For some the sight of people queuing at 4.30am to get into a Primark on opening day is a symbol that all is now well in the world; for others they can think of nothing worse.

That diversity of opinion is understandable but is also indicative of a set of wider issues.  People and families have experienced very different situations and pressures in lockdown.  Retailers and sectors of retailing have had very differing experiences over the last year. These two elements collide in how towns, high streets and other retail places are perceived to be recovering or struggling.

Primark have had no sales over lockdown as they operate solely physical stores.  Others (see the food retailers especially) have seen a huge spike in online sales and a boost generally.  Clothing and footwear as sectors have struggled as workwear (and indeed some general clothing and footwear) have not been needed.  Book sales on the contrary seem to have had a bounce in lockdown reading, not only with Amazon but also online and independent booksellers doing well.  Some families have been fine working from home; others have lost their jobs.

This all makes me suspicious of any rush to assessment of how we are doing and what we need to do. It is great news that the first week in Scotland seems positive. But, this is a re-awakening from a long period of slumber.  Some retailers won’t have made it; others are opening new stores in anticipation of an opportunity and a positive rebound.  Consumers will be either delighted to get back into shops or nervous about the thought.  Confidence for retailers and consumers will take some time to build, develop and consolidate.

All of this points to a quite uncertain period as we all learn what we can do safely and what we want to do, whilst with one eye on not having to lockdown again, and worries that the novelty of going shopping perhaps reduces.  Getting to a consistent point of stability and more certainty is not going to be achieved in a week, or I suspect in a month, or even two.

Then there is the issue of eventually learning what has changed temporarily and what has changed permanently.  If working from home and international travel permanently alter patterns of behaviour then our major cities will be heavily affected negatively whereas some smaller towns may (may) be boosted.  This is not likely to be a rapidly resolved conundrum.

It is for all these reasons I prefer the term re-awakening than re-opening.  We have been in forced hibernation; it will take time to know how we are all affected by something so unusual.  And during this time, we will need to continue to support those who are struggling to re-awaken, both citizens and businesses.

Posted in Amazon, Consumers, Covid19, Lockdown, Pandemic, Primark, Queuing, Retail Sales, Retailers, Retailing, Scotland, Scottish Retail Sales, Shopping, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 4 Comments

Locavore’s Bigger Plan

I am not sure when I first became aware of Locavore. It certainly was before they launched their Big Plan in 2015. I had a watching interest in the development of social and more sustainable retail food stores and supermarkets, as well as local food and Locavore seemed an emerging Scottish example (Glasgow-based, started in 2011).

Locavore’s Big Plan presented an opportunity to financially support their expansion, as with with some other food related ventures such as Dig-In Bruntsfield and Scotland the Bread. In the end, dealing with my mother’s death left me in no place to follow this through. My interest in Locavore though did not wane and I have continued to watch their implementation of their Big Plan.

At the start of the pandemic, I did think about signing up for one of their veg boxes, but I was far too slow and late (there is a waiting list). I had also thought that being in Stirling I’d be too far away, but it appears not (and via the Stirling Neighbour Food Market Hub). I also become aware of colleagues in Glasgow who have been long standing users and supporters.

So, what exactly is Locavore? In their own words:

“Locavore exists to build more sustainable food networks which are better for the environment, society, local communities and their economies. In short we want a food system which feeds us all while also nourishing a healthy, fair and prosperous environment, society and economy.

We’re working towards this by building an alternative to the conventional supermarket supply chains which we feel do not set out to do any of this. In delivering this alternative the following things are really important to us and define what and how we do things:

  • Localising food growing, processing and production
  • Sustainable land use with organic and agroecological agriculture
  • Creating short supply chains
  • Reducing waste and maximising resource efficiency
  • Creating a fairer and more redistributive economy
  • Tackling climate change
  • Be ambitious and bold to create the future of food.”

They currently have three shops, service 15K customers and deliver 7K veg boxes a month, employ c90 people paid above the living wage, and have production and wholesale arms committed to organic supply. See more details of what is important to Locavore here.

Locavore have now launched a Bigger Plan (which includes a good summary of their history/journey, but also see Scottish Local Retailer coverage from 2016 and recent coverage of the Bigger Plan in the Glasgow Evening Times) to develop to 10 stores and treble the veg box scale, build capacity, become carbon negative and set the base to scale further beyond that. Ultimately, they want to be a significant force in the grocery market in Scotland.

To do this they need finance. This will come from various sources but there is an opportunity to be a supporter at general or local (potentially depending on where stores open and you can put in a view on where they should be as part of the plan) levels. As a Community Interest Company this is NOT an equity opportunity.

If the Locavore approach interests, then the Bigger Plan can be downloaded here. There are also interesting Social Impact Report, Local Economic Multiplier Report and Locavore Partick Store case studies and other material available on their web site. This is a different model, trying to do things in a distinct way and that sense of localness and purpose is to be applauded, and even supported.

Posted in Community, Community Interest Company, Consumer Lifestyle, Crowdfunding, Employment practices, Ethics, Food, Food Retailing, Glasgow, Independents, Local Retailers, Localisation, Locavore, Lockdown, organic, Pandemic, Producers, Retail innovation, Retail leadership, Retailing, Scotland, Scotland Food and Drink, Scotland Loves Local, Scottish Local Retailer, Scottish Retailing, Social Change, Stirling, Supermarket, Suppliers, Supply Chains, Sustainability, Sustainable Development, Uncategorized, Veg Boxes, Wages, Waste, Wholesaling | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Aberdeen, No More?

The Covid pandemic has hit retailing hard. Government support (though important) has in no way matched the lost sales and business. Previous trends have been accelerated, most notably in terms of online sales. Retailers of all shapes and sizes have been confronted with an existential threat, both at store and company level. A reconsideration of how and where retailers operate is only to be expected.

Which is why the ongoing reduction in the John Lewis store portfolio is not really a surprise. We can gloss over the recent direction of the organisation and some of the decisions (branding, store options) and recognise that the new leadership has considerable issues to confront. John Lewis is a large space user, often in expensive locations, at a time when their online business has been hugely successful. A consideration of what stores they need, of what form and size, and where, was inevitable, and appropriate.

These trends all lead to Aberdeen and the decisionmuch covered in the local media – to close the John Lewis Aberdeen store and retreat in Scotland to the two major cities only. Aberdeen is an outlier for the portfolio in many ways; a large-ish city, geographically distant, with a perceived legacy of reliance on oil and gas from the North Sea. Times have not recently been easy, but the city has been trying to reinvent and refocus itself.

John Lewis store in Aberdeen

The John Lewis store in Aberdeen comprises in part a distinctive late 1960s building (originally built for Norco, the co-operative society). Beauty is of course in the eye of the beholder. John Lewis opened their Aberdeen store in October 1989. The micro-location may not be as good as it once was. The costs of running the store versus the footfall and sales may be too high. Alterations to the store to make it fit for modern operations may be an expensive option. John Lewis will know their costs, their catchment and local (and regional) online actuals and potential. The decision, from a John Lewis point of view (if we ignore the local 260+ Partners, and we should not forget about the impact on them) may be quite straightforward. Their discussions, with a quickly convened local task force, about maintaining a presence in Aberdeen may provide a possible solution, and this might involve a Waitrose operation, but nothing is yet clear. They could walk away completely.

However, two more longer term points should weigh on all minds (see also my comments in the local media).

First, are the operations and lessons of the last 15 months the best predictions of the future?  Trade has been altered and decimated. None of us really know where and how it will settle down in say 3-5 years’ time.

Secondly, the cost calculations are being made on current assumptions. We have to sort out the tax and cost regimes of town centre and city locations versus out of town and online retailing (and wider operations) if we want towns and city centres to flourish. If that happens then the balance switches and operations may be more attractive in central locations.

We argued this and developed some recommendations to help bring this about in the recent Review of the Town Centre Action Plan. We need to build locally on that wider vision of what town and city centres should be about and how and how they attract people. If we get these things right then the attractiveness of city and town centre sites change. Decisions taken now, assuming the world will stay as it is in cost, tax and other business and consumer regime senses, may be understandable as businesses struggle to survive and emerge from the pandemic and to see a way forward. But, they may be poor decisions nonetheless, especially when we gain some distance and hindsight from today.

For a retailer with a cachet and a draw, looking to remodel their costs, obtain a site and location which more closely fits their new needs, driving a hard bargain in recognition of their status as an asset, makes a lot of sense. Time will tell if such a deal can be struck in Aberdeen. There is a large consumer market to be gained one suspects. As for the future of that distinctive building, that will also have to wait.

Posted in 1960s, Aberdeen, Architecture, Bids Scotland, Buildings, City Centres, Closure, Consumers, Cooperatives, Covid19, Department Stores, Internet shopping, John Lewis Partnership, Lockdown, Norco, Online Retailing, Pandemic, Rates, Regulation, Rents, Retail Change, Retail Sales, Scotland's Town and High Streets, Shopping, Social value, Tax, Town Centre Action Plan, Town Centres, Towns, Uncategorized, Waitrose | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Ten years on stirlingretail.com

Ten years ago today (6th April 2011) I put up my very first post on this blog.  My intention was really two fold.  First I wanted to have a place to collect and publicise retail things so as to avoid having to repeat myself about basic and core things to journalists and others.  Secondly, knowing that I was about to enter a prolonged period of university administration.  I wanted a forum to comment on retail matters and have a ‘voice’ as academic articles were likely to be out of the question.

Others can judge whether the blog is worth it to them, but for me it has been that different outlet and has been very enjoyable to do.  It hasn’t stopped the obvious phone calls but I have been able to link it to my academic and policy work, which seems to have staggered on despite other distractions.  The style/theme may have dated and some sections are now underpopulated but it is attracting record numbers of visitors.

Birthdays are about looking back and looking forward. So I thought I would look back at April 2011.

April 2011 saw four posts published and it is interesting to look at the topics

So, if you look at themes on the blog recently, then not much has changed in a decade.  I am still working on convenience retailing (which has grown strongly over the period and during the pandemic – and who thought about the latter in 2011?) and on town centres. Retail shopfronts and history remain fascinating.  Retail sales likewise are still facing the same question, but in the last twelve months with a lockdown pandemic dynamic and urgency.

The top three read posts for all of 2011 reflect emerging issues of the time.  The top post was on the opening of Waitrose in Stirling – on the site of the Stirling Miner’s Welfare, so as I remarked at the time a sort of symbolic shifting of our times.  The second most read post was on the state of British retailing from the topics covered at the Annual BRC Conference – the lead issues were multichannel, the ongoing Portas review and retail regulation.  And the third top post was my realisation that despite stagnating market share (and not many were saying that), Tesco were still #1 in the UK and had been for the entire life of our first year undergraduates – they had never known any difference. Ten years on they still hold that spot of course, making them British largest food retailer for almost 30 years and something that still concerns some.

The symmetry of topics between then and now is either disturbing (has so little changed in our concerns about retail) or reflective of the reality (retail continues to confront and adapt to systemic change). It could be both of course, but I will leave you to judge. Will the same topics be in the front of our minds in 2031?

Anyhow, 10 years more – or not? I am not sure I thought it would last for that long, so who knows how much longer it is worthwhile and interesting (to do and to read).

Posted in Academics, Consumer Change, Convenience, Convenience stores, High Streets, Internet, Internet shopping, Local Retailers, Market Shares, Mary Portas, Multichannel, Online Retailing, Red Tape, Regulation, Retail Change, Retail Sales, Scotland, Scotland's Town and High Streets, Scottish Government, Scottish Grocers Federation, Scottish Retail Consortium, Scottish Retail Sales, Shopfronts, Stirling, Tesco, Town Centres, Towns, Uncategorized, Waitrose | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

An (Un)Happy Anniversary

On the 16th March 2020 I started working from home.  There had been an odd set of circumstances in the run-up to this date.

We’d come back from South Africa in late January and I’d felt a little unwell; something flu-like and then I lost my voice and could only squeak like a chipmunk.  I had to stay in bed and missed the Scotland/England rugby match (shows how unwell I must have been).  On our trip a week or so after to see France play Wales in Cardiff, our brand new hire car broke down and I spent three hours in a pub car park waiting for it to be fixed.  My wife spent those hours in the pub itself having sympathetic drinks bought for her (hopefully for the car breaking down and not for being married to me, but she never really said).

Then Flybe collapsed so we had to drive to Wales for the Scotland rugby game (and to see my house bound sister).  Once in Wales the game was called off due to Covid.  So we drove home and lockdown started a week later. Anticipating things, I retreated to working from home on the 16th and I have not been in work physically or seen my sister since. Nor have I seen a live rugby match.

One year, one whole year.

Now as I have noted here before, I/we are the lucky ones. We are in a privileged position.  Others have been far less able to cope and have been far more affected by tragedy.  I can do my job from home and we have been able and can afford to use home delivery for things we might need.  We haven’t used cash in a year, my car has done only a few hundred miles in a year and we have basically asked the retail sector to come to us.  In the main it has worked.

Destroying my knee a few years ago meant we were set up for, and using, home grocery delivery for main items and it has functioned pretty seamlessly, especially as delivery slots expanded.  We added to that with visits to the local butchers (my one main regular trip out) and online purchases of fish (we have varied it and most has been great), flour as we already did home bread making (the excellent Blair Atholl Watermill), cheese (Errington, Lincolnshire Poacher), charcuterie (East Coast Cured) and wine (Woodwinters).  That covered the essentials. We tried to be local and small/independent where we could but also used a couple of wholesalers who switched to home delivery.  An indulgence has been croissants and speciality bread from Wild Hearth Bakery.  Trips to Stirling Farmers Market added some variety when possible.  Books we’ve bought from local bookshops as an alternative to Amazon and Christmas provided a chance to really seek out quirky, independent businesses for presents. Again, with two (corporate interestingly) exceptions it all worked pretty well at Christmas.

As I said, we are fortunate.  What it has shown is the wide range of local and alternative businesses out there with great products.  As we come out of lockdown again I hope to use that freedom to reward those businesses that kept us going during this year and not fall back to previous habits. This will be both in physical and virtual shopping.

For a while I resented the delivery charges I was paying and the cardboard generated for recycling.  I am not sure I can do much about the latter, but I reconciled myself to the former as a trade-off with the lack of petrol I was buying for my stationary car.  Seen in that way it is not such a bad deal.  The question of the wider impacts of all this is for another time.

But one thing is clear. Being a Professor of Retail Studies and basically only doing online retailing/shopping is no way to go on. I need to get out to more shops, and that day can’t come fast enough. I am not sure I need to buy anything, but I really want to be in those spaces.

However, in the meantime a thank you to all those smaller and local businesses that have kept us going. We really appreciate it.

Posted in Amazon, Books, Cardiff, Christmas, Consumer Change, Consumer Lifestyle, Consumers, Covid19, Farmers Markets, Food, Food and Beverage, Food Retailing, Home Delivery, Independents, Internet shopping, Local Retailers, Localisation, Lockdown, Online Retailing, Pandemic, Producers, Products, Retail Change, Retailers, Retailing, Scotland Food and Drink, Scottish Retailing, Small Shops, Stirling, Uncategorized, Wholesaling | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

La Dolce Vita – or perhaps not

I am on annual leave today and tomorrow. These dates have been in the diary for some time; over a year to be precise.  Whilst being on leave will be a relief (for me and no doubt some colleagues) it is rather bittersweet.

I should have been in Rome, watching Wales play rugby.

Italy joined the Six Nations in 2000. Wales first played them in Italy in 2001.  Living in the USA at the time, the journey was a little far.  But every other year since we have been present, if not always correct.  In rain or shine, good times and bad, the Rome long weekend has been a favourite and a highlight.  Even if, whisper it please, Wales actually managed to lose, twice.  Initially we just turned up and paid at the gate at Stadio Flaminio as part of a small crowd.  Now it is a tens of thousand strong pilgrimage and to the Stadio Olimpico.

2003 Stadio Flaminio – teetering between ranshackle and condemned

But this year, which would have been our 10th such trip, Covid has intervened and my living room sofa will have to do.  And that in this year of all years for Welsh rugby (hopefully).

On the positive side it is saving me money.  But that individual view illustrates the problem so many businesses have at this time.  We won’t be paying for flights, accommodation, transport, food and possibly drink. Restaurants, bars and others will have to do without our purchases.  And we won’t be doing retail research, especially into retail formats (Eataly for example) and markets (Campagna Amica). The scale of the economic loss is formidable given the volume of people, and the scale of spending.  This is income entirely foregone; the fixture, and our trip, is cancelled, not postponed.

And it is not just Rome.  We would have gone to Murrayfield twice (and the Welsh invasion every two years is large for many towns across Scotland as well as the city) and down to Cardiff twice.   Rugby is my rather expensive passion, but not spending does not seem right.  We may not miss the economic hit, but we do miss the social hit.

I write this not to garner sympathy for what I am missing, but to point to the significance of events of all shapes and sizes for their own local economies, local businesses and for all those that support them. The cumulative loss is huge to many places and businesses.

In some fields the pandemic has possibly postponed spending and it will be released in due course.  In others there may be a post lockdown and (hopefully) post pandemic recovery as people want to spend and socialise and eat out and do the things we missed.  The scale and length of this is a great imponderable at the moment. Great, but for businesses trying to survive through this desert of income, even with Government support, it must be so hard, and probably soul destroying.

There are also many people who have not been in the fortunate position we are in, and have found it hard to keep going during the pandemic. Their post pandemic spending will not be any release of (non-existent) savings, but a continuing struggle to make ends meet. It is one of the reasons we have to address the systemic inequalities in society.

So, as I watch Wales and Italy on Saturday I will be promising myself in the future to make amends for what I’ve missed over the last year.   Eat, drink and be merry, with friends, in as many new and old places seems like a nice idea and if I can support local businesses at the same time then all the better.  And if as many people as possible are of the same mind then maybe things will be better in the coming year for many businesses.

A Welsh win on Saturday will help kick start the process.

2019: Near to Stadio Olimpico. The guy on the right was a pretty handy player in his day

Posted in Consumers, Covid19, Food and Beverage, Italy, Markets, Pandemic, Retail Economy, Retailers, Rugby Union, Social Renewal, Sport, Uncategorized, Wales | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment