What Are Retailers For?

My recent visit to Poland and the symposium on sustainable development discussion brought back memories from my first visit to Poland in 1987 and discussions we had there around retail location and the purpose of retailing.

In that not quite post-communist era, and at a time when I still probably thought of myself as a geographer (and as a complete meandering aside thanks to Ron Johnston and James Sidaway for the name check in their article in press for the Journal of Historical Geography which talks in part about why a generation of geographers left geography) we were engaged by Polish state planners in debates over the location of state retail stores. Christaller was alive and well on the Polish plain and shops were to be located to give the population equal geographical access to them. The purpose of retailing was to be there (in the sense of a physical shop) and not much else. Many of the shops had limited or no range, but that was not the point; they were equally distant (unless you had  western money of course when all options opened up).

These discussions from the past came to mind in our symposium as I tried to talk about retailing and sustainability in Scotland. I was not making any political point but I was reflecting on the ways in which the Scottish Government has taken a rather broader interest in retailing and its operations. We all know there are planning issues in retailing which do affect location, but my point was that the issues had moved on a lot.

Just ‘off the cuff’ the following elements of recent and potential government demands on what retailers should do ‘for’ Scottish consumers came to mind (and I am not going to include locational planning whether generally or specifically as with bookmakers, pharmacies or fast-food outlets here):

  • Reduce plastic bag use – operationalised by the 5p levy on single use carrier bags and appears to be having quite an impact;
  • Reduce alcohol consumption – partly put in place through the changes to selling hours and promotional activities, but possibly to be joined by a minimum pricing component if the legal challenges are overcome;
  • Reduction in tobacco consumption – one of the more visible (well you know what I mean) parts of the health strategy with the ban on tobacco displays;
  • The ‘Health Levy’ imposed an additional cost burden on large retailers who sold both tobacco and alcohol. This is perhaps a misnomer as a consumer facing tax, as it was mainly aimed at particular retail operations, but again sought in part to reduce consumption and supposedly fund health measures;
  • Increase recycling and reduce packaging – there has been a recent review commissioned by Zero Waste Scotland (who are funded by the Scottish Government) on the feasibility in Scotland for a compulsory deposit return scheme (DRS). The study models what a Scottish system could look like and covered all drinks and containers, including bottles, cans and cartons;
  • Possible future steps to consider the sugar, salt and fat content of foods, so as to reduce their consumption of these ingredients. Voluntary schemes have gone so far, but there is increased interest in going beyond better information to move direct engagement, though the form of this remains uncertain, given issues with such taxes elsewhere.

It is interesting that the sense this listing gives is that retailers, because of their position, are inevitably going to be agents in some ways in the delivery of government strategy. The questions are whether this is willingly or through legislation, and the limits to what might be deemed acceptable. In some of my presentations I have posed the question over the extent to which we should see retailers as agents of social change? In some ways this is no different to Polish state planners locating shops exactly equal distances apart, but the focus of the government intervention is now much changed. It does beg the question what are retailers for? And the extent to which our retail sector should be used in the ways being proposed, whether to restrict access or to encourage behaviours?

Update:

After posting this blog, David Londsale of the Scottish Retail Consortium emailed me as follows (and I thought it useful to put the link to the paper he mentions up here as well)

“I liked your article yesterday asking ‘what are retailers for?’ As you say it depends I guess on whether you are a retailer, government minister, customer or other stakeholder.

It did however bring to mind SRC’s recent paper (attached) from the end of last year, in which we recommended a series of tests before governments put forward ideas for voluntary regulation … including full application of the better regulation principles, a proper impact assessment and central clearance. This would bring such proposals for voluntary regulation more into line with more formal legislation.

The paper also recommends that retailers themselves should apply a series of tests to guide them in determining whether or not to agree to such proposals.”

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About Leigh Sparks

I am Professor of Retail Studies at the Institute for Retail Studies, University of Stirling, where I research and teach aspects of retailing and retail supply chains, alongside various colleagues.
This entry was posted in Alcohol, Diet and Health, Legislation, Plastic Bags, Retail Levy, Scotland, Scottish Government, Tobacco and tagged , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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