Fading Glory: the Ghost Signs of London


Anyone following me on twitter will know of my enduring fascination with ghostsigns.  It has also appeared on this blog a few times.  These traces of the past are, in my view, something worth capturing and preserving (or at least recording, though I think some need to be preserved/protected).  They are an ephemeral but indicative window on past worlds.  And if we don’t record them, then where are we going to get our retro advertisements of the future?

So it was with real interest and delight that I received a copy of a new (well, an updated Second Edition) of a book focusing on London’s ghost signs.  Helen Cox’s Fading London, published by the History Press in 2019 is a lovely little book full of photographs of some of the best and most interesting ghostsigns in the city.

These signs were once commonplace as many old photographs show.  They were also acts of creativity and works of art. This book focuses on painted brick signs, as Helen Cox notes in the introduction, a long existent form of advertising initially popularised when hanging signs were banned for being too dangerous (they kept dropping on people).  Painting onto brick, perhaps time and again to attract the interest of passing people and promote products or ideas is a very public statement, and one intending to have a little more permanence than today’s billboards or projections.  Along with retail shop ghostsigns we should treasure what we can find of these.


Fading London is organised into 7 sections.  The first covers prominent brands including examples of Hovis, Bovril and Brymay matches.  Each example is a photograph and some details of location and history.  The next five chapters are a geography lesson of London (central, north, south, east, west).  The final chapter covers the very thorny topic of imitation, restoration and preservation.  When does a ghostsign fail to exist or become a new sign if restored or over-painted?

There are some fascinating examples and photographs in the book.  A few of my favourites (including some I have seen) are reproduced below.  But, don’t take my word for it; if you are interested in retail and advertising history, or simply the past, then buy this book on ghostsigns and get out there recording them before they disappear.

Cox H. (2019) Fading London: The City’s Vanishing Ghost Signs.  History Press. ISBN 978-0-7509-9259-6


Posted in Books, Design, Ghost Signs, Heritage, London, Places, Retail Change, Retail History, Towns, Uncategorized, Urban History | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Place Based Loyalty

Artricle MR 2019 Places

We have a new academic paper out – on place marketing and place based loyalty schemes (details at end of blog) – and in addition to wanting to say something about it, I felt the time was ripe for setting it in a slightly wider context.

Places (towns) are, as any reader of this blog knows, important to me and I would argue to the wider economy and society.  Places matter and we need to support and help them.  This has become more difficult as patterns of behaviour change, costs rise, the internet offers often false economics and place management stutters along in many locations.

Past blogs have also mentioned our work with Colin Munro and Miconex and their interest in and approaches to place based loyalty.  The initial work was a proof of concept about enabling a technological solution to linking loyalty across independent businesses in a town.  Our new paper takes this further forward and develops the concept and results further with support from the DataLab for the Miconex solution.

The paper, by Maria Rybaczewska and myself, seeks to extend place management and marketing understanding by concentrating on the strengths and weaknesses of the place based loyalty scheme concept. It analyses place based loyalty schemes from the practitioners perspective as it is businesses and town and city managers who need to work together to implement such schemes.  Through this work, we identify the positive views of such schemes but also some of the barriers or tensions.  The benefits are clear but concerns over data management, ease of use for consumers and operators and costs all act as a drag on implementation.

Subsequent to the work reported in this paper, Miconex have been pioneering the roll out of a Mastercard place based loyalty offering.  This has gained significant national attention.  At one level, this is no surprise as the simplicity and ease of such a ‘known’ approach removes some of the barriers our paper described.  The ‘offer’ is a gift card for towns and cities; redemption is in businesses in the local area signed up to the scheme.  The appeal for BIDS is thus clear, but it can also work more generally as their case studies show.  It is in some ways a local currency for a place, usable only in that location, despite being in sterling.


The attraction is pretty clear.  At the University we often have cause to offer small ‘rewards’ for activities or service, sometimes from the University and sometimes from the Student Union.  These have now become standardised, but often as Amazon vouchers. But you have to ask why?  Why are we giving vouchers for an organisation that is placeless (and we’ll ignore other issues here) when a University is about linkages and places.  Now if we had a Stirling town card with a range of businesses signed up, we might have a viable offer.  How about it Stirling Council or Stirling BID; dare you follow the original Miconex place, Perth?


Rybaczewska, M. and L. Sparks (2019) Place Marketing and Place Based Loyalty Schemes.  Journal of Enterprising Communities.  Pre-print available for download here.

Posted in Bids Scotland, Data, Local Multiplier, Local Retailers, Localisation, Perth, Places, Retailers, Scotland's Town and High Streets, Stirling, Uncategorized, University of Stirling, Urban | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Scottish Business Rates: a Local and/or National Issue?

A fair degree of concern was whipped up in the run-up to the New Year by the vote in the Scottish Parliament to give local councils the ability to set non-domestic, i.e. business rates. This is not yet confirmed as further stages of the Bill are required. This issue arose as something of a surprise being a Green amendment to a government bill that was then supported by Labour and Tories.  I’ve no interest in the political rationale for who proposed and supported what and why, but the broader arguments are worthy of airing.

One problem noted to date seems to be the potential loss of the Small Business Bonus Scheme – or rates relief for smaller businesses including retailers.  This has been noted as a drafting error by Andy Wightman and could yet be put right. But the fact this has been a key dimension of discussion is interesting. For small retailers this relief is important, both in itself arguably symbolically.

The other key dimension of concern has been from various sector bodies about the likely ensuing patchwork of rates across Scotland and the potential problems this will pose.  It would be a more complicated position for sure and this is a concern for national, though not necessarily local, operators.  Linked to this is the related, and more widely shared concern, that the freedom to set rates locally means only one thing; higher bills.  The example of Northern Ireland is used to support this argument (a claim of 19% higher rates than in Scotland) and in cash strapped times the opportunity for councils to tax businesses to raise revenue might be irresistible.  For those arguing against this localisation, the current plight of physical businesses, high streets, retail and leisure etc show the potential further damage that could be done to a fragile situation.  Hence a major coalition of organisations trying to stop this move has arisen. Proponents of the local approach argue that this re-establishes a stronger link to localism and local democracy, and allows local decisions about what is important locally.

There are a few things in this though that puzzle me.  We have had a relatively recent major review of the rates system in Scotland (The Barclay Review previously covered in this blog) but much of this seems to have been forgotten now.  Rates themselves are a tax from the distant past and can not function as a major source of revenue in our more modern economy.  We also seem to have got away from being clear and consistent about using taxation as a way of supporting behaviours and activities we want to promote.  If we want local places and businesses and not faceless online behemoths then we need to work out what their relative cost structures are and tax accordingly.  And that’s before we consider our climate and carbon goals and thus the need to rethink much of our activities (for example there will in due course have to be a real consideration of the carbon efficiency of online deliveries and the travel and out of town parking our decentralised activities generate)

Local government finance is a major problem and there is a requirement to fix that and make it more local and locally responsive.  But we need to recognise that rates is not the right tool any more for this and that we need a rethink of the balance of taxation gernerally and on businesses.  If we value local economies and shops then we need to act accordingly and not in a piecemeal fashion.  For me, the current debate is rather missing the point; the system is broken in so many ways and tinkering will not resolve this.

As it is the start of the New Year, I will reiterate that all posts in this blog represent personal views unless stated otherwise.

Posted in Barclay Review, Bids Scotland, Government, Internet shopping, Legislation, Local Authorities, Local Retailers, Localisation, MSPs, Online Retailing, Rates, Regulation, Retail Levy, Retail Policy, Scotland's Town and High Streets, Scottish Government, Scottish Retail Consortium, Scottish Retailing, Small Business Bonus Scheme, Small Shops, Tax, Towns, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Quant (ifying) the Past


A weekend away in London, and a chance to take in some exhibitions and meet up with up friends.  The outcome; a great weekend but some contrasting cultural experiences.  Amongst the things we saw were the Tutankhamun exhibition at the Saatchi Gallery and the Mary Quant exhibition at the V&A.

A lifetime ago, well 1972 to be specific, my parents took me to the last Tutankhamun exhibition in London.  I am not sure how much I took in, and it was my first time in London, so that was perhaps the more memorable experience, but the gold mask is an abiding image.  The mask of course is not part of the current ‘show’ but the artefacts on display remain a very interesting collection.  A memory this time though was the commercialisation on display. Having to line up on entry to have your photo taken to be ‘shopped’ onto an Egyptian background of your choice is just tacky.  The obligatory shop at the end of the exhibition was no better, being stuffed full of the most inappropriate uses of Egyptian/Tutankhamun imagery possible.  The Tutankhamun sunglasses were only one such abomination.  It felt crass beyond belief.  I am clearly not the target market, or if I am, this range of products missed badly.


Definitely not in the shop

The Mary Quant exhibition at the V&A by contrast, despite dealing with the supposedly ephemeral 1960s fashion, was a genuine reflection on an era and one of its leaders.  (You can take a peek into the exhibition here.) The displays (like some of the clothes) were deceptively simple, but it was the legacy and trailblazing that came foremost to mind.  The use of contemporary film and interviews allowed a real sense of place and time.  Done simply and tastefully, but inviting discussion and reflection.

From a retail perspective, the artefacts of retail (products, labels, bags, signs, invoices etc.) were of interest but it was the focus on the King’s Road shop – Bazaar – that stood out for me.  Its early use of visual merchandising and design were clear and there is some great film of the store, the window displays and the interior layout and merchandising.  Other films show the high streets and retail brands of the time and the contrast is entertaining.  Throw in links to Conran and other stores (Biba etc.) and the cutting edge and creativity of the period were reinforced.  The pop-up shop next to the exhibition (note not end, and you could exit without visiting the shop) had some thoughtful products too.  The contrast with the Saatchi approach to Tutankhamun was stark.


Quant’s ground breaking fashion and retail status was more than I imagined, and started earlier than I supposed in the 1950s.  I was also taken by the way in which in the 1960s she worked with UK manufacturers to produce products and to pioneer techniques.  The contrast to the fast fashion offshoring of today was clear, but in many ways her approach, to democratise clothing, fashion, design and production, is a straight line to today’s global factories. “The whole point of fashion is to make fashionable clothes available to everyone” (Mary Quant). I thought it was a really enjoyable and provoking exhibition (runs to February 2020), nicely showcased by some of the V&A clothing/fashion collection through the ages in the associated gallery.

For anyone interested in Dame Mary Quant and her legacy then there is a thorough and interesting exhibition book available, which includes a chapter on Bazaar as well as other retail interests.

Lister J and contributors (2019) Mary Quant. V and A Publishing. ISBN 9 781851 779956. Available online here.


Posted in 1960s, Bazaar, Books, Clothes, Exhibitions, Fashion, History, Mary Quant, Pop-Up Shops, Uncategorized, Wholesaling | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Of Cows and Elephants


During our recent weekend in London we somehow found ourselves at Conway Street having a coffee in the old Welsh dairy which has featured in this blog before.  As my wife said, how did that happen?  A weekend away and we end up looking at retailing. But as it turns out she might well have already been to the store in the 1960s when she visited her aunt in Bermondsey, who was also in the grocery/milk trade, and got taken to a Welsh dairy shop near the then new Post Office Tower.

This shop is a listed building and is a reminder of days past and a trade that served London well (read the book mentioned here, if interested).  The shop, as the photos show remains dramatic, if a little faded, and there is clear wear and tear.  The tiles and counter inside are neat and intact but it is the blue outside that steals the show.  A nice historic shop to see; a good coffee too.

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As an aside, you can read more about the store in Megan Hayes’ book or in the “a London inheritance” online site, with the latter having a good 1980s photo of the shop in operation.

We also met up with friends in Greenwich and took in the bustling market – not a stall vacant and full of people and interesting outlets, food and otherwise.  Just outside is the curved Burton’s store with its elephants and in this case two foundation stones in clear view.  A very nice mosaic tiled entrance is also still clearly visible – as the photos below show.  A nice addition to my growing collection of elephants and stones.


Our retail history can be fascinating and these two examples show that it remains a visible presence (even if Bill’s in Greenwich has been allowed to do abominable things to the fascia).


Posted in Architecture, Buildings, Burtons, Heritage, Historic Shops, History, London, MIlk, Retail History, Uncategorized, Urban History | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Fighting Fit? Independent Convenience Stores and the Public Health Agenda

The last 2019 Cross Party Group for Independent Convenience Stores, held last week, was a cracker.  With all the excitement of the AGM (not really), it was almost too much to have three excellent presentations on retailing and the public health agenda.  Together they formed a fascinating picture of the changing demands on retailers.

First up was Kathryn Neil the Head of the Scottish Government/Scottish Grocers’ Federation long-established Healthy Living Programme.  She focused on the successes of the scheme and presented a series of examples of how the positive intervention had benefitted stores and consumers, leading to better fruit and veg intake and higher retailer margins and profits.  With over 2300 stores in Scotland in the programme, and 66% of them in the most deprived areas, this is having a tangible effect.  The Healthy Living tie in schools and its role as compliance auditor for the Healthcare Retail Standard were also noted.

Kathryn was followed by Colin Baird of the Scottish Government, who presented on a much more controversial topic – the plans for a Bill in 2020/21 on Restricting Unhealthy Food Products.  Now I have ‘previous’ in this regard having challenged the CPG about retailers as social engineers and written a report for Food Standards Scotland on the potential restrictions and implications.  Colin took us though the rationale for the Bill, the consultation (which closed earlier this year) and the possible directions of restrictions/regulations.  This is superficially simple stuff, but a digression on defining cakes and biscuits in England and Scotland hinted at a darker reality.

The final speaker was Tony McGale, again of the Scottish Government, though this time on a less controversial topic – the introduction of the Best Start Foods Payment Card. This replacement for the Healthy Start Vouchers seems to be a more efficient and effective scheme with less stigma attached and more uptake.  It is easier for retailers to operate as well.  The Scottish Grocers’ Federation had been engaged in consultation, developing delivery, transitioning from the vouchers and deriving ongoing learning.  This collaboration was a powerful testimony to the positive work of SGF in the health arena.

Not unsurprisingly perhaps, all the focus of the lively discussion session was on Colin Baird and the restrictions likely on retailers selling foods high in fat, saturated fats, salt and sugar.  Points raised followed discussion lines from previous sessions and focused on the ‘nanny state’, the singling out of retailers, practicalities of implementation and the constant burden on retailers of interventions and controls which raised costs and affected viability.  None of this is new and Colin pointed to the need for further collaboration and refinement on the practicalities.  This is a case of ‘watch this space’.

For me this was déjà vu, giving my previous session at the CPG.  Perhaps interestingly no-one really suggested that the proposed measures would not help combat obesity etc.  The concern was more about the problems such restrictions would cause to operations.  The nanny state and personal choice arguments are readily rebuffed (pay for your own health service at point of delivery for example) and there is a clear government locus here.  The counterpoint of Healthy Living and its meagre budget (yet success) with the avalanche of spending on unhealthy food promotion is just too obvious and means personal choice is a fallacy in this market.

A final point often overlooked; Scotland should be proud it is leading in this arena.  Tobacco was seen as an exemplar in discussion and the Healthcare Retail Standard and Minimum Unit Pricing on alcohol were also noted.  Deposit Return Schemes are also on their way.  The HRS evaluation has been published and MUP is in the midst of a large complex evaluation with some initial results out and some research with small retailers  due out in late spring.

Healthy Living and Healthy/Unhealthy food consumption are topics that will continue to be discussed and debated.  Independent convenience stores do have a lot on their plate and government needs to recognise their role and value in positively promoting healthy living and working to improve the health of the nation.  Despite tensions there is a strong sense of engagement. That is not to say that the topic is not controversial.

Posted in Academics, Alcohol, Best Start Foods, Convenience stores, Cross Party Group, Deposit Return Scheme, Diet and Health, Food Retailing, Food Standards Scotland, Government, Healthcare Retail Standard, Healthy Living, Independents, Internet shopping, Legislation, Local Retailers, Politicians, Products, Regulation, Retail leadership, Retail Policy, Scotland, Scottish Government, Scottish Grocers Federation, Scottish Local Retailer, Scottish Retailing, Small Shops, Sugar Tax, Uncategorized, University of Stirling | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Scotland’s Towns Conference 2019


One of the now established features of Scotland’s Towns Partnership and Scotland’s Towns Week is the Annual Conference.  For many years it has been located in the Central Belt, but for 2019 it relocated to Aberdeen.  There are many good reasons for this, not least the work of the BID (Aberdeen Inspired) and the Aberdeen City and Aberdeenshire Councils to put place and town centres at the heart of their policy agenda.  Thus a large audience assembled at the newly renovated Music Hall on Union Street on the 20th November.

Such is the Conference that it is impossible to do justice to the range of topics, speakers and discussions, so what follows is a very personal flavour of this year’s event.  The full programme is pictured below and STP can be contacted for information, contacts or other elements of the day, and you can see information posted on some of the discussions on Twitter using #STC19.


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One feature of the day was the showcasing of elements of the Town Centre Action Plan (and subsequent developments) in action.  From the opening presentations on Aberdeen City and Aberdeenshire and the Town Centre First Principle in action through relocation and developments into town centres, through to sessions on cleaner, greener places and healthy towns, the sense of purpose at a local level was palpable.

This was given added international perspective by two presentations from Ireland and The Netherlands.  Guilia Vallone, Senior Architect with Cork County Council combined her Sicilian heritage with the Irish situation to show how small towns could be made less car focused and more people friendly, notably by focusing on ice cream and octogenarians.  Places need to be people friendly and not as unfriendly as they currently are; and she said it is not actually that hard. A review of her presentation can be found in the Press and Journal.

Marken van den Boogaard, Strategist with Amsterdam and Partners explored a slightly different issue; how to refocus local and visitor attention away from the over-touristed Amsterdam City Centre and on to its hinterland.  The associative marketing strategy ‘rebranding’ places for visitors e.g. Amsterdam Beach for Zandvoort show how cities and surrounding areas and attractions can share the tourism ‘spoils’.  Though it does help if you have great public transport at your fingertips – a lesson for Scotland.

One of the pillars of the Fraser Review (the National Review of Town Centres) and the subsequent work of Scotland’s Towns Partnership has been the focus and emphasis on bottom-up local processes rather than top down imposition of some remote non-community focused approach.  It was heartening therefore at the conference in presentation and the audience to see so many places and people embracing their local futures and leading the way.  It also means I can end with a quote from Russel Griggs, Chair of South of Scotland Economic Partnership in expressing his sense of what is going on in that part of Scotland; places he said feel that

“the world will not run them; they will run their world”



Posted in Aberdeen, Amsterdam, BIDS, Bids Scotland, Consumer Change, Cork, Creative Places, Development Trusts, Healthy Ageing, High Streets, Local Authorities, Localisation, Place Standard, Places, Policy, Public Realm, Retail Change, Retail Policy, Retailers, Scotland's Improvement Districts, Scotland's Town and High Streets, Scotland's Towns Partnership, Scottish Government, Scottish Retailing, Small Towns, Streetscapes, Town Centre Action Plan, town centre first, Town Centre Living, Town Centre Review, Town Centres, Towns, Uncategorized, Urban | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment