Twin Towns

Twin Towns

To anyone with a Welsh background and an interest in films, Twin Town conjures up a film of 20+ years ago which was described as a Welsh Trainspotting, though less successful.  Lock up your sheep and pretty much anything else, was I think one strapline.

I am not sure why that came to mind, as an altogether more friendly and pleasant experience took place last week when Carnegie UK Trust hosted a celebrity event for the six towns involved in their Twin Towns UK project.  As a member of the Expert Reference Group (not the other ERG) I attended and learned first-hand what these towns had been up to.

The origins of the project are in the Flourishing Towns theme of Carnegie UK Trust.  The notion was that by “twinning” distinct but similar towns lessons could be learned and projects advanced in both places.  This was not traditional town twinning but rather a facilitated matching service leading to lasting benefit for places.

From an initial set of towns, three pairs made it through to Phase Two and these pairs reported their work at the event in North Shields.  It should be noted that this was a distinctive project from the outset in that no expectations or guidelines were set down, but rather the towns were encouraged to make what they wanted from the opportunity.

The outcome, as presented by the town pairs (Whitburn/Oswaldtwistle, Broughshane/Wooler and North Shields/Merthyr Tydfil) was fascinating and illuminating. I won’t go into details of what they did, but instead provide some overall themes.  Details of activities and reports will be available via Carnegie UK Trust in due course.

So what themes emerged?

  • All towns found it enormously beneficial to have to hold a ‘mirror’ up to themselves and to engage with critical friends. They ended up learning as much about their own town as they did about the pair.
  • The pairs (which were selected by the ERG) did find similarities and learnings that could be adapted for transfer. This has led in each case to enhanced confidence, capability and economic and social benefits.  These will continue.
  • The use of digital media to communicate and build communities was under-developed before the project, and has become a key feature of the current developments. It is perhaps a little puzzling why this need is a surprise to many places.
  • The need to tell a story and change the narrative were writ large across the places. There is much to build on, to be proud of in most towns, and once engaged, communities demonstrate this pride and ‘brand’.

More widely, the project lifted horizons and made people and groups take stock of their own and distinct place.  This proved highly influential in changing thinking.  The efforts of the people involved was great and their pride rightly shone through in what has been achieved to date.  These varied from the introduction of markets, the takeover of assets and their renewal, historical themed walks and trails, various clean up and improvement initiatives and some more energetic sporting initiatives. Small beginnings it may seem in some towns, but these are necessary steps.

There will now be a period of reflection as various reports will be finalised and published.  Keep an eye on the Carnegie Trust UK website and social media streams for updates and learnings, and especially the words and videos of the towns themselves.


Posted in Carnegie UK Trust, Collaboration, Community, Heritage, High Streets, History, Markets, Places, Regeneration, Small Towns, Town Centres, Towns, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Business Rates vs Online Tax

The upcoming Budget has as normal seen a flurry of ‘advice’ for the UK Government’s Chancellor.  Much of this is special pleading, especially in the light of the so-called End of Austerity.  Within this though the issue of business rates has again come to the fore.

This time of year the September inflation rate (CPI) sets the rise in business rates for the next year.  The BRC has calculated that without amelioration this increase will cost retailers an additional £190m.  This comes at a time when retailers and business rates have been in the news, with considerable adverse opinion and their impact is blamed for the decline of the high street. Retailers account for almost 25% of the rates revenue – an unfair burden given the scale of the sector (One of many issues with rates)

One of the topics that has been pushed by some in the media and has been picked up by some leading retailers (most notably Tesco) has been the suggestion of a tax on online sales (an “Amazon” tax).  This seems to be gaining some traction (though is not without its critics) despite a lack of clarity over how in practice this would work.  We may get some indication in the Budget – or maybe not.

The criticisms have come in a variety of guises, and have been bundled by some as a Luddite reaction to change and retail disrupters.  They argue that success should not be penalised and that the issue is not rates or physical stores versus online stores but large multi-national corporations refusing to/avoiding paying their fair share of tax by manipulating their in-company transfers and sales.  Fix that they say and all is fine.

I don’t really buy that argument.  Yes, the tax avoidance should be tackled, but in addition to consideration of the changing sales mix and shift in retailing.

I am reminded of the work done (and we at Stirling did some of it) around the time of the deregulation of Sunday trading.  One of the absurdities of the situation was regulations being enforced based on the 1950s list of products enshrined in the legislation.  Products had changed since 1950 but the law had not.

The same seems to me to be happening now.  Consumer behaviour has changed and the taxation base has not kept up.  Out-of-town trading and operating has emerged and online retailing has mushroomed.  In a decentralised and now digital world we are persisting in a tax based on physical centralisation and analogue trading.  If we do not change track then the situation will continue to deteriorate in physical stores and high streets.

This does not mean that we should abandon all property taxation, but we need to reflect the new consumer behaviour and build a system that flexes with change.  This means some form of online tax probably related to the point of distribution and/or receipt and some form of property taxation (and one that probably better reflects distribution’s role in retail and other sectors).

We also have to consider more carefully what we value and tax accordingly.  Do we want vibrant town centres and a diversity of businesses and trade?  If so we need to adjust their costs base and taxation accordingly.  This does mean higher taxation than now on single use sites (see Barclay proposals in Scotland, though the SNP seems to be cooling on an out of town store increase) and amelioration for small independent traders (and this would be better if automatic).  It could mean changed VAT rates for towns (allowable post Brexit) and for re-development/re-use of historical and upper-storey buildings.

Business rates have had their day as the way in which to tax retailing and provide local authority revenue.  We must step in and change them, to reflect the modern retail and consumer sector, and rebalance the burden of taxation.

In short, the world has changed and taxation needs to catch up.

Posted in Barclay Review, BRC, Digital, Government, High Streets, Internet shopping, Large Store Levy, Local Retailers, Online Retailing, Rates, Retail Failure, Tax, Town Centres | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Ghosts in the Rockies


Probably the best ghost sign collection I have seen – Missoula, Montana

In one of the many ironies of destroying my knee in May, we were left with a race against time to see if I was fit enough to go on a booked holiday in late August and early September. Would I make it to our walking holiday in the Canadian Rockies and northern Montana?

Well I made it, but not to do any walking. Recovery remains a work in progress. But, in a compensatory fashion it meant we spent more time in small towns and discovered a collection of ghost signs, historic stores, store museums and various other historic retail artefacts. It was not the focus of the holiday (honest) but we accidentally came across some fun retail things.

So what follows are some of my holiday snaps – those with a retail history theme. As can be seen from the photo at the head of this post, some of the ghost signs and history were spectacular.

Buried deep in the Montana wildness, was the ghost town of Garnet. In a relatively difficult ravine, the town is in the state of preserved decay. I could not explore much, but the shop on the main street had a collection of artefacts and gave a sense of the past. Having to dig it out of the snow each year must be a fun pastime. I loved the wooden skis.


In contrast to the preserved oldness of Garnet, the museum of Fort Steele in British Columbia was an altogether different experience. Whilst some of the shops and street buildings were being allowed to decay as being too far gone, many had been restored and preserved. Not all were from the original settlement, and some were being reused in a modern way (the bakery, the hotel etc) so the whole settlement was hardly original, but there was considerable interest in just walking around and in the old stores.

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More generally, in all the small towns we visited there were reminders of the past in the form of ghost signs and great retail design. The brick work in many of these places lends itself to painted signs, and the photos below (from Kalispell, Hamilton and Banff) are a reminder of this lost art.



As ever, we are at the mercy of what survives, and whilst these examples are wonderful there is a sense of their fragility and lack of permanence.  What we preserve, allow to decay, or protect present real and difficult choices. Enjoy these reminders of the past while we can.


A better photographer would have been able to show this Coca-Cola sign in a better state, Kalispell



Posted in Advertising, Architecture, Buildings, Canada, Corporate branding, Downtown, Ghost Signs, Heritage, High Streets, Historic Shops, Places, Retail History, Signage, Small Towns, Streetscapes, Urban History, USA | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Three Go To An Exhibition


It was not quite my shortest visit to Singapore, but it came close; a couple of days launching a new partnership with Amity University and our annual graduation ceremony with SIM.  For reading on the plane I had grabbed a book from my desk which I’d been meaning to read for some time – Silence of the Archives by David Thomas, Simon Fowler and Valerie Johnson.

My interest in the book stemmed from our experiences of trying to recreate Sanders Bros; a major inter-war food retailer which left no archive after it was taken over and broken up.  We have been trying to accumulate as many artefacts and details as we can.  Whilst this process is easier now in the digital/internet era than it was, it still leaves questions over the meaning of the surviving pieces, their interpretation, but also what can not be found anymore.

As the Silence of the Archives debates, what is in an archive or collection, and what is not, and why, are vital questions for all of us in many contexts.  Little is truly value-free.

This took on particular relevance, as en route to the flight back, I took in (together with two retail colleagues) an exhibition at the National Library of Singapore entitled Selling Dreams: Advertising in Early Singapore.  We spent a fascinating 90 minutes or so looking around.

The artefacts used – mainly print and visual material – are taken from the National Library Collection.  The exhibition explores the advertising approach in the early years of Singapore.  Most is historical or pre-dates independence, with little after the 1960s.


Much of the exhibition allows a consideration of the early life of Singapore as seen via advertising.  This is focused on colonial times; the aspirations of ex-pats and the creation of society form a theme, as do the issues of living in a tropical, developing country.  As the imagery shows, themes of home country and identity are pervasive.

Our interest was a retail one of course and the exhibition contains much of interest.  A section on the grand department stores shows the building of retail Singapore and the colonial lifestyle.  More interestingly a section on the adverts of the lost shops of High Street provides a different window on retailing than seen in Orchard Road which supplanted High Street.


A couple of items allow a glimpse of what Orchard Road was – a taxi office at 1 Orchard Road for example and a provision shop at 223 (photo from 1965).

There are other themes that could be explored and some are seen in the slide show below, not least what is acceptable in advertising now as opposed to ‘then’. Still not convinced about Durian Jam though.

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Whilst the entire show is not given over to colonial theme, it is a focus.  This may be due to design, but it also probably stems from what is in the National Collection.  A dominant focus is commerce (as the second issue of the Straits Times and its shipping (and retail advertisements) show) and commerce was obviously a colonial occupation.  Voices of others – for example the consumers of the stores, grand or especially otherwise – are routinely not heard and have been lost.


I have made a linked point before in discussion of my Argos catalogues.  Viewed as ephemera by the British Library, they were deemed unworthy of presentation.  But what a window on changing products and consumers they can provide.  Choices of inclusion or exclusion will set challenges for the future.

If you are in, or passing through, Singapore, go along and take a look.  You might, like us, bump into one of the designers/curators of the exhibition.  He asked why we were looking at the retail section so intently.  Our answer – we are three retail academics – rather unnerved him I think.  But who knows, perhaps they will think in the future about an exhibition on Singapore’s retail history.  One of my colleagues has thousands of photos from the mid-1980s onwards and can be encyclopaedic on retail changes in the last 30 years.  It would be a shame if this ‘window’ was also lost.


Thomas D., Fowler S. and V. Johnson (2017) the Silence of the Archive.  Facet Publishing: London.


Posted in Advertising, Architecture, archives, Department Stores, Historic Shops, History, Retail Change, Retail History, Retailers, Singapore, Urban History | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Challenging Times in Food Retailing, continued

The pressures in the food retailing sector – especially for the ‘legacy’ operators – are well known and continue to build. The rise of the discounters (see the last post), the continuing growth of the internet and the consumer demand for convenience all continue to ramp up the pressure.

In recent weeks two examples of a fight-back have emerged, though neither is certain to survive or to have the desired effect.

Tesco have been righting their ship for some years now; a process of range reduction, store closures and mothballing and the focus on core business and customers, including on ‘farm brands’.  The merger with Booker has added another dimension.

But a couple of weeks ago they upped the stakes by opening their long-rumoured discount store.  Jack’s, in a nod to Jack Cohen and his ‘pile it high, sell it cheap’ mantra and the company’s origins, opened a couple of stores with up to 15 promised soon. It is too early to see how this will develop (and 15 stores is a pinprick on the scale of Aldi and Lidl) both because the roll out is so experimental (reasonably) and customer reaction remains in the curious and honeymoon period.

A few things strike me from afar – and I have not yet been down to see a Jack’s in operation.  The emphasis on Jack’s brands, as opposed to using the Tesco farm brands, slightly worries me.  It seems to be placing a distance from the core brand – which I understand – but will it work given the offer in Aldi and Lidl?  The store opening pattern seems also rather random, and I wonder about the logistics and how this will work, without being cost additional.  The cost reductions in store development and operations sound reasonable but will they last and deliver what customers want?

It will be interesting to see, and to watch how this develops over time.  Fight back or dead end?

The second slower challenger in the fight-back is the ongoing CMA consideration of the Asda – Sainsbury merger.  As predicted a full investigation will take place.  The initial findings pointed to a huge overlap (430+ locations) where competition would be reduced.  The traditional remedy for this would be a sell-off (to whom?) but the scale of this would likely kill the deal.

Yet, a closer look points to how this is an extreme case.  The methodology used is the traditional one of separate markets.  The full investigation is likely to consider much more carefully market definitions and overlaps.  The exclusion of the discounters from local competition is perverse as is the treatment of convenience stores.  The market has changed and I suspect the CMA will have to reflect this in renewed calculations. Claiming the discounters are not part of the core grocery market is simply absurd now – Jack’s or no Jack’s.

If the CMA do rethink and reanalyse, then the number of overlaps is likely to fall.  How much is not clear, as there will undoubtedly still be some overlaps.  The big question is whether the final ‘sell-off’ number is large enough to scupper the deal?  We have to wait and see.  I remain unconvinced by the lack of any compelling reason for the merger in business and customer terms, beyond scale, and the plans post-merger remain opaque.  But if the CMA does look at the modern food retail market and not a partial construction, then the merger may have moved closer, despite the full investigation headlines and the suggestions of a problem for the merger.

Posted in Aldi, Asda, CMA, Competition, Competition and Markets Authority, Consumer Change, Discounters, Food Retailing, Internet shopping, Jack's, Lidl, Market Shares, Mergers, Networks, Store Closures, Tesco | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Twenty One Years of UK Grocery Market Share

UK Grocery Market Shares are a little dependent on who you believe. In my case, I have chosen one group (initially TNS, subsequently taken over by Kantar) and stuck with them. I have wanted not to focus on the short-term movements, which is what tends to get covered, but to consider the long run trends.

I have covered the resulting graph before but each July I continue to update the annual figures and redraw the graph. we have recently seen the release of the 2018 July figures and so my new graph is below.

UK Grocery Market Share 2018

I won’t rehearse or repeat my previous comments on the early part of the graph and the rise of Tesco and the decline of Sainsbury. Instead I would draw out four more recent issues:

  1. Tesco’s market share continues to slide and is now below that they had in 2004. They remain a dominant feature of the the market, but if Asda/Sainsbury have their combined way, then that could end. This long slow slide is hardly the crisis sometimes portrayed, but it does represent a lost decade for the company.
  2. Asda and Sainsbury have stagnated and swapped position for over 15 years. In the last year Asda stabilised while Sainsbury fell. This though is hardly a compelling case for togetherness – would the sum be less than the parts?
  3. The rise of the discounters continues apace. Aldi and Lidl appear relentless in the graph and their combined market share is nearly 13% i.e. ahead of all bar the “big 3”. Whilst you could add two or three others up to get a bigger number, the pairing of these two makes sense in reflecting how the discounters have shaken the market.
  4. Whilst not on the graph above, but in the Kantar data and press release, Ocado have a market share of 1.2%. Given spatial concentration this is quite interesting. How far can they go?
Posted in Aldi, Asda, Discounters, Food Retailing, Lidl, Market Shares, Retail Change, Sainsbury, Tesco, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | 3 Comments

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