Lockdown Reading: Welsh Saints on the Mormon Trail

Mormon 1

When we were living in the USA in 2000-1 we flew to Jackson Hole in Wyoming via Salt Lake City.  That last flight to Jackson Hole was the most unpleasant flight I’ve taken before or since, shaken and bounced over mountain thermals in a small plane.  Other than that, Northern Utah and Salt Lake City are not places I know.

On another trip to Wyoming we visited Independence Rock and at Guernsey, the rutted trails through rocks of the Oregon and the Mormon Trail.   From these visits, and to forts on the trail, combined with long forgotten black and white films, I had some vague knowledge of the movement of people east to west in the USA in the 1850s or thereabouts. But what I was not aware of was the role of Welsh settlers in Salt Lake City and the Mormons or of the experience of the Welsh emigrants on the Mormon Trail.

At the start of the lockdown though, I came across a new book (strictly an English translation of a book from a couple of years ago orginally publioshed in Welsh) by Wil Aaron, telling the story of this Welsh emigration.

For anyone interested in Welsh history the book is fascinating and informative.  It draws on various sources and diaries (often in Welsh) and tells a story of suffering and endeavour over 15-20 years or so of difficult emigration on the trail.  It is an incredible story.

I found the book interesting and enjoyable, but accept this may be a minority interest.  There is though a retail link as well. I was taken by a retail story in the book around a pioneer Mormon called William Ajax, originally from Llantrisant in South Wales (a few miles from where I was born).

In 1869 he opened a store in Salt Lake City but came into competition with Brigham Young and the Mormon Church when they set up the Zion Co-operative Mercantile Institution (ZCMI) aiming to defeat non-Mormon businesses profiting from Mormons.  Brigham Young told Mormons to only shop at the ZCMI and apparently banned the faithful from Ajax’s shop, excommunicating him for good measure.

The book reports that Ajax moved to a remote area and then quietly opened up another shop – this time underground.  The book says this is due to the heat and dust, but one does wonder.  The underground store was at least four tennis courts in size, from where he sold a wide range of goods, and the store came to be known as the ‘eighth wonder of Utah’.

Mormon 2

Following William Ajax’s death in 1899, the store declined, as competition from catalogues, the decline of local mining and the increase to access to the city brought about by the railway coming, all combined to end the shop and the village. Nothing remains today. (A YouTube video of the site and the historical marker is available here)

Having visited a small part of the trail, and seen trading posts and shops in historic ghost towns, one can only marvel at the fortitude of these emigrants and wonder at how supplies were obtained, delivered to the stores and then sold.  Many stories and aspects remain untold.

The Welsh on the Mormon Trail is a niche interest, but I found it fascinating and testimony to complex societal, religious and personal struggles.

Aaron W (2019) Welsh Saints on the Mormon Trail. Y Lolfa, Talybont.  ISBN 978-1-912631-20-9.

Posted in Ajax Underground Store, Buildings, Catalogues, Cooperatives, Department Stores, Emigration, Historic Shops, History, Mormons, Places, Retail History, Retailers, Retailing, Uncategorized, USA, Wales, Zion Co-operative Mercantile Institution | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Build Back Better: Bill Grimsey and Covid

When Mary Portas produced her report for the UK Government on high streets, Bill Grimsey was quick to posit an alternative and to focus on leadership and technology for places.  His report and its follow-up a few years later have become important contributors to the discussion of the need for change in towns.

In his follow-up report he made a number of references to Scotland and its Town Centre Action Plan, the role of Scotland’s Towns Partnership and its partners and broadly pointed to the need for similar actions elsewhere in the UK.

His reports, agitation around towns and retail change and his willingness and availability to debate the issues has seen Bill Grimsey have a sustained influence on the discussion.

Grimsey Covid

So it was no surprise that he (and his team) have produced a ‘Covid supplement for town centres’.  Covid is a disruptive event and an accelerant to the changes already underway. Thus, in this supplement Grimsey asks if we have too many streets, what a post-Covid town looks like, how we empower local communities, what should replace rates, how we build green and amenity space into towns and fundamentally who are towns for?

These are good questions.  His responses to them are focused around three key ideas – location, leadership and fewer cars, more green space – and 27 recommendations under 7 headings – power to communities, leadership, taxation, post retail planning, property, planning and transport.

As in the previous reports, there are interesting ideas and thoughts in this supplement and the underlying sentiment and realities are important.  There are numerous small examples of where change has had a positive impact. There is a danger though that it is a bit of a wish list and the ‘how’ question is left too unresolved, despite these examples.  The examples help in answering how, but beg the question over the barriers to doing this, locally and more generally. As Neil McInroy said in a different discussion about place and communities, many of the examples we cite exist “despite the current system” and not because of it.  We need to understand what more do we must do and how can we refocus and rebalance our entire system to meet economic and social needs. This is a bigger moment than we have ever seen.

So my question is whether “build back better” is likely to produce the same solutions at the same pace as before and return us to where we were pre-covid?  Would it be better to be bolder and to think about more than the solution to high streets and retail and about how we want to be different and changed by the pandemic, and not simply survive it?  Bill Grimsey’s report has components of this, and is a starting point for more systemic change.

We need to grasp the moment and work out how to do what we must do, at pace. The risk otherwise is that our responses to the pandemic become inhibitors to the changes we need and not the catalysts for change required.

Posted in Bill Grimsey, CLES, Community, Consumers, Covid19, Government, High Streets, Leadership, Local Authorities, Mary Portas, Places, Proactive Planning, Public Policy, Regulation, Reinvention, Retail Change, Scotland's Town and High Streets, Scotland's Towns Partnership, Scottish Government, Social Justice, Town Centre Action Plan, Town Centre Review, Town Centres, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Lockdown 1990s style

I am one of the fortunate ones, living in a large house with a garden.  I’ve always grown fruit and veg and have been making my own bread since 2007.  I also spent nearly 10 weeks locked-in in the house and garden a couple of years ago, after almost destroying my knee. That was interesting preparation for this lockdown. I have continued to work from home and have been able to cope, but I am acutely aware that that is not the case for so many others.

Like many people in similar situations working from home, I have been relying on some local facilities, but mainly home deliveries of online purchases (not only food and from a wide range of companies and organisations) and filling a rugby-shaped void by exploring the catch-up feature of satellite TV.  Barring a panic about yeast, the things I take for granted have continued, though often in different forms and ways. That is not the case for so many others.

A couple of things have also made me think about how my behaviour during lockdown has been based on particular capacities that I now take for granted.

First, a tweet from a few weeks ago (and I have mislaid the source) simply asked how we would have coped with lockdown before the internet (which is shorthand for a lot more).  Secondly, as a relief from the computer and work, I have decided to read the Ian Rankin Rebus novels in the order in which they were written (I have read them before but through circumstances in a random order). I have some way to go, but the early books bring home our current reliance on phones and computers, as opposed to paper systems, payphones and faxes to the local shop. Whilst fictional, it does show accidentally how much has changed.

So, if this pandemic had occurred in say 1990 and we’d had to lock the country down in the same way,  what would be different and how would we have coped differently?  There are some things that would not have yet been invented including:

  • the smartphone (and its computing power)
  • the internet, the web and all that
  • satellite and streaming TV/music
  • twitter and other ‘news’ feeds
  • YouTube, Facebook, Instagram, WhatsApp etc
  • most non-local home delivery services (and click and collect)
  • Teams, Zoom and all other connection tools
  • Computers that can do things.

Lockdown c1990 (a generation ago) would have been very different.  Could so many people have acutally worked from home? Or would so m uch mor ehave to have shut down completely?  In the absence of connected devices how would we have obtained goods, services, news and so on?  How would we have survived with the 5 TV channels and limited radio choices? What would our shopping patterns have to have looked like?

You put all these together and I suspect that lockdown would not have been anywhere near as effective (or of course comfortable for some). The rate of infection and disease transmission might well have been higher as more of us would have been “forced” out.  Even more people would have had to be laid off or ‘furloughed’.  Much more work would not have been possible and our reliance on key workers in various sectors would have been higher.  Some elements could have been completed using the telephone rather than the computer (and indeed that is how our local garden centre initially moved ‘online’ in March), but the capacity (bandwith not really being invented then) would be limited.

It is often said that our technology, and its use makes us lazy, or that we have become slaves to it.  In reality it has probably saved lives. But it also points out that so many of us take these things for granted now, but that during this pandemic, so many people have not had access to the technology, the space or the finance to do the things they want.

Whilst “community” and local have been clear themes of the lockdown, access to the tools and finances to make these work for all have not been equal, as of course they were not prior to COVID. “Build, build, build” or “Build back better”  imply that we should focus on the physical facilities, and “rebuild” or “recover” and whilst that is part of the future, we must also focus on the social and people and the access to resources that so many take for granted. For many people, lockdown may well have felt like living in the past.

Posted in Click and Collect, Connectivity, Consumers, Covid19, Home Delivery, Internet, Internet shopping, Localisation, Lockdown, Online Retailing, Orkney, Social Inequality, Technology, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

Scottish and Online Retail Sales in Lockdown

I am catching up on some of the recently published data about retail sales. This short post has graphs from two sources (a) the Scottish Retail Sales Monitor, published by the Scottish Retail Consortium and (b) Internet sales as a proportion of retail sales published by the Office for National Statistics.

Both have featured in this blog before but I am reporting here on the recent sales figures in these series as they show the changes that have been underway during the pandemic lockdown.

SRSM May 2020 Scotland

In the graph above, the last 18 months or so are shown in order to emphasise the recent data. The decline in the non-food sales (and thus in total sales) in Scotland is unprecedented in the 20+ plus years of this series. The depth of the decline, due to the closure of “non-essential” stores is notable. But, what is interesting is the beginnings of an improvement in May 2020, as some stores re-opened and some confidence returned. Most shops remained shut however so the decline is over 50% on last year. In food retailing, there was some growth, with other evidence pointing to a sustained switch to local community focused convenience stores.

With Scottish retailing coming out of lockdown on the 29th June, we can expect another report of a month of weak sales overall (June), but then a sense of recovery may take over.

The second source looks at the shift to online sales and again records a record. Two graphs are shown below; a longer run and a more focused shorter term picture.

ONS May 2020 Online sales

ONS May 2020 Online Sales Close up

The top graph shows the long run switch to online that has been underway, with the annual Christmas peaks apparent. The figures for April and then May (almost 33% of sales online) show the dramatic boost to this channel that the pandemic sparked.

The lower graph takes a shorter run period and shows again the same effect. But interestingly it shows what looked like more of stagnation in online sales in the latter part of 2019 and the earlier part of 2020. The dual Black Friday and Christmas peak of Nov/Dec 2019 is also interesting. The pandemic though has disrupted the channels and boosted online as opposed to fixed store retailing. This is clearly to be expected with the closure of many stores, and the reduction in total sales also helps this proportion. June will be an interesting figure to watch in terms of a return to “normal” or the initial signs of  the sustaining of a “new normal”.

Posted in Black Friday, Consumer Change, Consumers, Covid19, Data, Food Retailing, Internet shopping, Lockdown, Online Retailing, Retail Change, Retailers, Scotland, Scottish Retail Sales, Scottish Retailing, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Confidence, Cash and Friction: Shopping in Scotland


So, shops (well those not cooped up in an indoor shopping centre) in Scotland are now open. The long road back to re-opening the economy has taken another step forward, and one result is a gigantic queue outside a city centre clothing shop hours before it opens. But, after the honeymoon, what happens?

The key for retailers in this next phase will be the interaction of confidence and cash. The same is true of town centres and indeed of all economic activities. Many of the places we are thinking about are (as Ojay McDonald (@Ojay) said in a seminar last week) congested by design, whether products or customers, and so getting people back into these sites will require a major effort in instilling confidence. Yes, confidence is rising about defeating the virus, but it is not over yet, and the gains remain fragile. For many, the (perceived) risk factor remains high.

So what can retailers and town centres do to instill confidence? We have all seen and become used to the presence of hand sanitisers, more visible cleaning, queuing systems, face coverings, signage about spacing, plastic screens and visors and the abolition of cash. We have seen the growth of online and the rise of click and collect. Developments in queue management, traffic light systems, click and collect, pre-booking of appointments and other such mechanisms are all about instilling confidence that your experiecne will be as safe as it can be and that your fears (albeit these vary enormously) can be assuaged.

And the evidence is that this is working; consumer confidence levels are increased, if not by any means “normal”.

But what retailers can do little about is the economic “feel” that consumers have. Different consumer groups have fared differently during the lockdown and for many it has been tough. Others have saved cash and/or got used to spending it online. But the ending of furlough in due course, the sense that the next phase of the pandemic is an economic one as well as a health one and a rising concern about future levels of unemployment and job security all point to a tightening of consumers’ spending. This might not kick in for a little while, but there is a nervousness about how this will go.

Retailers can do little about this. They can kick start spending by discounting the piles of stock they may have. They may get temporary relief as people replenish or simply buy products, because they can. But the need for retailers is in knowing there is sustained activity, and that is very much out of their hands.

There is also another factor that links confidence and cash. The steps to instill confidence often introduce friction into the retail situation – as I found out queuing for 45 minutes (at least in the sunshine) to use a building society the other day – and the more friction there is, the less consumers can window or impulse shop. Delays and slowness are built into the system; it is likely that spending will be reined in as a consequence. The shopping experience will be more measured and planned, and probably take a longer time. Yes, we have confidence, but at what cost and to whom?

So if this has to persist – and it is likely to for some time – then how will consumers react? What frictions are they likely to be willing to put up with, and what will turn them off? What frictions, on the other hand, are some consumers willing to pay to minimise and for which retailers may be able to charge? We have got used to differential pricing for delivery to the house; so what about access to the store?

The opening up of Scotland’s shops from today heralds the next phase in the pandemic. It is one though that is a step into the unknown. We do not know how consumers or retailers will react initially and then as things develop. Have the last three months (and the thought of what may be to come) made consumers reconsider how and with whom they spend their money? What will consumers now value? And what will retailers start to offer to build confidence for consumers to shop with them?

We will be finding out in the next few months. It is also a breathing space in which we can re-imagine how retailing and town centres operate. And in which we can begin to think how as a country and a society we should construct such activities. At the moment we have to get things moving again as best we can; but after that there needs to be a rethink about what we want and need.

A final point: in some retail sectors many shop workers have been working throughout the pandemic. They have experienced a very different work place. Those returning today will see enormous differences. All are doing their jobs, and serving people. They deserve to be treated with respect. They are also affected by the issues of confidence and cash and are not personally responsible for the friction customers are experiencing. Respect them.



Posted in Cash, Click and Collect, Consumer Change, Consumers, Convenience, Covid19, Employees, Friction, High Streets, Home Delivery, Internet shopping, Lockdown, Online Retailing, Opening Hours, Queuing, Retail Change, Scotland, Scotland's Town and High Streets, Scottish Retailing, Shopping, Shopping Centres, Social Distancing, Town Centres, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Shopping with Confidence?

Three months on and the great unlocking has begun in earnest.  No more testing your eyesight, it’s now about testing your bank balance – in Northern Ireland and England to begin with, Wales today and then Scotland.  “Non-essential” stores are now open for business, but certainly not in a pre-COVID form.

Northern Ireland began the move with re-opening on Friday, 12th June; England followed suit on Monday, 15th JuneWales starts today, the 22nd June and Scotland will be a week today (29th June).  This is begining to feel like a very different phase of the pandemic and something akin to trying to get back to normal.

And yet, it is not, nor should it be.  Where we are now is a very different place from early 2020 and what we then took for granted was “normal”.  For a start, the UK has one of the highest death rates of any country in the world and the over 60,000 people who have died from this need to have their deaths explained.  There should be no consideration of things being normal until we have held to account those responsible for our failings, and we have stopped the pointless deaths.

Secondly, the sense of ‘return to normal’ by ‘going shopping’ suggests that the world in early 2020 was a fair and good one, and that things have not been changed during lockdown.  They have.  We have re-discovered community but have also had to confront the inequalities that COVID has exposed in its impact and the differential experiences it has created.  We can not simply return to previous ways as though nothing should alter; things must change.

There can be no doubt that retailing has suffered; the data is absolutely clear.  But in going back to shop, we need to consider very carefully what it is we want our consumption to support.  Retailers need the support of consumers, but it can not be unthinking.  Support those good businesses who did the right things by suppliers and employees over the last three months.  Support local and independent, small retailers who need every penny to survive and who put back to the local economy through their actions.  Support the local towns and high streets who provide more equitable and more sustainable places. Support the local producers and retailers who provided a lifeline during the lockdown (and in the case of the former are still not getting their “normal” markets back).

At this point retailers are nervously looking for how consumers will react to the new shopping experience.  Will there be a honeymoon period or a sustained return?  Will the experience (or the thought of it) put off prospective consumers?  Will the relaxation lead to a large increase in COVID cases in a couple of weeks (as seen elsewhere)? We simply don’t know.

The early evidence from England is that footfall is down on last year, but surely this is only to be expected? We have lived through a major national trauma, and are still in the throes of a pandemic. Not all shops and other facilities are open (cafes, restuarants and public toilets being key components), the shopping experience is a very changed one, and many still lack confidence and experience in the new settings, with their new rules and constraints.

But however fast or slow it goes, this is but the first (of several phases) in the reopening and then resetting of our retail-consumer relationship (and the retail-landlord-property relationship). We are only at the beginning of this and those who see the re-opening of shops as an end to a situation or process, are going to be mistaken. There is much to be done to get these relationships to where they need to be for a sustainable future.

Scotland has taken a more risk averse and cautious path on many things through the pandemic. The siren calls to be “more ambitious” are very much at odds with the approach that produced the realities of the lower R number and the death rates in Scotland as opposed to many parts of England. There is a different calculus here between economics and deaths and the risks of a re-emergence of the virus generally or in a second wave. This pace is tough, especially for the retail and other businesses so adversely affected, but the long-term need is for consumers to have confidence in retailers’ and their own safe shopping. Rushing this for what may prove to be short-term relief may not be the success that many think.

Posted in Consumers, Lockdown, Non-food retailing, Rents, Retail Sales, Retailers, Retailing, Scotland, Towns, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Shopping in a Post-Lockdown World

Well, we’ve just had the sunniest spring on record, as well as the driest.  As we apparently ease out of lockdown we can but hope that such conditions continue, because when you look at some of the operational actions retailers and shopping centres are going to have to put in place, the thought of doing the shopping on a wet (summer, let alone winter) weekend is not that appealing.  If we have to live like this throughout the winter then it will be bleak for many consumers and retailers.

I am not an epidemiologist and the merits of otherwise of the English and the Scottish approach to easing lockdown, generally, and for retailers specifically, is not my focus here.  Though, I do know which gives me more confidence as an individual consumer  and better manages risks I am willing to accept (others may come to alternative conclusions).  Instead, I want to consider the approaches retailers in Scotland are being asked to take, some weeks later than in England.

At this point, in retailing in Scotland, not a lot has changed in three months.  There is still the distinction between essential and non-essential retailing and the latter, as shown by various data continues to really suffer.  Online, community focused stores and producers going direct to  markets seem to be doing well in many cases, and long may that continue.  Some major chains are opening up again and finding pent-up demand.  But, many others are considering what steps they need to take operationally either to operate now or in a few weeks when smaller shops and parts of larger stores may be allowed to open.

The Scottish Government guidance is available here and lists various topics for consideration and action by retailers, shopping centres, location and place managers.  The headings are:

  • Physical distancing
    • Signage and marking
    • Store capacity
    • Staff and customers
    • Queue management
    • Adapting services
  • Hygiene
  • Cleaning
  • Other Methods of Reducing Transmission
  • Customer and Staff support
  • Staff Safety: additional measures

Reading the detail, it is clear that the main concerns are about the safety of customers and staff in two directions.  First, keeping people apart before and when they enter, and are in, the store or centre.  Secondly, making interactions between staff and customers as impersonal as possible.  So systems of controls before entry, in store, changed facilities and systems, complete blanket signage and messaging and a lack of interaction are going to be the norm.

This is not retailing as we knew it.

Whilst seemingly not as stark as the choices facing cafes and restaurants, retailing also faces problems of capacity, cost and demand.  How will consumers react to the new retailing, especially when the novelty wears off and bad weather sweeps in.  Will people queue in an IKEA car park for hours on end in say January?  The same is true for town centres and their shops.  What is the willingness to ‘go shopping’ when you don’t really need to? And when it might take a lot longer than you might expect? And there are what may be seen as less risky and more pleasant alternatives. But then peopleseem to be willing to queue for hours for their IKEA or McDonald’s fix, and this can’t just be post-lockdown fever?


This could get stale quickly, especially in inclement weather

For retailers this uncertainty over demand and supply poses a problem which exacerbates the difficulties already in place.  Can retailers make enough money to survive in such peculiar circumstances?  How do they reconcile what they order with such possible variations in demand?

There is so many unknowns at the moment.  It is early days in emerging from lockdown.  As we open up, so more things will become clearer.  If transmission rates fall and there is no sign of recurrence will restrictions (e.g. 2m to 1m) be relaxed?  Will consumers then feel more confident? If they do, then there will be a rebirth of much retailing.  There is likely to be a demand rush and retailers will find consumers open to buy and willing to react positively to new retail offerings.  Longer term though much will depend on the state of the overall economy and there is a need to get places and town centres back at the heart of our society and economy.

There is of course a darker scenario; of recurrence of the virus, renewed lockdown and a collapse of retailers and consumer confidence. But in keeping with the fine weather let us hope we don’t get there.


Posted in Consumers, Covid19, Employees, Employment, Internet shopping, Lockdown, Online Retailing, Places, Retailers, Scottish Government, Shopping, Shopping Centres, Social Distancing, Town Centres, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Tracking the Impact of Lockdown on Retailers

The impact of COVID-19 has hit retailers in different ways. We are now beginning to see the official figures and some retailers have provided updates. As anticipated in a previous post, the April sales figures for Scotland showed a massive impact on non-food retailing especially. The graphs below show the exceptional historical nature of what we are living through, followed by a close up of the impact compared to the last year or so.

SRSM April 2020 Long RunOSRSM April 2020 Close up

ONS figures released last week make exactly the same point. The headlines are worth repeating as they show the damage inflicted but the varying outcomes for different retailers and retail sectors. For many retailers of course, deemed non-essential, the business has essentially gone into deep freeze.  This is particularly the case for small retailers in non-food.  Some have been able to move sales online and tried to keep going that way. But many have simply been forced to shut up shop. The ONS headlines show:


  • The volume of retail sales in April 2020 fell by a record 18.1%, following the strong monthly fall of 5.2% in March 2020.
  • All sectors saw a monthly decline in volume sales except for a record increase in sales for non-store retailing at 18.0% and a continued increase in sales for alcohol stores at 2.3%.
  • The volume of clothing sales in April 2020 plummeted by 50.2% when compared with March 2020, which had already fallen by 34.9% on the previous month.
  • The proportion spent online soared to the highest on record in April 2020 at 30.7%, which compares with the 19.1% reported in April 2019.
  • All store types, except non-store, reached record proportions of online spending in April 2020 as some stores shifted to online only trading.
  • The three-month on three-month growth rate in the volume of retail sales decreased by 8.6%, with declines across all sectors except food and non-store retailing.


These are remarkable figures.

We are also now beginning to see major multiple retailers report their sales over this period.  These are of course unaudited sales figures, and there is no accurate word on profitability (most grocers say their extra costs have broadly been met by their savings from rates relief), but the figures do give some inkling to different fortunes and to the impact of the virus. There are too many such retailers to cover them all here, but three that caught my eye are considered: Sainsbury, Next and Kingfisher – in turn mainly food, a non-essential clothing retailer with a strong online offer and a DIY essential retailer with an online arm, operating across a number of countries.



The figure shows the problem that emerged in food retailing.  A massive week on week increase (40%) up in March followed by a return to normal food business.  Morrisons more recently reported a boom followed by a below trend sales and then stability.  Huge fluctuations between and within weeks makes supply systems difficult to manage.  In clothing and fuel the impact of lockdown is clear.



Next had at the outset a more balanced online and store portfolio.  On lockdown the store component was shut being ruled non-essential but online could continue.  In practice, Next could not make the distribution operations for online work safely and so had to shut down to rethink.  Slow opening of the online channel then followed. All this is clearly shown in the graph, which also shows the massive impact on sales.


Kingfisher COuntry

In the UK Kingfishwer operate B&Q and Screwfix.  Both were allowed to continue to operate, but the stores proved problematic under social distancing.  They had to be closed to rethink safer operations before being reopened, intially with click and collect and home delivery, and then latterly with store openings under strict social distancing.  The graph shows the performance of the UK and Ireland, but also France and Poland. In France, as in the UK, the company closed the stores, but then introduced click and collect and home delivery. All stores are now open for a “self-service” range. In Poland all stores remain open but operating under strict conditions, and with click and collect and home delivery. In addition to Sunday closing (the law) Saturday trading was temporarily stopped, but has now restarted. As of 12th May, Spain (not on graph) and Ireland remain closed.

The second graph compares store performance and e-commerce performance over the same period. The vital importance of operating click and collect and home delivery as well as online is clear. Whilst e-commerce is not of the same scale as the store operations it has allowed sales to continue and indeed to expand in that channel.


Kingfisher Store and Ecom

All these businesses are operating under strict social distancing. Kingfisher note stores are operating with:

  • Colleagues in gloves, masks and visors
  • Limiting number of customers in store
  • Safe queuing before entering the store
  • Sanitiser stations throughout the store
  • Floor navigation markers to help enforce social distancing
  • Perspex screens at checkout
  • Contactless or card payments only

This is the new retail store.  It remains unclear how customers will react to this, if retailers can make it work profitably once support is removed and whether consumers will continue to operate online as opposed to visiting stores.


If this is what large retailers have experienced and have had to adapt to in order to sell, then spare a thought for the small independent retailer who will have an even greater adjustment to make. And for all their employees, whether working or not at the moment. Will the online and home delivery models developed out of necessity prove to convince customers of their difference and dedication to serving communities? It is to be hoped so. We shall begin to see how this plays out as lockdown gets eased.

Posted in B&Q, Click and Collect, Consumers, Contactless, Covid19, Employment practices, Food, Home Delivery, Internet, Internet shopping, Kingfisher, Lockdown, Multichannel, Next, Online Retailing, Poland, Regulation, Retail Change, Retail Sales, Retailers, Sainsbury, Screwfix, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Retailing, Shopping and Covid-19

Lecture front page

Over the last couple of months I have produced on this blog a range of pieces around retailing, shopping and the coronavirus pandemic.  There will no doubt be more to be said as the situation develops.

One of these pieces – What should we value about retailing and towns and what should we do about them – attracted a fair degree of attention in a variety of places.  The piece was a call for more radical thinking around the future for towns and high streets: essentially a plea not to go back to how we were, but instead to carve out the economy and society that we want (and need) and to be inclusive and community focused rather than distant transactional and extractive as so many of our places have become.  The original post has been re-blogged and altered for use in various sources and outlets.

At the University of Stirling, we are proud that much of our research has a public policy focus.  We have created a public policy blog to present, from across the University, this research and thought leadership on policy.  As part of our reaction to the pandemic, we are now producing podcasts from various of our academics on their specialist area and the implications of COVID-19, raising questions and policy implications.

I was asked to contribute to the series, and my podcast is available via as part of the lecture series and directly here.  I have taken this opportunity to expand on and repurpose much of the recent material in this blog and build on a presentation I gave at an Institute of Place Management Webinar a few weeks ago (for the delegates, I promised to post the presentation and this podcast is that).  A full transcript of the podcast can be downloaded here (Transcript of Podcast May 2020).

Some of this work was also the subject of a podcast discussion I did with David Jamieson for Source.scot, a couple of weeks ago.  This interview was a part of a feature entitled “Retail behomoth: are we witnessing the birth of a savage new business age”. My interview (“Beyond the noise: how the crisis is transforming the retail sector”) ranges widely over retail change, the impact of the virus on the sector and what we want to come out of this period for towns and retailing and can be listened to here.


There will be much more to be said about the longer term impact of the pandemic on retailing and shopping. I doubt we can yet begin to really see what the potential disruption will be like.  We can though start to anticipate the type of future we want and try to work out the steps to get there. This is ever more important if we are not to simply go back to the (failed) ways of doing things.

Posted in Community, Consumer Change, Consumers, Covid19, Employment, Employment practices, Government, High Streets, Independents, Institute for Retail Studies, Internet shopping, Lockdown, Multichannel, Online Retailing, Panic buying, Places, Public Policy, Reinvention, Retail Change, Retail Policy, Retail Sales, Retailers, Retailing, Scotland's Town and High Streets, Scotland's Towns Partnership, Scottish Government, Scottish Retailing, Shopping, Social Inequality, Tax, Town Centres, Towns, Uncategorized, University of Stirling | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Need for a Digital Tax

The origins of this post lie in early March when we were delighted, in what now seems another era, to host Helen Dickenson, the Chief Executive of the British Retail Consortium, at our Retail Futures event. She spoke on the topic Retail Armageddon or Reinvention?

Little did we know that it was going to be both.

In my most recent post I set out some of the steps we might need to take, once we are passed the immediacy of the Covid-19 crisis and are contemplating what future we value and desire/need. One of these steps was the need for a digital tax, and the linked theme of the unfairness of business rates.

This post takes the bones of something I wrote in early March but never used, as Covid-19 intervened. Since then two things have happened that have added to the urgency of moving on a digital tax:

  • The Chancellor has shown we can think boldly by abolishing business rates (well at least for a year). We could simply make this move permanent (actually I don’t this would be right).
  • Online sales have gained enormously from lockdown, expanding rapidly (we can already see a hint of this in the March ONS figures in the graph below – who knows what April will bring?)


ONS Online sales April 2020

Source: Office for National Statistics (UK)


At that Retail Futures event, I tried to discuss/provoke the Panel by suggesting that a digital tax was going to be needed as part of the answer to the long-standing business rates perversity.  The Panel liked the idea of lower business rates but baulked at the idea of a digital or online tax!  One phrase stood out for me in their comments.  It was along the lines

“The moment we see something works we want to tax it”.

Well, yes.

As I have noted before (“Houston, we have a problem”), the property based business rates tax is centuries old.  We have an analogue tax in a digital world and are paying the price of this.  Business rates became a cash cow for Government a few decades ago and they have milked it steadily (dry) since.  It is an out-of-date approach, perversely implemented, with well recognised failures, causing immense damage to the fabric of the country (high street vs out-of-town; north of England vs London and others).  But Governments love it, due to its predictability (and growing scale in recent decades).

As noted in my last post, we all say we want flourishing town centres and places.  We claim we want diversity and a range of independent and entrepreneurial small businesses.  A carbon neutral future is going to come up the agenda as essential.  And we are now going to be living with enhanced technology use.

Property based business rates are anathema to many of these desires.  If we are serious about what we want then we have to protect our centres and small and local businesses, incentivise our start-up tech based entrepreneurs and actively set out to end damaging consumer and business behaviours.  This means looking at, and taxing, the real costs of digital online giants (and their delivery mechanisms) and out-of-town activities (not only retail).  We also need to ensure a fairer national playing field than the current ‘subsidise London’ one, perpetuated by business rates.

However in doing this we also have to be honest about the economy and society.  We can’t simply stop taxing the old (property) and forget about the new, or tax the new and forget about the old.  If we want good local places, then local authorities, town managers etc. need to be given the resources to do their job.  The mind-set of ‘give me excellent services, for free’ simply gets us nowhere.  Our economy has altered, and will continue to do so.  So our tax system has to alter with this.  This is not only a retail issue; as electric cars supplant petrol/diesel cars then what is replacing car tax?  If we want roads we have to pay for them somehow.

And in our current predicament, if we’d only been properly paying for the NHS, would we have had such a traumatic time? If you want public services (and we need them), then government has to prioritise and pay for them. Saying something is new, so we shouldn’t tax it is not acceptable. Nor is allowing online retail giants top pay a trifling proportion of tax on billions of sales and profits (swollen further by the pandemic).  They claim to pay what they have to; well then, let’s ask them properly for what they should be paying. This is about being a society, not simply a bunch of automated transactions.

A digital retail tax is not straightforward, but we must confront its need.  We can devise a system that works and we can protect the start-ups and entrepreneurs in this space.  Simply refusing to contemplate any steps in this direction as it ‘taxes success’ is ridiculous.  That success has in part been bought by an unfair playing field and a mis-appreciation of societal costs.  This can not be the way forward if we value the things we say we do.

Posted in Amazon, BRC, Competition, Covid19, Digital, High Streets, Internet, Internet shopping, Local Authorities, Online Retailing, Places, Reinvention, Retail Change, Retail Economy, Retail Policy, Retail Sales, Social Inequality, Social Justice, Spaces, Tax, Town Centres, Towns, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment