The Benefits of Collaboration

Last week I gave two presentations – well to be more exact I did that academic thing and did two versions of the same presentation.  The first was a presentation to a UKCGE workshop on Collaborative Doctorates; the audience was academic and policy colleagues from across the UK who are focused on industry-academia collaboration especially around PhD study.  The second was at the second Local Data Company Retail Leaders Forum (details of the first here) where I was invited to discuss how research leads to be better decision-making as part of a two-handed session with Ben Dimson (British Land).

As is known to readers of this blog, we have had a long-standing retail partnership with the Local Data Company.  This is focused around our ESRC/SGSSS collaborative PhD on new measures and understanding of town centres and their management, and around our Annual Scottish Summit which presents the latest LDC data on Scotland, including vacancy rates.  For me, LDC have been an interesting partner, not least for the data, but more importantly in a wider context of their willingness to engage with academics in selected Universities to drive a research and knowledge creation agenda forward.

My theme in both presentations was about the nature of collaboration and industry-academia relationships and the need to recognise the differing agendas, languages, timescales and expectations.  Why do either universities or industry engage in research collaborations, and are they always successful (whatever the term means in this context)?

At one level this might seem like self-indulgent navel-gazing, but for various reasons it is now much more important than it may have been in the past.  Anyone reading the UK Government’s Industrial Strategy will see the large sums of money being put into (especially STEM subjects) research and the role of industry-academia partnerships and Innovate UK that is expected.  Similarly the UK Research Councils are placing much more emphasis on collaborations with industry and pathways to, and realities of, impact of the research on industry, policy, competitiveness, productivity etc.  Universities are being increasingly measured on such things.

This is both a little odd for me, and yet an opportunity.  As a researcher in retailing, from the outset I was certain that I could not do my job without close interaction with retailers.  This has been fundamental to my career, so to meet academic colleagues who don’t (yet) engage with the outside world, or for whom it is a challenge/imposition is a strange feeling.

The LDC seminar at Oxford brought together various academics who work with LDC and some of the retailers interested in this data and who also get involved with LDC and the ESRC Consumer Data Research Centre.  Sundry professors (Longley, Singleton, Dolega, Reynolds and myself) and various retailers and property specialists (Dimson – British Land, Clarke – Tesco, Purvis – Tristan Capital, Lee – Clarks) together with Mathew Hopkinson of LDC explored aspects of consumers/people, places/towns/high streets, data and analytics and research collaborations.  It was a lively day with a high degree of audience participation; others will in due course provide a more coherent commentary than I can in this space.  At its heart though it reaffirmed the need for data, research and communication, especially given the rapid and extensive pace of retail change, expertly summed up in a keynote by Alan Giles (ex Fat Face, HMV and now non-executive director of Rentokil and the Competition and Markets Authority).

But, in one sense were we all ‘preaching to the choir’? All present live and breathe this stuff.  My worry, based on how long and winding these collaborative roads have been, is that as a key plank of UK government strategy, there remains a belief that such collaborations are easy, quick and always produce positive results.   We can hope for this, but all the evidence points to them being more tortuous than that, but then when they do work, as with the LDC and CDRC efforts, they really are worth it, and a delight to be part of.  The output from these LDC collaborations are impacting businesses and universities, and proving the benefits of collaboration based on mutual understandings and goals.

Posted in Academics, Collaboration, Competition and Markets Authority, Consumer Change, Data, ESRC, Local Data Company, PhD, Places, Retailing, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Taxing Times: Tesco and Poland

The financial results for Tesco last week brought forward a lot of comment and some interesting thoughts, not least the looming pension deficit and the exceptional items booked into the accounts.  Oh, and the underlying performance, which was quite good.

But my eye was taken by a small piece in the results document.  There were a couple of lines about the intensely competitive market in Poland, but then this:

“The introduction of a new retail tax in Poland remains suspended pending the outcome of the European Commission’s investigation.  We continue to be cautious about potential legislative changes in our European Markets”.

Now this had rather passed me by; new retail tax, Poland, European Commission investigation? I’d missed this.

One of the good things about being in a University is that you meet some interesting people and one I have recently been involving as a researcher on a project (more on this in the future) is Dr Maria Rybaczewska, from Poland.  So I asked her what this Tesco tax in Poland was about.  Her response to me is as follows:

“On 6 July 2016 the Polish Parliament adopted an Act on retail sales tax, which was due to enter into force on 1 September 2016.   The Act lays down a progressive rate structure for the retail tax with three different brackets and tax rates:

  • A 0% tax is levied on the part of the undertaking’s monthly turnover from retail sales below PLN 17 million (approximately GBP 3.4 million),
  • A 0.8% tax is levied on the part of the undertaking’s monthly turnover from retail sales between PLN 17 million and PLN 170 million,
  • A 1.4% tax is levied on the part of the undertaking’s monthly turnover from retail sales above PLN 170 million.

The Retail Tax Act includes certain exemptions from taxation, including on-line shops and franchise stores both of which were extensively discussed beforehand.

However the European Commission raised concerns that the progressive rates based on turnover gave companies with a low turnover a selective advantage over their competitors; something they feel is in breach of EU state aid rules. Consequently, on 19 September 2016 the Directorate – General for Competition, following Article 108 (2) of the Treaty, initiated the formal investigation procedure, concerns referring to State Aid mentioned in Article 107(1) of the Treaty and the case of Hungary where no State aid was finally introduced as a result of European Commission intervention. This EC intervention has led to the postponement of the date when the new regulations enter into force unto, at this point, 1 January 2018.

According to the Commission Press release the investigation is not aimed to “question Poland’s right to decide on its taxation levels or the purpose of different taxes and levies. However, the tax system should respect EU law, including state aid rules, and should not unduly favour a particular type of company, for example companies with lower turnover.”

On the other hand the Polish Government emphasises the fact that the tax on the retail sector does not lead to “discrimination between foreign and national companies in light of the Polish market structure, it does not differentiate on the basis of shareholding/capital structure, and it pursues a different objective (the revenue from the Polish tax will go to the general budget and, according to Poland, is needed to cover the expenses of the Family 500+ child benefit programme).” Poland also claims that the progressive nature of the tax is in line with the logic of the overall tax system in the country.”

One can read this situation in a number of ways and it will be interesting to see how this unfolds in the European Commission.  No doubt some will applaud the intervention as showing care, concern and protection over small retailers.  Others will be upset at the thought of the possible costs on ‘modern’ retail operations operating large stores.  That many of those affected are international entrants to Poland is of course significant here,  and in the wider anti-globalization mood many are in. There is of course a long tradition around the globe of seeing such stores as competitively (and possibly socially detrimental) and trying to restrict (France, Japan, Thailand and  Malaysia are obvious examples amongst many) or tax them (the Public Health Supplement in Scotland).

But two other things stood out for me from Maria’s account: the exclusion of online and franchise stores.  One wonders why this exclusion of online stores is there; surely if governments are looking at the changing nature of retailing, let alone the attributes of place and tax revenue streams, they would be looking to include such operating formats?  Likewise the issue about franchise stores.  So if Tesco split all their stores into separate businesses then they could avoid this tax, yet operate as they currently do?  There may be other costs of course of such an action but on the surface it seems an odd approach. I understand the sentiment and reason (e,g, small affiliated stores such as Spar) but surely other ways of framing this to avoid/apportion tax could have worked.  Meanwhile Media Saturn and Media Markt in Poland could be smiling quietly to themselves.

Posted in European Union, International Retailing, Large Store Levy, Poland, Profits, Public Health lev, Regulation, Retail Levy, Retail Policy, Tax, Tesco | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Tesco, Booker and Poundland

In a recent Retail Week opinion piece the columnist John Richards mused about the cost of all the adventures Sainsbury have had over the years and whether the cost outweighed the benefits and whether the management time and effort could have been more profitability spent focusing on the core of the company.  He described their approach as Sainsbury’s “death wish” and cited SavaCentre, Homebase, Shaw’s, Netto and now Argos as illustrations. That may be a tad strong, but you perhaps get where he is coming from.

Further, as a game of ‘what if’ it is entertaining, if ultimately futile. Unless, that is you are proposing a merger and two (at least) of your institutional shareholders have openly come out against it.  Yes, we are back on the topic of Tesco.

Now the question of wasted management time and effort is not one that is unknown to Tesco.  Recent years have resembled a speeded up version of the ‘hokey-cokey’ (look it up) as countries were hastily entered, only to be withdrawn from.  The USA, Japan, China etc. are recent examples, but Ireland first time round was a standout in the 1980s, and there was also France. And now they want to merge with Booker.

I always assumed the current proposed Booker deal would run into Competition Authority problems – the sheer defensiveness on the day of the announcement made me feel they were shooting first and asking the questions later.  But maybe I was wrong that this was the largest hurdle? There seems to me to be a certain commercial logic to the strategic move – the sectors Booker are in have been growing ahead of the core retail market, but then that is never the sole consideration in these things.

The recent announcement by Schroders and Artisan Partners (Tesco’s third and fourth largest shareholders) that they are agin in the deal on the grounds that it is “foolhardy”, “an unwanted distraction” and “value destructive”, let alone the price being paid, is both public and eye-catching. It may come to nothing, and Tesco are defiant at time of writing, but it is hardly a vote of confidence from c9% of your shareholders at a time when you need friends.  Especially given you’ve just done a costly deal with the Serious Fraud Office in relation to false accounting claims, which may not be the end of the matter either.  Focus, even though this is a new team and progress has been made, should be the order of the day.  Is it?

Well, the figures published this morning, show both faces of Tesco. The headline profit figure is reduced from previous years. But, the underlying operational figures are much stronger than last year and indeed show the first annual UK LFL growth since 2009-10. That is something to be satisfied with, but it is the exceptional items that have caused the disparity between underlying and total performance. The settlement with the Serious Fraud Office and the Financial Conduct Authority is only one of a number of provisions and exceptions. And some analysts are questioning the cost of the pension deficit which has doubled and could be storing up issues for next year and beyond. Past behaviour is meeting current and future performance.

In terms of the core operating business the team does have a lot to be pleased about, though they recognize that the job is nowhere near completed. And that is why the Booker question is not going to go away. Is it part of the solution or likely to be part of the problem?

Last week, Poundland announced that 99p Stores were to be put into administration.  Who knew they still existed?  Operated is the wrong word as it seems this was a vehicle for closed stores, some 60 of them.  This, only two years after taking them over.  Whilst a lot of stores were converted, this rump was left as very unprofitable.  Changes in Poundland have pointed to the pressures this end of the market is coming under.  It is also a pointer to the sometimes difficult process of making mergers work.  Distraction is just one part of it. The grass is not always as green as it looks.

Posted in Accounting, administration, Booker, Consumer Change, Food Retailing, Government, Mergers, Netto, Poundland, Regulation, Retail Change, Sainsbury, Shareholders, Store Closures, Tesco | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Ghost Signs and Retailing

Ghost sign 2

A recent (temporary) ghost sign in Stirling

As readers of this blog will know, I have always had an interest in the history of retailing and companies and businesses of the past. A good example has been the ongoing work with Neil Tyler around Sanders Bros, but my interest is wider than that.

Thanks to the connectivity of Twitter I have become aware of the substantial body of interest around faded retail signs (Ghost Signs) , and in particular the work and energy of Sam Roberts. His fascination and involvement far outstrips mine, but I do share a view that these “ghosts” or “whispers from the past” are important and interesting. People’s reactions to the signs is a reflection of this and the strong feelings they can evoke.

After a recent exchange about the sign in the picture above, and other spottings whilst out and about in London and Perth, I thought it might be good to invite Sam to contribute to this blog. I was delighted when he said “yes”. His personal account below “Ghost Signs story (so far)” outlines his developing interest in the subject, as well as some of the innovative methods of recording and capturing what are far too often ephemera.

“Eleven years ago I chanced upon a sign painted on a local building saying ‘Fount Pens Repaired’. Its faded appearance and slogan piqued my curiosity and it wasn’t long before I’d noticed a handful of others, each aging gracefully and representing some long-lost business in the area.

My initial searches online led me to the term ‘ghost sign’ and on this basis I reached out to friends, family and contacts in the advertising industry in an attempt to find out more about them. The response was short on historical context, but rich in personal connections and the sharing of locations. It seemed that most people could recall one close to them, or one from their youth that they remembered passing on a familiar journey. Many had strong personal and community connections to these old painted signs, and this inspired me to do more work to document and research them. The warm feelings that people have towards ghost signs has remained a motivating factor in all that have done, and continue to do, with them.

Before long I had noted locations sent to me on the London A to Z and would use my free time to cycle around, visit and photograph them. Inevitably, en route to one sign, I would pass others and I soon had a growing collection of material. I discovered blogging as a cost-effective way of sharing my research and discoveries. This allowed me to publish material and reach people that were outside of my immediate personal network. More locations and images came my way as a result, including those from much further afield e.g. France and the USA, which remain two of the top countries for spotting ghost signs. The blog ( continues to this day and now features material from all six continents.

While I enjoyed the process of collecting material and publishing the blog, I was always conscious that this could easily be lost if something happened to me. This led to me reaching out to the History of Advertising Trust to explore the options available to develop a more professional, and institutionalised, archive of material. The end result was an online archive documenting over 1,000 locations across the UK and Ireland, with material submitted by members of the public. The process of creating it was used as a case study in crowd-sourcing and the interactions of amateur (me) and institutional (the History of Advertising Trust) collections.

Following a period volunteering in Cambodia (where I published a book about their painted signs) I returned to London. While I was proud of the blog and the archive, I wanted to do something that would get people out on the streets looking at ghost signs in their natural habitat, rather than on screens, as I think this is a very different experience. My walking tours were the result of this, and these involved more detailed local historical research to compliment the more general introduction to ghost signs that the tours offer. While I only run the tours once each month, I have now digitised them to allow wider access via an app that features my two walks and includes contemporary photos and links to google street view for those that can’t reach London.

More recently I was involved with a publishing project following an invitation from Melbourne ghost signs enthusiast Stefan Schutt. This was to produce an academic book providing a variety of perspectives on ghost signs. This is now published and, across 22 papers, an international cast of academics and practitioners cover topics ranging from conservation and protection to the roles that ghost signs play in communities and localities. My own paper, co-authored with Geraldine Marshall, provided an opportunity to address the burning question ‘What is a Ghost Sign?’.

I am often asked why I do what I do with ghost signs and I don’t have a solid answer to the question. What started as intrigue into the origins, and decline, of this form of advertising has become an all-consuming part of my life. I am something of a collector at heart and so these signs offer an outlet for these tendencies (currently through my worldwide mapping of locations), but I also find the signs to be beautiful but neglected pieces of history in the public realm. I have seen them lost on a whim of property developers, but stop short of formally campaigning for their protection. My hope is that through my efforts in raising their profile, those that own buildings hosting them will appreciate their historical significance and recognise that they add to, rather than reduce, the value of their property.”

Sam can be found on the web (, has a blog (, is on Twitter (@ghostsigns –, Facebook (@ghostsigns –, Instagram (@mrghostsigns – and can be emailed (

A selection of ghostsigns from London is available via this dropbox:

Reference: Schutt S, Roberts S and L White (eds) (2017) Advertising and Public Memory: Social, Cultural and Historical Perspectives on Ghost Signs. Routledge, Abingdon. ISBN 978-1-138-93468-9.

And if anyone is out and about and sees a Sanders Bros ghost sign please get in touch with me! But here is a recent (tin?) sign from Perth to end with.



Posted in Academics, Advertising, Architecture, Art, Brands, Buildings, Consumer Change, Corporate History, Ghost Signs, Heritage, Historic Shops, History, Retail History, Sanders Bros, Shopfronts, Signage, Stirling, Urban History | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“The Ridiculous is no longer Unimaginable”

The other day I received an email saying that the 2016-2017 Annual Review of the Retail Think Tank was available.  It can be accessed and downloaded from here.

The Retail Think Tank is just over 10 years old, being conceived in 2006 by Helen Dickinson and Tim Denison.  They wanted to provide an ‘authoritative, credible and trusted window on what is really happening in retail and to develop thought leadership on the key areas influencing the future of retailing in the UK’. They succeeded.

Through a panel of experts (sorry Michael Gove but these people know stuff) they aim to provide a ‘balanced, considered and unbiased view of the state of the health of the retail sector’.

The Retail Think Tank has two main outputs; the Retail Health Index and a series of White Papers on various topics.  The Retail Health Index over the last 10 years is shown in the figure below.  The recessions (marks one and two) are clearly noted but so is the slow long and almost imperceptible recovery.  But in 2016 their index has stagnated.



Each output from the Retail Think Tank has an overall summary – the wisdom of the panel – and then individual contributors that led to the summary.  The quote at the head of this post is from Tim Denison’s contribution to the 2016-17 review and it neatly sums up the sense of shock over the last year.

So what does the panel say about 2016 and 2017?

  • The year ahead will be tough
  • Retail growth will stagnate
  • Inflation will gallop ahead
  • It won’t all be doom and gloom and some retailers will prosper

The ‘ridiculous’ however is that much of the headwinds we face is self-inflicted.  Whether it be Brexit potentially choking off markets, Black Friday killing margins, the pound collapsing driving up inflation or retailers losing sight of the consumer, some parts of the sector seem to have a death wish.  Retailers will have to be agile, change quickly and think the unimaginable, because if they don’t, others, including new competitors will.

If you haven’t checked out the Retail Think Tank you should.

RTT Cover

And of course today is an especially apt day to publish a post with this title.

Posted in Black Friday, Brands, Competition, Consumer Change, European Union, International Retailing, Retail Change, Retail Health Index, Retail leadership, Retail Think Tank, Retailers, Store Closures | Tagged , , , , | 5 Comments

Taste the Landscape with Scotrail

I’ve always enjoyed travelling by train.  Maybe this stems from my grandfather being a blacksmith by trade and when I was young seeing him working on steam engines in Tondu sheds.  Or perhaps it comes from being packed off on my own on the train as a 7/8 year old to go from South Wales to Devon to holiday with my grandparents – and being looked after on the journey by various guards and others – a railway ‘unaccompanied minor’, and an early sense of adventure.

But these days my train journeys are mainly limited to the Central Belt, with occasional excursions further afield.  I must have been lucky on these as my trains seem to run to time and be efficient, though why it takes longer to get to Edinburgh from Stirling now than it did when I first moved up in the early 1980s is a shameful failure of scheduling.

All this though is by the by.  Whilst Scotrail has not had its troubles to seek in the latter part of 2016, on a recent journey to Aberdeen I was given their Taste the Landscape food and drink menu.  Now railway catering has in the past been the stuff of nightmares and must be a thankless task on busy, crowded services, but this menu seemed a genuine attempt to offer an alternative to things gone by.

Taste the Landscape 2

The basic premise is simple enough; a showcase of Scottish products.  The “standards” are there – Tunnock’s, Mackie’s, Nairn’s, Irn-Bru – but there are also some newer local producers (Brewdog, Stoats).  Scotrail get around our lack of some alcohol production and wine, by using importers based in Scotland.  The tea and coffee likewise is only brewed with Scottish water.  I won’t comment on the pricing or the sizing/value, but the intention is one that should be applauded.  Moreover there’s not a deep fried Mars bar in sight and the Irn-Bru picture is of the Sugar Free variety.  That’s some progress I feel, though much more could be made.

Taste the Landscape Map

I post this on a day when it is announced that exports of Scottish Food and Drink have reached a record high of £5.5bn. It is said they have doubled since 2007, with a particular focus on the European Union. James Withers, chief executive of Scotland Food & Drink, said the latest export figures were “fantastic news” and that “The game-changer has been developing a national brand for Scottish produce in export markets, with industry and government working hand in hand to invest in overseas trade experts and activity. If we now further deepen that work, this success story has much further to go.”

This is excellent news – though how long it will last given the potential fall-out of Brexit is hard to say – but it did make me think. We have recently been doing some research for Food Standards Scotland (of which more in coming weeks) commissioned because of the stubborn refusal of the Scottish population to improve diet towards the Scottish diet targets. Now some of our export products need to be taken in moderation, but amongst our successes are great food products. Why can’t we also have a “game-changer” around the consumption of Scottish products as part of an enhanced national diet?


Posted in Advertising, Alcohol, Brexit, Diet and Health, European Union, Food, Food Tourism, Producers, Retail brands, Scotland Food and Drink, Scotrail, Suppliers | Tagged , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Fake Shops and some other retail news

Everyone pretty much agrees these days that we are living in an era of ‘fake news’, or outright lies as it would be better called.  You know the sort of things – £350m per week to spend on the NHS, Obama is a Muslim born anywhere but the USA, Scotland beat Wales at rugby and so on.

But my attention was grabbed the other week by the idea that we had now moved on to fake shops.  It was revealed that for a couple of years Waterstones had been running shops (in three English villages) that looked like an independent bookshop and were named accordingly.  When I first thought of fake shops my initial reaction was the faux fronts plastered over the vacant units on the high streets.  But this is a little different – a real shop, but not what it seems to be.

There seemed to be a degree of outrage at Waterstone’s behaviour.  It was somehow seen to be ‘beyond the pale’.  Why is that?  Three places have bookshops which people seem to like and value.  That seems a result to me. But others reacted less well to those ‘passing – off’ attempts, seeing deceit, if not lies.

Why might that be?

The answer probably lies in the sector – the bookshop – and the place it has in some people’s minds and lives.  The bookshop is somehow special and the loss of these places across the country is seen as an attack on culture.  Amazon, despite its success, is not the same, and neither for many is Waterstones who are also seen by some as complicit in the closure of independent bookstores.  So as the poacher puts on sheep’s clothing to mix some metaphors, people get upset.

But if we look at retailing then whether consumers know the ownership of many stores is open to question.  I never really got over the shock of finding out in the 1980s that Spud-u-Like (the baked potato chain) was owned by the British School of Motoring.  Do we really care that Inditex has a few chains beyond Zara or that Edinburgh Woollen Mill is one of the series of brands owned by Philip Day?  And do you really know who is behind many of the online and catalogue retailers that abound? But when it comes to bookshops we seem to be outraged at someone trying something.

Perhaps we could insist on the ownership of stores to be revealed at the store level (beyond the small sign in the window of these books shops which identifies them as the trading arm of Waterstones)?  We could force consumers to confront the reality say (and get this image out of your mind if you can) of Mike Ashley as Agent Provocateur.  Ownership is often remote and complicated in retailing, and given the state of the sector, we should perhaps be grateful for anyone wanting to open or save stores.

In other news, Tesco, Sainsbury, John Lewis and others all took an axe to parts of their labour force, as the pressure on the margins and capacities in retailing began to become real.  With evidence that real wages are negative and inflation is accelerating, it is hard to see this ameliorating any time soon.  Pressures will continue to rise.

And finally, the Daily Mail declared ‘Sir Shifty’ is well on the way to redemption having paid up £363m for the BHS Pension Fund and topped up the Arcadia equivalent.  Given past history and the stance of Dominic Chappell this story probably has more twists and turns, but if the Daily Mail says his knighthood is safe then Sir Philip Green it will probably remain.  But as we wait for the final denouncement, spare a thought for towns with BHS sized gaps in their high streets and the workers they used to employ. They are the real victims in this.

Posted in BHS, Brands, Employment, High Streets, Independents, Local Retailers, Places, Retail Failure, Sainsbury, Store Closures, Tesco, Town Centres, Waterstones | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment