Trading Places: our Town and Country Planning Columns

T&CP Journal

In 2012 Anne Findlay and I attempted to take over from Professor Cliff Guy who had provided the Trading Places columns in Town and Country Planning for 12 years.  In the subsequent 6 years we have produced 23 columns, but now feel it is time to hand over to others.   In discussing our leaving we prepared a reflective piece on the themes and issues we have discussed over the period.

Reduced consumer demand, concerns about the economy and the spectre of store closures and job losses have been the constant background to our commentaries.  Together with the rapid, strong, growth of discount retailing in food and non-food and the continuing long-term rise of the internet as a channel of information and distribution, retailing has been faced with a formidable array of challenges.  Seeing Asda and Sainsbury proposing a merger, with Amazon rumoured as a possible disruptor, is something unimaginable a few years ago.  In the main the plight of the retail sector has not been an issue for governments since 2012 (or indeed before, really).  Indeed, in most instances it can be safely argued that they have not cared that much about the sector.  The constantly increasing penalisation of rates and the ever increasing burden of administration and costs have combined to cumulatively hammer away at retail business confidence, resilience and survival.  Add in a rather less than laissez-faire attitude towards an equal taxation field and an absolute blindness towards the taxation and other competitive implications of internet trading, and you can be forgiven for believing this government (and its predecessors) hates shops and shopkeepers, however many ministers it has brought to the party (and then dropped).

Store closures and job losses have been a recurrent backcloth. Announcements recently include Maplin, Toys R Us, Jacques Vert, and House of Fraser.  Add in the Tesco/Booker merger, possibly Asda/Sainsbury and Coop/Nisa (and the Costcutter supply deal) and this restructuring of (especially) the food sector, reflects the rise of the internet and the over-supply of retail space over decades, as well as alterations in consumer behaviour more widely.  Yet, in many places stores are also opening and trade is positive. We sometimes see change confused with calamity (which for those personally involved it is of course).

Our columns have focused on a range of issues around this broad theme of change and on the implications of these for planning.  We have identified four themes across these columns.

Change and Competition

There are many possible angles to the investigation of change and competition.  We have covered the changing grocery shopper and the ways in which behaviours are altering to focus more on convenience and also on the internet.  The impact of this has been covered through the decline and closure of stores and the impact this has on towns.  Closures however also add trade and opportunities for other businesses in some cases.  At the other extreme, we have also focused on more temporary and transient retailing which seeks to engage the consumer in more interesting ways.  Our examples have been drawn from farm shops and from pop-up shops, both of which bring a point of differentiation to the consumer and to the town.

Retail Space

Over the last four decades there has been a rapid growth of retail space, much of it in new sites and developments.  The restructuring of the retail sector has had many dimensions and the focus has often been, as noted above, on closures.  However there are also a range of other adjustments that are components of this restructuring.  In this regard we have looked at the change and resilience of local parades of shops at one level and at the dynamic change in some retail parks on the other.

Town Centres and Towns

One of the main casualties of this restructuring and the alteration of patterns of shopping and consuming has been the traditional high street.  Our focus here has been mainly on the various reviews that were carried out at the time of the start of our tenure of this column and the remedies and solutions proposed in each.  In England Mary Portas was asked to look at the high street.  A rival, independent review, also focused mainly on England – the Grimsey Report (and its new update).  In Scotland the Fraser Review covered the requirement for a National Review of Town Centres, and a live policy debate and actions have ensued.  As we have argued, this distinction between high street and town centre is an important one.  If you conceive the issue as being a retail one, then retail solutions get proposed and are often doomed to fail.  If the problem is framed as a place based one or a town centre one, then the breadth of the problems, but also the potential solutions, are greater.  Towns are so much more than retailing.  This theme and the issues it raises of the ‘failure’ of local authorities and town managers and the need for new solutions (a very Grimsey theme) often private or community led, such as town teams, BIDs or in part development trusts, is one that continues to be a focus of attention.  There is no one perfect solution, and certainly not one based on retail alone, but the broader issues are now at least better understood and considered, especially we would argue in Scotland.

One of the key elements of this consideration of town centres has been the almost unanimous criticism of the rates system, whether we see it as medieval or as an analogue solution in a digital world.  In town centres this is felt with a rare passion, which we covered, in that they feel adversely singled out when compared with out-of-town or online businesses.  This running sore is not ameliorated by rebate and other schemes.  The system is out of date and not fit for purpose.

Social Impact

Our final theme is perhaps a more controversial one.  Retailers and aspects of the retail sector are now being questioned on, or co-opted for, social engagement or social impact.  There has been an emerging recognition that the practices of retailers are not somehow miraculously socially neutral.  There are again many dimensions of this but we have touched on the role of bookmakers and on retailers and obesity.  In terms of bookmakers there is a distinct whiff of moralising, but their agglomeration is hard to wave off.  But why should the planning system be forced to mop up a social issue?  And one that has in many ways been brought on by the government’s prior decisions.  In considering obesity we looked at a similar issue; should planning be co-opted to try to alter the diet and health of communities?

 

What though does this period say about the future for retailing?  It is easy to get despondent with all the gloom and the closures.  Yet, there are great retailers expanding and growing. Stores continue to open; consumers continue to seek solutions to their needs. Independent retailers across the country are developing their, and place-based, distinctiveness. There is much to look forward to, especially if the worst excesses of recent decades can be removed. It is a restructuring rather than a replacement of retail.

A fuller version of this column can be found here.

Posted in Academics, Alcohol, BIDS, Bill Grimsey, Bookmakers, Consumer Change, Consumers, Farm Shops, Food Retailing, Government, High Streets, Internet shopping, Mary Portas, Places, Planning, Pop-Up Shops, Proactive Planning, Rates, Resilience, Retail Change, Retail Parks, Retail Planning, Retail Policy, Social Inequality, Town & Country PLanning, Town Centre Review, Town Centres, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Putting Towns on the Policy Map: Understanding Scottish Places (USP) and Data

As an academic, I probably have an irrational interest in data.  To a great extent it is academic life-blood and I seem to have spent a lot of my adult life either obsessing or arguing over it.  It therefore really upsets me when so much of the ‘debate’ about retailing, towns and high streets makes sweeping assumptions about, and from, inadequate, or rather vaguely defined, data. (This is not a new theme for me – see a previous post on here)

To give another recent example from the Herald: in late July they ran a piece entitled ‘Demand to save our high streets as Scotland loses 16,000 retail jobs in seven years’.  This was based around a ‘discovery’ by the Scottish Retail Consortium.  I tried to ‘discover’ the research and data on which this is based.  I pretty much failed as beyond a press release I could not find the definitions or analysis on which the Herald report is based.

So, what can we learn from the Herald piece?

  • The data is Local Authority data: despite the headline it is not town data nor high street data;
  • It covers 2008-2015, which is a really odd period to be covering, matching the deepest recession we’ve seen, so what should we expect (and given the changing nature of consumer behaviour and of retailing);
  • It refers to jobs, with no focus on the type of employment e.g. part-time (which is not unknown in retailing) and there is no consideration that some retail jobs are being switched into distribution and recorded there e.g. Amazon. The jobs data are also rounded to the nearest hundred it would seem.

Now, the SRC can not be held responsible for the headline (though on the SRC web there is an alignment of large retailers with high streets in another piece). This has though all the hallmarks of a campaign story, especially given the SRC focus on business rates – as they are quoted in the article “more action, including scrapping plans to charge extra business rates on out-of-town shopping centres“.

Hang on: how does reduced costs for out-of-town retailers help the high street, the headline of the article?

Now this is not to single out the SRC and the Herald in particular; this is just the latest example (and the one I had to hand) of a carelessness in the use of data and terminology. The “high street” is not the same as “retail”. “Local authorities” are not the same as “towns”. “Retail” is no longer the same as “shops”. “Retailers” are not only “Multiple or chain retailers”. We do everyone a dis-service by not being more careful. Retail is going through tough and changing times and we need to be clear what we require and what we value. But, blanket generalisations on data that is not covering what it seems is not the way to go.

Another example would be the BBC coverage of the latest Next results where it is described as the “high street chain” (tell that to the people of Dumfries) thus ignoring the locations of many of the Next stores and their strong online business. Indeed the discrepancy between store and online performance was the real story in the results.

These definitions and data matter for many reasons, but not least because if we are going to understand the issues – and then the solutions – we need to be honest about the data and what it relates to, and what it does not.

Data about and for towns was one of the key points in the Fraser Review of Town Centres and it recurs in the recently published Grimsey Review 2.  Much of the Grimsey Review 2 covers well-trodden ground, but in its call for a focus on towns and place it remains consistent and correct.

But, how can we expect leadership on towns when we don’t collect basic data on towns in anything like a rigorous, consistent and coherent way?  The Grimsey Review call for proper town data (and this means moving away from meaningless local authority levels for this purpose) is not a simple task.

Just how complicated and time-consuming it can be to build the basic blocks for this is shown in our recently published article in Scottish Affairs on “Putting Towns on the Policy Map: Understanding Scottish Places (USP)”.  The Grimsey Review 2 is very positive about Scotland’s approach and the role of Scotland’s Towns Partnership and Understanding Scottish Places.  What it possibly misses is the effort it takes and the difficulties in sticking to data standards.

Our article outlines the process of development and the principles of Understanding Scottish Places including those of data requirements.  For me, this is fundamental: we can’t sensibly talk about towns unless we collect data on towns on a comparable and consistent basis.  Then we can have more realistic conversations about what is happening, what specific places are like and can achieve, and how our country of towns is made up.

The sad fact is that too little of our data is structured in this way, but we are getting there and USP offers a platform and approach to help start such conversations. It does not solve the problems of data and coverage but is an attempt to be consistent and comparable. What we do not need a casual equivalence of high streets with retail and towns with local authorities, which masks the issues we should be addressing.  If we want towns to flourish then a start might be to collect and analyse data on towns, with agreed definitions and boundaries. Anything else is open to fudge and mis-appropriation.

Reference

Findlay A., Jackson M., McInroy N., Prentice P., Robertson E. and L. Sparks (2018) Putting Towns on the Policy Map: Understanding Scottish Places (USP).  Scottish Affairs, 27, 3, 294-318.  DOI: 10.3366/scot.2018.0245. www.euppublishing.com/toc/scot/27/3

Let me know if you have difficulty getting hold of a copy of the paper or if you want to discuss any aspect of it.

Posted in Academics, Bill Grimsey, Consumer Change, Data, High Streets, Internet shopping, Large Store Levy, Leadership, Local Authorities, Online Retailing, Rates, Retail Change, Retailers, Sales, Scotland's Town and High Streets, Scottish Retail Consortium, Scottish Retailing, Shop Numbers, Town Centre Review, Town Centres, Towns, Uncategorized, Understanding Scottish Places | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Damaged Goods

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As Private Eye put it, serialised exclusively across all newspapers, this book says that Philip Green is not a nice person.  “Quelle surprise” as they may say in Croydon.  But on the other hand, Oliver Shah is the Sunday Times journalist who broke the BhS story and who Philip Green threatened to kill. His book has been eagerly awaited.

Partly sly gossip, frequently sweary and profane, often with threats of violence, Damaged Goods is a detailed account of the rise and fall (repeat a few times) of Philip Green (PG or SPG depending on your view) and his business ‘colleagues’ and behaviours.  Lots of sources  on the record (and more than a few anonymous sources who are not), the author’s relationship (or at least a channel) of sorts to PG, and some detailed research allows Oliver Shah to paint a picture of Philip Green and his business dealings.

This portrait is pretty ugly; though Shah at times seems to enjoy the chase and point and counter point with PG.

It would be all too easy to focus on the character of the central “villain”, and there are plenty of other reviews out there (e.g. Guardian, Financial Times, CityAM), that dwell on some of the more unsavoury aspects of the affair and the more sensational episodes, but that wasn’t the message I took from the book.  For me the book further exposes a whole series of corruptions at the heart of British business.

These include the:

  • Sheer nastiness of many of the protagonists
  • Cosiness between some journalists, analysts and business people, with the sense it is all a “game”
  • Financial rotating merry-go-round and its lack of grounding in the real world, and the constant search for the next short-term deal and the best way to screw the “other side”
  • Asset-stripping and pursuit of personal wealth at everyone else’s expenses (especially those working in stores and retail generally)
  • Lifestyle obscenities of the rich and famous and the ‘hangers-on’ (and some of those in this book might surprise you, and hopefully they are now embarrassed – though I doubt it)
  • Shady characters on the side-lines funding (often without declaring their interests, –  and regulators should be taking a hard look at this) and cheering on.

Overwhelmingly the sense I got was of a system out of control, predicated on property values and personal greed, with a total disregard for ordinary people who work in the stores and shops, and the consumers they serve.  They simply didn’t matter and were playthings of the rich and more powerful (or as I have put it previously – the (monetary) rich and (in)famous).

In that previous 2016 blog I wrote:

“The ways in which BhS was the plaything of the rich, as laid out by the fall out from administration and liquidation is genuinely astonishing. Treated as a private cash cow by the owners and in my view, some of the advisors, auditors, consultants and other hangers on, the grubby story shows the employees, pensioners, some managers and now the public purse being taken as mugs. Staff have been shafted by the greedy, rapacious behaviours of a number of people and firms.”

Oliver Shah’s book places the BhS story in the longer run context and adds a wealth of detail. The bottom line  conclusion should be the same though: the system and individuals are out of control and are getting away with “murder” (not literally despite the death threats). Regulators need to step in, toughen up and force transparency.

But in reading beyond the detail  a different sense came into focus for me. The parallels with Brexit and Trump seem all too real.  The people involved and their characteristics and faux concerns, the pursuit of personal gain at an obscene level, the outright lies and denials and the incitement to polarise, denigrate and demean are common threads. This set of broader behaviours have been normalised and in that sense PG is no different to Johnson, Farage, Rees-Mogg and Gove. Read in that light the behaviours are all too familiar and all too damaging.

After a detailed expose of the BhS pension scandal and the unravelling of PG and Bhs, Oliver Shah ends with a cautionary chapter which focuses on Top Shop and Arcadia. He points out the collapse in sales and profits, the desperation to sell (denied) and the pensions black hole (possibly twice that of BhS).  He sees BhS as the “starter” and Top Shop and Arcadia as the main course, with the scale of the latter dwarfing what has gone before. In short this story (and PG’s responsibilities) has some way still to run.  It is a catastrophe in the making for thousands (and in passing the BBC at least focused on the workers of Poundworld in a recent retail collapse story, which stood out as it made such a change).

The book also went to press prior to the news that Steve Denison, the PWC partner had been banned from practice for 15 years, fined £500k and PWC fined £10m for their shoddy work on BHS. Apparently a cursory two hours in what passes for audit and due diligence in these rarified circles. Cozy or what?

Damaged Goods is worth a read, but it is truly appalling – not as a book but for the system and behaviours it documents.  The whole thing stinks, but I’m not holding my breath for things changing any time soon, as it is whole approach that needs to change.  Till the next scandal …..

Reference

Shah O (2018) Damaged Goods: The inside story of Sir Philip Green, the Collapse of BHS and the Death of the High Street.  Portfolio Penguin.

PS: I have no idea who thought it was right to add the sub-clause to the title (the death of the high street)- the book is not about that in any real sense and it smacks of bandwagon jumping, which is not required given the subject matter at its heart.

Posted in BHS, Employees, Finance, Government, Leadership, Legislation, Pensions, Philip Green, Politicians, Regulation, Retail Failure, Retail leadership, Shareholders, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

A New User’s Reflections on Online Grocery Shopping

I am old enough to remember the initial Tesco home shopping trials in Gateshead in the early 1980s (Gateshead Shopping and Information System) when home shopping via Videotex (look it up if you don’t know) was seen as being a future help for those unable to get to the shops (a nice short summary from one of  (Michael Aldrich) involved can be found here). Fast forward 35 or so years, via the invention of the internet and the smartphone and all the rest of the supply infrastructure, and no-one bats an eyelid at home or online shopping.  That initial experiment and thought has come a long way.

Like so many, I’ve been seduced by the lure of Amazon and the convenience it creates, but am trying to wean myself off it.  We’ve used online sites for a variety of clothing and other purchases, but not perhaps to the extent that so many do. I just like (some) physical retailing.  And up till now we’ve never used a regular grocery home shop, despite seeing delivery vans all over the place, including the street on which we live.

But, my recent mishap on Orkney has rendered me house-bound and immobile and thus unable to do bulk grocery shopping.  Local shops, the nearby Lidl and Stirling Farmers’ Market have provided some of what we need, but we have succumbed to online grocery over the last few weeks, signing up to Tesco and having now used it three times.  So what is our experience and the good and bad elements?

tesco groceries

Signing-up looked easy, until the system said I was already signed up.  How?  Then it refused to recognise my Clubcard and so had no record of my history.  Phone calls ensued and it all worked out, but not the easiest or smoothest start.

The system itself was easy to use and it does learn what you buy, but that I found rather problematic as it routinises everything and choice edits.  You don’t get the feel of range without quite some effort. The ordering does work well though and slot booking and order amendment work fine. It is straightforward in those respects.

What we did notice however was that a lot of products were ‘currently unavailable’, which confused us somewhat. You look the next day and they are often available.  I assume this is a store based issue but it was disappointing that so much was not there.  Delivery performance was good though with deliveries at the start of each booked slot and almost no substitutions (which does say something about on shelf availability).  It is slick and easy, but rather ‘soul-less’; we still prefer looking, touching and selecting products. I can though see how I’d use it for repeat/regular bulk items and then “top-up” locally with the “good and interesting” stuff. Though I doubt I’ll become a permanent convert.

A final observation: at a time when price promotions of ‘unhealthy’ food are under debate, it was noticeable how many banner ads were pushing such products.  These are not our normal purchases, so this stood out.  It does make the case, as we have argued in our FSS report of last year, that any restrictions on promotions have to apply in virtual as well as physical space. As an aside, but in a similar vein, watching S4C on satellite the other day I saw a Lidl World Cup advert for alcohol, using Welsh but not Scottish post-MUP prices, Obviously, of course;  why would they not reflect the different systems. But it does point to the porosity of modern media and the flow of information across boundaries, whether physical or virtual. Retailers and consumers will have more to think about and deal with.

No doubt for many, there is nothing new in this blog, but for us I has been an interesting experiment.  As befits a Professor of Retail Studies though I can’t wait to be mobile enough to visit some ‘real’ shops again.

Posted in Availability, Consumer Change, Food Retailing, Gateshead SIS, History, Internet shopping, Local Authorities, Online Retailing, Retail Change, Service Quality, Supply Chains, Television, Tesco | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Orkney – the Second Leg

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Our recent visit to Orkney was not meant to be about retailing or shops, but inevitably just wandering around Stromness and Kirkwall one can’t help but look at the retailing.  As I noted in the earlier blog, the overwhelming sense I got was of a busy sector with limited vacancies and a dominance of independent businesses.  There are some of the usual chains but it was notable how many stores were local and independent.  I appreciate this is a snapshot of early summer/late spring, but it was encouraging.

What was also interesting was the historical aspect to both towns.  Both Stromness and Kirkwall have distinctive urban plans and hold the interest accordingly.  They are full of vennels, gunnels and other cut-throughs and the main street is both pedestrianised and with car access  (though speed limited due to its nature which enables dual use).  It is an interesting mix which the council has worked hard to protect, preserve and promote.  I was interested that just after we left Orkney, the council won a major award (the RTPI Silver Jubilee Cup) for their work on the townscape of Stromness.  It did not surprise me.

One of the delights was looking for ghostsigns in the current fabric and there were plenty to choose from.  In many cases, as shown below, these were interesting but perhaps run of the mill.   Nice tiles and old name boards etc. but nothing that is too out of the ordinary.

However one store really caught the eye.  The initial impact comes from the tiled doorway entrance and the fascia mosaics, which have been partially, and unsuccessfully obscured.  This is Fugaccia’s and a quick inspection beyond the door points to the floor and steps also being original and in place.  The store is currently a clothing and knitwear store, but clearly has had a different history.

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The staff member inside readily acceded to me asking to take photographs and indeed said that lots of people seemed to want to photograph the floor!  On the wall inside the shop was the announcement of what Fugaccia’s was originally – The Stromness Soda Fountain, claimed to be ‘one of the finest soda fountains open in Scotland’.  A little more can be gleaned here.   Whilst not in its original usage, it is good to see that the design and quality of the original store is retained.  It is simply gorgeous; just a shame about the “vandalism” of the mosaic fascias.

And I leave with another store front, this time the Post Office in Kirkwall from 1960.  The doorway and lintel just speaks of heritage and confidence and is in stark contrast to modern day post offices and shops.  Where did we lose the desire to design nice things?

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Posted in Architecture, Art Deco, Environmental Quality, Ghost Signs, High Streets, Historic Shops, History, Orkney, Places, Planning, Post Offices, Regeneration, Retail History, Scotland's Town and High Streets, Shopfronts, Signage, Small Towns, Streets, Streetscapes, Stromness, Towns | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Tiles and Sardines

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For those who catch up with me on Twitter, a few weeks ago we had a long weekend in Lisbon – no, not for Eurovision – and I said I would do a post on retail things of interest we stumbled across.  As previous posts on Lisbon (Time Out in Lisbon Part One and Part Two) have shown, I am a fan.

There are faded edges to the city, and it is struggling under the volume of tourists, but it remains a very distinct place.  The old shops of Lisbon were a feature of my previous blog, and I am not repeating that here.  Instead my shop focus is on the ghostsigns or other tiled signs of shops.  Wherever you look shops in Lisbon exhibit fabulous reminders of the past.

The tiles (or Azulejo) are a fabulous feature of the city and can be seen almost everywhere.  They can be a little over the top, but the patterning and design work is amazing. The history of tiles in Portugal can be seen in the excellent National Museum of Tiles and it is well worth the visit.  Amongst its many displays is the pre 1755 earthquake tiled map of Lisbon.  Close examination of this produces the fabulous old market scenes shown below.  This market is the precursor to the now refurbished Time Out version covered in my previous blog.

Whilst on our travels we also came across an exhibition of M.C. Escher – someone I have been fascinated by for years.  The regular tile patterns of Lisbon are in many ways highly similar to some of Escher’s work, though the art of the impossible he developed goes well beyond regularity.  The exhibition ended with a section on modern use of Escher’s ideas and on the use of impossibility.  Typically there were some retail examples including the IKEA posters from a few years ago, shown below.

 

So what about the sardines?

Anywhere you go in Lisbon, fish is a feature, and the sardine within that.  My childhood memories of tins of sardines in paper wrapped cans were brought home by the array on offer in specialist shops.  Some of these shops seemed very touristy, and one on the theme of a Vegas casino, decidedly vulgar.

But, I was taken by another, which appears to be run by a producers association.  This had added a layer of history and explanation in quite a simple format.  A pick ‘n’ mix approach encouraged engagement and purchase as shown below and sales seemed to be brisk.

As interestingly, next door was a simple sardine tapas bar using the products and again operated by the producers – very good it was too.

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Sardines in tins may not be to everyone’s tastes, but the idea of producers taking their product seriously, promoting great design and heritage and selling the product in various ways in shops and restaurants strikes me as a very good one.  Where is our Scottish equivalent?  Baxters on the A9 (also elsewhere) north of Stirling proved short lived.  Beyond that I am struggling, and whisky shops do not count in this.  The Portuguese example was beyond the point of production, and owned and operated by the producers.  We do really miss a trick in this, though a recent visit to Orkney saw us frequent the Orkney Fishermans Society fish shop and it showed what could be done, though perhaps not with the same Lisbon panache!

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Posted in 3D Printing, Architecture, Azulejo, Cooperatives, Fish, Food Retailing, Historic Shops, History, Lisbon, Markets, Producers, Retail History, Sardines, Shopfronts, Streetscapes, Urban History | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

HoF: House of Fools?

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Thursday’s much trailed announcement that House of Fraser was aiming to close 31 of its 59 stores in the UK and was seeking large rent reductions on those that remain, all as part of a seemingly contested CVA, was the lead story across the country (and on most of the front pages of the national newspapers the following day), particularly in places where towns or cities were affected.  The coverage focused on a number of dimensions, often around the history of the stores and locations involved and, quite rightly, the several thousand workers likely to be affected.

Quite expectedly, attention turned to the ‘death of the high street’ and the impact HoF closures will have.  They will have an impact, no doubt, but we also need to reflect on the broader picture.

Department stores have been in difficulty for some time; both in themselves and as part of the travails of mass and middle market retailing.  C&A and BHS as well as Woolworths and the woes of Debenhams and M&S point to a broader problem.  The decline of the Department Store is not new – I think Stirling had 13 between the wars and only one now – and is symptomatic of changing behaviours and product and place availability. Department stores can succeed, by only by adapting to modern demands. House of Fraser has not done this.

The question for HoF is what makes them out as distinctive or different – and the answer in many cases is not much.  Many of the products can be found elsewhere – online and in other physical brand stores – and there’s little enough ‘wow’ factor from other elements or products to pull in the volume of consumers needed.  Add to that a relative lack of investment over a period of decades in many of the HoF stores, and for many consumers they are something of an anachronism. There has been a lack of transformation and investment in many of the stores, something competitors, such as John Lewis have been much better at (physically, online and multichannel).

That is not to say that HoF have not had ill-winds to face externally.  The rent and rates of operating large units in town and city centres is a problem for all retailers in that situation. The calls from politicians and others on Thursday for ‘bright ideas’ about “the death of the high street” and business rates seem to be ignoring the active increase and burden on such businesses placed by government and a total failure to view the need for a more level ‘playing field’ between physical and online retailing (and if we value towns and cities, in town and out of town).  Hand-wringing by governments and politicians over the health of the high street and closures such as HoF are cynical denials of the fact that their inactivity has helped create the situation. We have written more on this in our Town and Country Planning Column last year.

It is a sense of bias or lack of balance that is also behind the increasingly contested view of CVAs.  They are now, in some quarters, being viewed as a play to reduce the rent bill from landlords rather than a vehicle to obtain a going business.  The fairness of this claim is hard to assess, and I doubt any CVA is entered into lightly, but there is no doubt that the balance of costs is being more carefully looked at. In the case of House of Fraser, given HoF sold a large number of the stores slated for closure to landlords in sale and leaseback deals a while back (and presumably made some comments about the income flow accordingly), the property owners are crying foul the property owners are crying foul. It will be interesting to see what happens here.

It is also worth pausing and asking what this plan says about House of Fraser in the future and whether indeed the CVA will work (if accepted). The axe to the chain is dramatic and does say that HoF can not really make a business work in many of the major cities of the UK (a point well made by Richard Hyman on twitter and his blog). It is all very well focusing on costs and cutting (and it is needed), but we have to go back to investment point above. Where is the plan for HoF to expand sales and income and attract customers. Will this 28 or so strong chain be good enough for the future competition. At this point there seems to be little evidence that this has been given enough thought. Without it, we will not have heard the last of the decline or demise of HoF.

Finally, one also can’t but help reflect on history when looking at some of the stores to be closed e.g. Cardiff, Edinburgh or Wolverhampton, amongst others.  These are status buildings with a storied past that are integral to the streetscape and sense of place.  One hopes that their merit will be recognised and sympathetic uses found; there must be opportunities to be creative and protective here.  We can’t afford a spree of cookie-cutter clones replacing iconic units.  More unlikely or romantically perhaps, maybe there is an opportunity to remove the dead hand of centralism (HoF) and get back some of these great independent stores and names e.g. Howells, Binns, Beatties, David Evans and so on.  After all it is Jenners (180 years old  Jenners) that is the surviving store in Edinburgh. Perhaps this is more likely in some of the smaller towns affected by the closures.

 

Posted in BHS, Buildings, Cardiff, Consumer Change, Costs, CVA, Department Stores, Edinburgh, High Streets, Historic Shops, Internet shopping, Jenners, John Lewis Partnership, Online Retailing, Oxford Street, Places, Retail Change, Retail Failure, Town & Country PLanning, Town Centres, Urban History | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment