“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

Analysing and Understanding Shopping Centres

One of the good things about being a Professor of Retail Studies is that you get to meet interesting people with interesting ideas.  Over the last year or so I have been involved on some executive education with Bayfield Training and learned about the development of their ‘Retail Quilts’.

These Retail Quilts have now come to fruition, I have thus invited Natalie Bayfield to explain the concept and the benefits of this development.  If you are interested in these, then the contact details for Natalie and Bayfield are at the end of this post.

Over to Natalie:

Bayfield Retail Quilts: A tool to help understand shopping centre success.

Every so often when we’re creating training material we come up with something really exciting. At Bayfield Training our job is to make complex subjects accessible and we use a number of techniques to achieve this: gamification, modelling, repetition methods, case studies and visualisations.

Shopping centre investment as a subject has been one of our biggest challenges yet. The asset is incredibly complex. We can invite an expert on different aspects of the same case study mall and be treated to erudite presentations that have more in common with the pedagogy of architecture, customer service, retailing, facilities, marketing or service charge than they might do with the case study mall itself. Our challenge was to develop a regular format for case study malls. To do this we needed to understand the common denominators of a mall and what it is that makes each mall unique?

In 2013, designing our first shopping centre investment course, we hit upon the idea of squarified tree maps. We had tried fitting the layouts of different shopping centres each on an A4 page. Very few, if any of them, fit. Many had more than one level, compounding the problem. And where we did get them onto one page we found they didn’t tell us very much. Quite simply they contained too much information to be useful.


Figure 1: Mall Layout, Gray’s Shopping Centre, Thurrock


What if we removed the layout altogether and simplified the collection of retail units into a quilt of relative unit sizes? We had seen tree maps, which sort variables into relative squares, used in other areas but given this was before Excel 2016 had incorporated tree maps as a feature, we asked one of our designers Taffy @_itsTaffy to find a program to make them. Having applied tree maps to shopping centres we named them Bayfield Retail QuiltsTM. We included them in our course and as delighted as we were at the simplification they offered, we hadn’t yet realised their full potential. We have since updated both the program and the technique.


Figure 2: Bayfield Retail Quilt, The Oracle Shopping Centre, Reading


So what are they? Retail Quilts are essentially a pie chart but divided into relative size squares rather than variously sized slices of a pie. Why a Retail Quilt rather than a pie chart? It’s simple, squares look much more like shop units than pie slices do, and therefore for the specific context of shopping centres, Retail Quilts are easier to interpret.

Take the Oracle Shopping Centre, in Reading, above. It is typical of most, but not all, shopping centres i.e. Department Stores in the top left are the dominant category with Fashion and Accessories coming in a close second. The Oracle is already well adapted to the current Retailtainment trend, with a more than most offering of F&B and accompanied by a large Vue Cinema. Vacancy is a little higher than we would like, until you look more closely and realise a third will be occupied again soon. Finally, a nice variety of jewellery, shoes, services and newsagents are found among the smaller shops in the bottom right.

There is no new data here. It is the presentation of the data that speeds up comprehension and pattern spotting. Take the Gray’s Centre in Thurrock. How different is the offering to the Oracle?


Figure 3: Bayfield Retail quilt: Gray’s Shopping Centre, Thurrock

The Retail Quilt for the Gray’s Shopping Centre tells you very quickly that Household, Kids & Charity is by far the dominant category, not Department Stores, although Fashion & Accessories holds its position in second place. A healthy presence of F&B is nonetheless comprised of fast food outlets compared to the Oracle’s fancier brands. Other stores include supermarkets and retail services which are less prevalent in the Oracle.

The Retail Quilt helps you identify stores much better than the data alone or by trying to identify and assemble the tenants from the mall layout in your head. The Gray’s Centre clearly attempts to serve a very different demographic to the Oracle.

How about the question: is Hollister in every shopping centre in the UK? You don’t have to know much about Hollister to make a beeline for the middle of the green Fashion & Accessories category in each Retail Quilt. Searching for a Hollister in a Mall Layout is obviously a lot more difficult.


Figure 4: Raw data, Shopping Centre layout or Bayfield Retail Quilt?


Of course you could simply query the raw data, but the query provides zero context. A simple query limits the ability to hypothesise and spot patterns, something the brain does much better visually.

So, is there a Hollister in the Oracle or the Gray’s centre? Why is Hollister in one mall and not the other? Which presentation of data helps most in getting an answer but also more interestingly contextualising the answer?  You might also like to think about how a book of quilts could help analyse, define and discuss value across shopping centres.  Obviously this is just scratching the surface of their potential, and if you want to learn more then please get in touch.

About Natalie and Bayfield

Natalie Bayfield is Chairwoman of Bayfield Training and a lecturer in Real Estate Finance at the University of Cambridge. For a sample publication of the Retail Quilts or to enrol on one of their courses visit the Bayfield Training website at www.bayfieldtraining.com/research

You can also follow Natalie on twitter @NatalieBayfield

Posted in Bayfield, Brands, Data, Department Stores, Food Court, Inter-depenendencies, Property, Relationships, Retail Quilts, Retailers, Shopping Centres | Tagged , , , , | 1 Comment

So you think you know Scottish Towns?


Almost two years ago, Scotland’s Towns Partnership launched Understanding Scottish Places (USP) – a data platform to provide for the very first time consistent and comparable data on 479 Scottish Towns.  At a time when funding is tight, there was a desire to drive evidence based decision – taking and to challenge some existing perceptions of places.

The USP project, commissioned and funded by the Scottish Government and the Carnegie UK Trust was carried out by a consortium comprising Scotland’s Towns Partnership (STP), the Centre for Local Economic Strategies (CLES) and ourselves at the Institute for Retail Studies, University of Stirling, all marshalled by the Carnegie UK Trust.

The outcome – Understanding Scottish Places (USP) – launched in April 2015 can be found at usp.scot.  The data platform has been hugely positively received, witnessed over 50,000 web hits and been the base for various wider developments including the FSB Scotland Entrepreneurial Towns initiative last week.  It has become the starting point for conversations, discussion, debate, strategy and policy, as envisaged conceptually by the Fraser Review and practically by the USP consortium.


But, even at launch, we were well aware that this was the start and not the end of something.  Our own analysis and user feedback pointed to gaps and desires.  Some were unattainable, falling on the alter of rigour, consistency and comparability – the bed rock of USP.  Others were very simply biding their time or needed to be realigned to our 479 towns to meet our strict criteria.

This week we unveil USP 2 – the enhanced version of USP.  Following user feedback and developments in data availability, USP 2 introduces several new features:

  • Commuter flows – a new indicator showing the top daily flows in and out of each town;
  • Tourist bed places – a new indicator showing tourism accommodation capacity in each town;
  • Grand funding – a new indicator with the amount of grant funding allocated in each town from four major grant funders in Scotland;
  • Diversity of retail offer – a new indicator showing the diversity of the retail sector in each town, which also appears in the inter-relationship scale;
  • New indicators showing population and employment change over time;
  • An ‘Export to PDF’ tool for individual towns, to be able to more easily download your town’s results; and
  • New and original descriptions of each town, mentioning history, geography and economy.

In addition other, improvements have been made:

  • The ‘number of GP surgeries’ indicator was converted into number of individual GPs. Then, ‘number of GPs’ and ‘number of dentists’ were combined into one indicator, giving a better picture of health professional presence in each town;
  • The experience of scrolling past the USP map was made more user friendly;
  • An A-Z case study series of USP Your Town Audits is also being created.

We believe these are substantial enhancements and additions.  Go and have a look and play and tell us what you like and don’t like.  What’s missing and what could be enhanced?  As before, this revision is a stepping stone to further enhancements in v3 in 2019 or earlier if possible. We already have commitments on greenspace data and are in discussions for culture–heritage and digital data.  Can you help with these or others?

We also want to know how USP is used and where it has an impact.  We know for example it has lead to policy decisions in some places and opened conversations in others.  In some cases Audits of towns have followed to enhance the data USP provides and extend it – the Your Town Audits section of USP provides details on how to go about this and we encourage you to take part in this part of the process of really understanding your – and our – towns.

As Kevin Stewart MSP, Minister for Local Government and Housing, commented:

“There is some fascinating information on this website and I would encourage both professionals and members of the public to visit usp.scot to see how the tool could be used to benefit their local area. Its new features will support efforts to create flourishing places for all those who live, work in and visit our towns.”

So, if you are interested in Scotland’s Towns you need to get behind and involved in USP and get on usp.scot to explore whether you really do know Scotland’s Towns.  You might be surprised and inspired.


Leigh Sparks (University of Stirling), Phil Prentice (Scotland’s Towns Partnership), Anne Findlay (University of Stirling)  and Gina Wilson (Carnegie UK Trust) announcing the launch of USP2 at The Scottish Parliament

Posted in Carnegie UK Trust, Data, Institute for Retail Studies, Local Authorities, Places, Planning, Research, Retail Policy, Scotland's Town and High Streets, Scotland's Towns Partnership, Scottish Government, Town Centre Action Plan, Town Centre Review, Town Centres, Towns, Towns Typology, Understanding Scottish Places, University of Stirling, USP | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Where Good Food is a Religion

Regular readers of this blog will be aware of my passion for Welsh rugby, fresh food and especially marketsEvery so often the stars align and we take ourselves off to Rome where all can be indulged.  And so it was last weekend.

Early February in Rome is not the best time for the rugby, but we did OK, despite the weather and the Conservative/UKIP coup inspired freefall in the value of the pound.  It did mean we avoided some of the tourist–gouging places and sought out more freshness and value.

Thus it was that we ended up at the Farmers’ Market at the far end of Circo Massimo on Saturday morning.  After a quick re-enactment of some of best chariot bits of Ben Hur we were ready for some food.  And what a market it is.

As the photographs of the English leaflet below shows this market is truly a producers’ market, being part of the Campagna Amica.  Focusing on shortened supply chains, greater sustainability and fair profits for producers, it showcases some stunning produce.

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Campagna Amica is a brand which identifies places where people can find authentic Italian products guaranteed by farmers.  It links

  • 5900 farmers
  • 1200 markets
  • 1500 agri-tourism sites
  • 300 restaurants
  • 170 stores

This is authentic, real, Italian produce direct from producers.  As the photographs below show, the market is a feast for the eyes and the stomach.  It was very busy when we were there with clear evidence of people doing a weekly fruit, vegetable, cheese, meat etc. shop.  I contented myself with one of the best pork rolls I‘ve ever had – and various samples of other things.  Check out the photos carefully for detail of the produce.

In one way it was reminiscent of so many other Italian markets, but there seemed to be more direct engagement.  The quality was stunning.  Whilst produce always can look good in Italy (see Eataly for example as well as most local markets,) this was another level and interaction.  As I asked two years ago, why can’t we do this in the UK?

This was not the only impressive retailing of food.  The produce in the non-touristy part of the Campo del Fiori market was also excellent (and there are two slides from another local market as well in the show below) and some of the displays of produce in the local small stores were spectacular.  Check out the meat shops in the slide show below as well as the other produce displays.

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Food is a religion in Italy and it is one we really should be following.  Whilst Italy has its share of chains and fast-food (pizza of course) it has held on to and celebrated its authentic food heritage and culture.  I can’t wait to go back.

Posted in Campagna Amica, Consumer Lifestyle, Diet and Health, Eataly, Farmers Markets, Food, Food Quality, Food Tourism, Gastronomy, Markets, Producers, Rugby Union, Scotland Food and Drink, Slow Food, Sparks, Supply Chains, Sustainability | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Two new academic papers on healthy eating and sport

The last few weeks of 2016 saw the release in early view of two new articles on which I am co-author.  Both are slightly unrelated directly to retailing, but they do have tangential interest for those who know my broader concerns. Both are available to download in final accepted manuscript form from our institutional depository, and if anyone wants the pdf of the early cite/view then please contact me and I will see what is possible.

Healthy Eating

The first article, co-authored with colleagues from the Institute for Social Marketing, here at Stirling and from the University of Dundee, concerns an NPRI funded project on The Impact of a targeted direct marketing price provision (Buywell) on food purchasing behaviour by low income consumers.  This was a large randomised controlled trial aimed at assessing the feasibility and impact of a targeted direct marking intervention on a large sample of low income consumers from a leading UK food retailer.

The results show that the intervention had an effect, albeit modest, on short-term food purchasing behaviour.  This would be expected a priori, but not necessarily in terms of encouraging product switching and more healthy purchasing by low income consumers.  Sustaining the effect requires further consideration.

CSR and Sport

The second article involves colleagues at Stirling, Molde/UCLan Cyprus and Salford.  The paper derived, from work by one of my ex-PhD students concerns the co-creation of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) value by professional team sport organisations.  The paper covers three questions:

  • Why have sports teams developed charitable foundations?
  • What CSR related resources do these foundations access from these sports teams?
  • How is CSR value co-created?

A conceptual framework using the metaphor of communicating vessels is proposed as the integrated concept linking the sports team and the charitable foundation.

Without stretching it too far, there is a link of sorts across the articles.  Both concern businesses (food retailer, sports teams) that wish to connect with big social issues as exemplified by the concerns of their consumers/areas/fans.  Given the significance of such problems, it is likely that more organisations will seek to understand and modify their behaviours.

References and Abstracts

Stead M, MacKintosh AM, Findlay A, Sparks L, Anderson AS, Barton K and D Eadie – Impact of a targeted direct marketing price promotion intervention (Buywell) on food purchasing behaviour by low income consumers: a randomised controlled trial.  Journal of Human Nutrition and Dietetics. DOI 10.1111/jhn.12441

Price promotions are a promising intervention for encouraging healthier food purchasing. We aimed to assess the impact of a targeted direct marketing price promotion combined with healthy eating advice and recipe suggestions on the purchase of selected healthier foods by low income consumers. We conducted a randomised controlled trial (n = 53 367) of a direct marketing price promotion (Buywell) combined with healthy eating advice and recipe suggestions for low income consumers identified as ‘less healthy’ shoppers. Impact was assessed using electronic point of sale data for UK low income shoppers before, during and after the promotion. The proportion of customers buying promoted products in the
intervention month increased by between 1.4% and 2.8% for four of the five products. There was significantly higher uptake in the promotion month (P < 0.001) for the intervention group than would have been expected on the basis of average uptake in the other months. When product switching was examined for semi-skimmed/skimmed milk, a modest increase (1%) was found in the intervention month of customers switching
from full-fat to low-fat milk. This represented 8% of customers who previously bought only full-fat milk. The effects were generally not sustained after the promotion period.
We conclude that short-term direct marketing price promotions combined with healthy eating advice and recipe suggestions targeted at low income consumers are feasible and can have a modest impact on short-term food-purchasing behaviour, although further approaches are needed to help sustain these changes.

Kolyperas D, Anagnostopoulos C, Chadwick S & Sparks L (2016) Applying a Communicating Vessels Framework to CSR Value Co-creation: Empirical Evidence of Professional Team Sport Organizations, Journal of Sport Management, 30, 702-719.

Despite the increasing number and significance of charitable foundations in various business sectors, their role in co-creating corporate social responsibility (CSR) value remains unclear. This paper identifies CSR value co-creation in professional team sport organizations (PTSOs) and answers three key research questions: 1) Why have PTSOs developed charitable foundations as their means toward CSR value co-creation? 2) What CSR-related resources do PTSOs and their charitable foundations integrate? and (3) How do they manage, share and transfer such resources in order to co-create CSR value? Drawing theoretical insights from Service Dominant Logic (SDL) and consumer culture theory (CCT) – and using empirical data from 47 semi-structured interviews of UK-based professional football (soccer) clubs – this study develops a communicating vessels (CV) framework to illustrate the role of charitable foundations in the CSR value co-creation process. Through four tentative CSR value co-creation levels of relationship (bolt-on, cooperative, controlled, and strategic) the study suggests several internal strategies that can enhance the level of collaboration between founders and foundations. These include information-sharing through CRM systems and social media platforms; staff-sharing or flexible movement across the organizations; quality assurance agreements; flexible team cooperation; partnership protocols with social, media, cultural, and commercial stakeholders; and co-training of personnel.


Posted in Academics, Advertising, Communications, Consumer Lifestyle, Cooperative Group, CSR, Diet and Health, Food Retailing, Pricing, Promotion, Sport | Tagged , , , , , , , | Leave a comment