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

Shops: More or Less (and #IndieHour)

This blog has a number of recurring themes – or nightmares.  Most of them are focused around the themes of the mis-use of data, the lack of reaction about the structural change underway across retailing and the unwillingness of many to recognise the many positive stories about retailing that can be found in many places.

So it was with interest that I read a twitter DM from someone who shares these themes.  He pointed out that perhaps the tide is beginning to turn.  There was a recent Which report about the growing number of independents in some towns, he noted, but also a report by Alvarez & Marshal which seemed to provide a more balanced view than many.  Also interestingly the coverage of this report focused on the rising operating cost structures of the retail sector and not on the normal ‘death of the high street’ nonsense.


Now the report does not make pretty reading.  It points to the structural changes underway, claims that retail multiples still have 20% too much space, focuses on the dichotomies within and between towns around the have’s and the have not’s (prime and other), and the rising (and crippling) cost structures for many retailers.  It makes a stark, and in my view overblown claim that 35% of sales will be online by 2024.  Even if that growth from now is half correct however, it is a scary number.

But what I find interesting in the report is, for once, an acceptance of the restructuring underway and an analysis and discussion of the methods and demands to manage and to meet the challenges.  In particular, it focus on adaptability and the coming consumer groups.

On the former it points to alterations in rents, leases, break clauses and a willingness to consider new models and approaches with regard to property.  On the latter, the report focuses on Generation Z, but points out that these digital natives are looking for entertainment, education, environment and escapism and that stores that embrace this are well placed to capture this market.  Ways of doing this are outlined.

So, for once, we have some engagement with what physical space IS needed and how it can be made progressive and dynamic for consumers.  This is a nice and welcome focus given the too easy stress on the vacated space from retail.


All of which is a way of introducing what I will be up to from 8-9pm on Tuesday 12 November. For a couple of years now, Richard Shorney has been running #IndieHour –  a weekly twitter chat for anyone remotely interested in the wellbeing of their town, village, High Street or community and making use of the independent small businesses that operate there. #IndieHour has been going for 2 years and has a weekly reach of 250k+ people

They have taken the rather extreme step of inviting me to be a guest. So if you want to see how it goes, take part or simply want to see what #IndieHour gets up to, then check out the #IndieHour hash tag and get involved.


Posted in #IndieHour, Collaboration, Consumers, High Streets, Independents, Internet shopping, Landlords, Online Retailing, Reinvention, Relationships, Rents, Retail Change, Retailers, Small Shops, Start-ups, Towns, Uncategorized, University of Stirling, Vibrancy | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Hull and Beyond


Three Ships in the Sky

I’ve never knowingly been to Hull.  It’s not that I’ve anything against Hull, just that the question of going there has never arisen.  I became a little more aware of it when it owned the accolade as UK City of Culture 2018, but it is only recently that it has cropped up even more.

The reason for this is the mural/mosaic Three Ships by Alan Boyson (in the picture above by Esther Johnson).

“Designed by Alan Boyson in 1963 for a Hull & East Riding Co-operative Society store, the mural is a curved concrete screen depicting three stylised trawlers. The structure spells ‘HULL’ in the masts and bears the motto ‘prosper through industry’. The mosaic comprises 1,061,775 individual cubes. It was commissioned by the Co-operative Wholesale Society (now the Co-op Group) to celebrate the city’s maritime heritage.” (Co-operative News, August 2018)

What caught my attention was a campaign to protect the mural/mosaic from development and to obtain listed status for it (see @BhsMuralHull on twitter).  The ins and outs of this campaign are too much for this blog and are expertly covered elsewhere in any case.  Listed status was not yet been granted. Recently, and more worryingly, it was announced that despite promises the mural/mosaic would be ‘lost’ as the structure has asbestos in it.

The mural/mosaic has a number of things going for it in my book.  First, (whilst I appreciate art is in the eye of the beholder) it is in my view lovely, as well as being one of the largest (if not the largest in the UK) mosaics around.  Secondly, it is a mural/mosaic on a shop, and a Co-op shop to boot (though it did become a BHS in due course). This makes it part of retail heritage and many people know my interest in this.  And thirdly, there are lots of people who see it as an emblematic and iconic piece of art of its place. And it is this last point that I feel especially engaged with.

I am not an expert on listing or asbestos so what follows may be inaccurate and uninformed but REALLY?  We have a cultural icon, an emblem of a city, an identifiable association with place and a damn fine piece in its own right.  I fail to see why it would not be protected, especially given some of the things that are ….

And then if asbestos is protected/enclosed then the danger can be minimised and with safe handling could we achieve a solution?  Is this really beyond us, or is this a failure of will and money?  It’s of course so much easier to destroy then to conserve. ‘You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone’ is so true in such situations.

I think campaigns such as this are important, as places are built on these shared icons and assets.  Memories and behaviours are constructed around them.  They act as symbols and identifiers of our shared heritage, and a shared future.  We are all diminished by this potential loss of The Three Ships, even if I have never seen it in the flesh.  It is a place anchor and as we lose these we lose our places. This is said so much better by Esther Johnson here, but as someone interested in the nature of, and focus on, thriving and identifiable places, it needs reiterating every time such central, iconic and memorable assets (and that is what it is) come under threat.

Now some might say, so what, that’s the way it goes. Hull has other things that say Hull. Hull might have, but the interest in, campaign about, and stories around the Three Ships suggests it is something special. From a retail perspective it is also of a time when retailers actually built shops that made a positive statement and became part of a place.

If you want to know more about the Three Ships and the various campaigns, films, events and memory and artefact capture around it, then take a look at the Ships in the Sky website (and which contains some great drone footage of the Three Ships) , set-up by Esther Johnson and project research assistant Leigh Bird through a shared exuberance for the Hull Coop/BHS building and the work of Alan Boyson, and follow on twitter.

There are two other murals by Boyson in the building and the hope is that these can be saved. There is also some hope that listing might yet be obtained for Three Ships, if the other works are also seen as valuable. It is for all these reasons above that I was more than pleased to sign the petition noted below



Posted in Art, BHS, Buildings, Cooperative Group, Cooperatives, Department Stores, Design, Historic Shops, History, Hull, Places, Public Realm, Regeneration, Retail History, Spaces, Uncategorized, Urban History | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Towns and Town Centres in Scotland: reflections six years on from Fraser

I was recently asked to do a 10 minute reflection on the state of towns and town centres in Scotland and the work that has derived from the Fraser Review (the National Review of Town Centres) and from Scotland’s Towns Partnership. I thought it might be interesting to share this high level commentary.


In 2007/8 the global crisis and recession began.  One consequence was the primacy of vacancy as a measure of success or failure.  High streets were in crisis.  The Scottish Government in 2009 responded by launching a £60m town centre regeneration fund.  The UK Government invited a TV personality to investigate high streets.

Fraser and TCAP

In Scotland, wisely, the problem was seen not as one of high streets but of place and the Fraser Review of 2012/3 – the National Review of Town Centres – was swiftly followed by the Scottish Government’s Town Centre Action Plan.  These provided a ‘road map’ for Scotland which has come to be seen as a model.

The Fraser Review had 6 themes (town centre living, digital towns, proactive planning, accessible services, local economic growth and creative and entrepreneurial places) wrapped in two over-arching principles/needs; a town centre first policy (quickly signed by COSLA and Scottish Government) and the need for consistent and comparable data on towns.


Implementation can be described under three components.  An organisation – Scotland’s Towns Partnership – was empowered to bring together, learn from and amplify the towns activities and importance.  Various tools (Understanding Scottish Places, Towns Toolkit, Place Standard) were developed to aid communities in analysing their towns and starting informed conversations.  A number of mechanisms helped communities to deliver change in towns (BIDS, Development Trusts, Social Enterprises and the Community Empowerment Act).  It is not complete nor perfect but is a major step forward.

An Updated Fraser?

It is worth reflecting 6 years on, what themes a Fraser type exercise might produce now.  For me I think that a carbon neutral theme would be essential.  I feel the local economic growth theme could be reframed as inclusive local economies.  There is also a gap around culture which might be added to the creative and entrepreneurial theme or could be separate.

One of the things that has to be stated is that we have been at this for only 5 years.  We are trying to undo decades of neglect and damage.  In retailing we have spent almost 40 years adding space, mainly on greenfield and out-of-town sites.  Latterly we have seen 20 years growth of the internet leading to 20% of sales being online.  Consumer behaviour has also altered with convenience being a key theme together with price and for some experiences.  Consumers no longer change their patterns to visit the shops; they expect retailers to be in locations that suit their lifestyles.  We should not be surprised at shops closing and space being vacant – it is a consequence of all this development and change.  How we react to this and harness the opportunity is far more important.  These trends are not confined to retailing but affect other sectors.

The State of Towns

So what is stopping us imagining and redefining towns?  The cost base in towns is not sustainable especially when compared to other locations and online.  Landlords (often absentee) are divorced in many cases from reality and seek rent and covenant beyond sense.  We are too inflexible in our reactions, including for town centre living and alternative uses and in many places distinctiveness and ambition is lacking or is solely focused on nostalgia.

In contrast, towns that are doing better are often fortunate in their local community and its coherence and ability to work together.  An analysis of assets (physical and human) has led to a focus on the potential, not the past, and the possibilities, not the obstacles.  These places are often carving out and stating a clear identity and story and have independent and entrepreneurial businesses and organisations that buy into this.  They are essentially local and distinctive, meeting various consumers’ needs.


So, finally, what might make the situation better?  There is a need for funding for town centres.  This funding needs to be substantial, sustained but also targeted and directed.  It can not be a formulaic equal misery appropriation, which simply gets wasted.  Secondly local authorities need to be required to report on towns (as defined by USP) and to provide data and management at the place level not the arbitrary LA boundary level (or its subdivisions).  People live in towns and places; we need to understand them.  Thirdly, a number of issues have arisen about the community capacity deficit (e.g. in BIDS/SIDS, community councils, right to buy etc.).  We need to seriously tackle the lack of capacity and sustain the good activities.  This can not be left to chance and burn-out.

We should also bring in and then refine online/sales tax and reduce the burden on town centre, physical retailers and also entrepreneurs.  Longer term we need to tackle the issue of VAT on renovations and the non-level playing field this (and other fiscal and other measures) creates between town centres and out-of-town activities.  If nothing else our carbon neutral ambitions demand this.

Posted in BIDS, Bids Scotland, Consumer Change, Consumer Lifestyle, Creative Places, Development Trusts, Government, High Streets, Internet shopping, Local Authorities, Mary Portas, Online Retailing, Place Standard, Places, Planning, Policy, Rates, Regeneration, Reinvention, Rents, Retail Change, Retail Policy, Retailers, Scotland's Improvement Districts, Scotland's Town and High Streets, Scotland's Towns Partnership, Scottish Government, Tax, TCRF, Town Centre Action Plan, town centre first, Town Centre Review, Town Centres, Towns, Uncategorized, Understanding Scottish Places | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments