An overview of (UK) retailing

One of the common questions that I get asked, generally and by journalists and students, is ‘what is going on in retailing?’  There are many ways to answer this, and in the various presentations I do, some of the themes I feel are key get developed.  But I don’t always write down the thinking or the description academically.

However I have written a couple of chapters in books which are being published this year (one is out and one is due out in August) and they do tell the story of retail change in slightly different ways.  They might be of use to students and perhaps others, so versions are downloadable at the end of this post.

The first is a chapter on Retailing in the latest in the long running sequence of books entitled ‘The Marketing Book’.  Now in its 7th edition, edited by Michael Baker and Susan Hart, this text has become the ‘go too’ book for many introductory courses on marketing that want a non-American point of view.

My chapter – last but obviously not least – examines the key components of the practice of retailing and seeks to investigate the distinctive and changing nature of the retail sector.  As befits a chapter in a book on marketing, it begins with the cultural and consumer aspects of the retail environment.  It then moves to the places and locations where retailing occurs.  Interrelationships linking retail businesses with other organisations are examined, before a consideration of the internal operations of retailers themselves is presented.  The people who take on the running of retail businesses and individual shops, the nature of the selling and retailing processes, and the supply and sale of goods, are introduced and discussed.

Some of it will be familiar territory for those who have seen my presentations.  In putting it together the chapter I did reflect on the key issues today:

  • The transformation in the role of retail location
  • The changing meaning of retail formats
  • The scale and power of retailers
  • Internationalisation
  • Winners and losers from these changes/trends.

I conclude that

‘as retailers are more challenged across platforms and as volatile, restless and demanding consumers seek out what satisfies them, so too the control and power in the situation inexorably moves more towards the consumer and the range of services and options has to more closely fit individual consumer’s needs.  Consumers are perhaps more in control of the retail channel than ever before’.

The second, much shorter chapter, appears is a new volume entitled ‘A Stakeholder Approach to Managing Food’ and aims to provide an evaluation of the development of the food retailing sector in the UK.  It considers the rationale, implications and trajectory of the spatial-structural changes that have occurred (and are discussed in the Marketing Book chapter at a general level).  It situates retail businesses within a network of supply and demand chains and emphasizes dimensions of change, power and competition.

Food retailing today is undergoing a major change.  Discounters, recession, price have collided with large formats, store chains, health and the rise of convenience and the internet.  Local (in various guises) has become a key attribute.

The chapter concludes:

Food is a major component of consumer spending and of consumer life, and food retailing is a reflection of the social culture of a community or a country.  As society has changed and values alter in importance, so too food retailing reflect these changes.  The professionalization of food retailing and its radical reinvention of the post-war trend provided a dynamic country with the retailing it desired and the product choices it valued.  This expansion of possibilities has proved a boon in many ways for many consumers, although it is not without its adverse implications on choice and accessibility, especially in certain locations and for some categories of consumers.

But economics and societies change and values continue to alter.  Food retailing in the UK is at the moment on the edge of change with various competing tendencies.  How these play out in the coming years will be a fascinating story, subtly (and in some cases not so subtly) configured by the decisions of governments (is ‘unhealthy’ food the next tobacco or alcohol?), retailers (can the hypermarket be reinvented?), technology (where can the internet, digital and other technologies take us?) and, of course, consumers (what price/quality balance will become dominant and how do we remove food poverty?).  Food retailing is used by each and every one of us and its significance in our lives, and in patterning our lives, cannot be under-estimated.  Food retailers’ (re)construction of this market is thus a vital component of our food lives and looks likely to be more differentiated than has been the case over the past 60 years.

Full details of the chapters are:

Sparks L (2016) Retailing, Chapter 25, P598-626 of Baker MJ and S Hart (eds) The Marketing Book, 7th edition.  Taylor and Francis, London. [chapter downloadable here]

Sparks L (2016) Spatial-structural change in food retailing in the UK, Chapter 14 of Lindgreen A, Hingley M, Angell R, Memery J and Vanhamme J (eds) A Stakeholder Approach to Managing Food. Gower. To be published in August. [chapter downloadable here]

I recommend both books to you, hope my chapters are of interest within them, and that they put a little flesh on the bones of my presentations.  Comments always welcome.

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 Academics, Books, Consumer Change, Education, Food Retailing, Internet shopping, Retailers, Retailing and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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