Walking the Talk: Town Centres and Retailing in a Car-dominated Economy

Today (March 7th), I am presenting at a Living Streets Seminar.  I was asked to talk about retailing in car-dominated places and what follows is a summary of sorts (and the overheads) of my presentation.

In responses to the climate emergency, some measures of change have been tagged to 2030.  2030 though is only 80 or so months away and so time is really short, if goals are to be achieved.  If we want to move to a just transition, reduce car kilometres driven by 20% by 2030, drive up active travel, develop 20-minute neighbourhoods and so on then we need to get on with it.  The reality however seems to be that whilst we have made a good start on some things, much remains ‘business as usual’ and attitudes and behaviours remain unchanged.

We do have a lot of great sounding policy, but are we robust enough in reversing the patterns of the last 50 years?  Over that time, we have decentralised, disaggregated and damaged our communities and privileged car dependency. The retail revolution has led to a structural transformation focused on car and van journeys.  This has been enabled by the way we have chosen to develop sites (commercial, governmental, housing etc) often without shared local resources and thus ensuring that cars are a requirement.

The net result is the decline in our town centres and community fabric and on the social aspects of life.  This was only slightly remediated in the pandemic when “local” became the required normal.

I won’t rehearse the detail of our report ‘A New Future for Town Centres’ (see summary here) but would note that the recommendations we made for planning and policy and finance for projects has been largely delivered.  Of course it could go further and more finance always helps, but it is a really good start.  Where there is no progress is in the more radical rebalancing of our fiscal levers.  I appreciate this is hard, faces resistance, requires other parties including UK Government to agree etc, but time is ticking to see progress.

We will not succeed in reversing our car dependency by business as usual, nor will we rebuild our communities, develop community wealth building or 20-minute neighbourhoods or increase our health and wellbeing, unless we address not only incentives for positive town centre change but disincentives for harmful behaviours.

Some may recall my not so slight outburst last year at a proposed large out of town development in Stirling, which quite unbelievably received planning permission from Stirling Council.  Thankfully it was rejected by the Government Minister in late 2022.  But the proposal is back again, slightly smaller but still hugely car dependent and car journey generative.  Given NPF4 and all our climate arguments, why would this be entertained? It excludes swathes of the population, harms the environment and our ambitions for liveable places.  This is all about land and money, so we need to use the levers that developers understand.

Overall, I am positive about the directions we are going but slightly frustrated at the pace, though I do recognise the constraints politicians at all levels have to work under.  Three years ago I began to rehearse the arguments I make today (and are in “A New Future for Scotland’s Towns Centres). Change can be slow, but then again, it’s 80 months to 2030 and that clock is ticking.

Posted in 20 Minute Neighbourhood, Active travel, Car Dependency, Car Parking, Car Use Reduction, Community, community wealth building, Consumers, Just Transition, Local Retailers, Neighbourhood, New Future for Scotland's Towns, NPF4, Places, Retail Change, Retailers, Retailing, Scotland's Town and High Streets, Scotland's Towns Partnership, Scottish Retailing, Stirling Council, Sustainability, Sustainable Development, Town Centres | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Independent Thinking – interview with Alexandra Forrest

In late last October I presented at a session here at the University of Stirling on Retailing, towns and healthy ageing. After my presentation I got into conversation with one of the audience members, Alexandra Forrest, as she had been interested in what I had to say about retailing and towns.

Alexandra runs a podcast exploring new ideas for the high street with a focus on independent retailing and the entrepreneurs with new ideas to grow our high streets. Her podcast entitled Independent Thinking can be found here.

So a couple of months later I sat down (virtually) with Alexandra to chat about what I had said in my talk and about my views generally on the high street and independent retailing. We covered a fair bit of ground – discussing poor planning decisions that have led us to the proliferation of retail parks (and why none of these decisions were/or have to be inevitable), why collaboration amongst small independent businesses is important to the health of the high street, the resurgence of localism as well as business rates and how we could build a more progressive (business) taxation system . We also considered the role of active travel in reshaping places and making spaces that are more enjoyable, comfortable, and safe for people to spend time.  In short, a summary of the sort of things that interest me and have featured in this blog.

Alexandra’s summary of the discussion:

This week we’re talking the power of localism, collaboration in retail and why a bleak future isn’t inevitable for the high street, as we sit down in conversation with Professor Leigh Sparks – Professor of Retail studies and Deputy Principal of University of Stirling. 

In this fascinating episode, Leigh talks brilliantly about the choices that have brought us to where we are, and how we too can choose a different future for ourselves when it comes to reinvigorating town and city centres – as we discuss systemic change, holding multinationals to account, community action and why Starbucks’ drive-thrus aren’t all they’re cracked up to be…

Well, the podcast has now gone live and you can hear for yourselves what we talked about, just click the link here.

Taking the power back

There are now over 5 series in the podcast and if you want a look on aspects of independent retailing and high streets and town centres then take a listen to what a range of people have to say (plus me)

Posted in Community, Consumers, Creative Places, Entrepreneurship, Healthy Ageing, Independents, Places, Retail Planning, Retailers, Retailing, Small Shops, Town Centres, Towns, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Internet sales as a percentage of retail sales in the UK

I recently (21st February) published a piece on The Conversation about internet retailing in the UK and in particular the trends in the percentage of internet sales as a proportion of all retail sales. The original can be found here. I reproduce the text below.

“British retail sales figures showed an unexpected bump in activity over the Christmas shopping period that exceeded expectations – particularly given the current UK cost of living crisis.

But beneath the headlines of positive sales in recent months, it was more surprising to see physical stores performing markedly better than online shops. Many multi-channel retailers, including Next and Seasalt, said their physical stores outstripped online sales, while online retailers such as Asos and Boohoo experienced poor Christmas trading. Revenues for online grocery firm Ocado fell by 3.8% in 2022 despite record Christmas trading.

Even online retail giant Amazon was less successful in the UK last year. Accounting for exchange rate fluctuations, Amazon’s sales figures suggested positive growth of 5.2% in sterling terms in 2022, but this was its lowest-ever annual growth rate in the UK.

The Christmas bonus for UK bricks and mortar shops was influenced by two issues. In addition to being the first “normal” Christmas since 2019 – shops were open with no lockdowns or restrictions – a wave of postal strikes in November and December 2022 made online deliveries less predictable. And while rail strikes may have affected travel to some physical stores at the same time, local retail areas may still have benefited from concerns that online purchases might not make it under the tree by Christmas day.

The future of bricks versus clicks

The finance director of Primark, a resolute hold-out against online retail, believes online retail will not continue to grow rapidly, as it has done in recent years, and that it now looks “mature”. After years of record online sales growth stoking fears for the future of British high streets, the tide seems to be turning for British shopping patterns.

The most recent retail sales figures from the Office for National Statistics show a plateauing of online retail sales over the past 12 months.

Internet sales as a percentage of retail sales

Internet sales as a percentage of total retail sales from November 2006 to January 2023 (ratio, %). Office for National Statistics

There are four main reasons for this flattening of online shopping figures.

1. Online retail reaching a peak

The current slowdown follows years of rapid growth, suggesting that online shopping has reached a peak, although this does not mean it will fall back rapidly any time soon. British online shopping figures have been higher than that of many other countries for much of the past decade. And British people continue to shop online a lot more than consumers in many other countries.

2. Annual shopping trends continue

An important component of the annual retail cycle is the peak in November and December each year. Black Friday is no longer a single-day event and Christmas remains a significant sales driver. British consumers clearly embrace online shopping during this key November and December sales period, although the 2019 figures (from just before COVID hit) suggested a reduction on previous years.

3. COVID-era changes

The scale of the disruption from COVID is obvious. As shops closed during lockdowns, online took up the strain and expanded rapidly. At its peak in January 2021, internet buying reached 37.8% of retail sales as the pandemic turbo-charged the online sector.

The web was a lifeline for many retailers and consumers during this period, providing businesses with another way to reach customers and continue operating, and providing a way for consumers to order goods amid general pandemic restrictions or if they had to shield. It is hard to imagine people completely stopping shopping online.

4. Meeting expectations

Finally, the online sector proportion of retail sales fell as we came out of out of lockdown, but this was expected. As the chart above shows, it is 26.6% as of January 2023, some 30% off its peak, but also above the long-term trend.

The recent figures in this series, along with more general signs, do hint at further change, however. The UK E-commerce trade association, imrg, predicts a declining online ecommerce sector in 2023. Consumers, despite cost of living and strikes, seem to want to return to the shops – and online retailing is not immune to cost pressures either.

It would be absurd to say online retailing is in crisis – it still claims a quarter of all retail sales. Consumers are used to having access to it and can see its benefits. As a retail option it is here to stay. But perhaps UK retail is reaching a more settled level of online sales. Of course, this idea has been proposed many times since Amazon launched its website in 1995 and online retail has continued to grow.

But just like everyone else during the current cost of living crisis, retailers with online offerings are trying to curtail their costs and exposures. If, as is claimed, one in three fashion items bought online are returned, it is easy to question the financial and environmental sustainability of the model.

Some retailers including Zara, Next and Moss Broshave begun to charge for returns to limit costs. Others are charging for subscription services, such as Amazon and Tesco, or bundling offerings together to create an enhanced deal for consumers. The sector is taking a hard look at what works and at what cost and return on investment.

Consumers are also concerned about what they are spending. Working out the costs, impact and convenience of travelling versus online buying, on top of the actual price of the products, is important when money is tight. But different consumers will come up with different results depending on their situation, product, price and charges.

Online shopping provides many benefits. But, even with recent news of multiple corporate closures and collapses, it does seem that physical stores are enjoying a small renaissance as people rediscover the pleasure of shopping “in real life”.”

Posted in Amazon, City Centres, Consumer Change, Consumers, Costs, e-commerce, Internet, Internet shopping, Office for National Statistics, Online Retailing, Retail Sales, Retailers, Shopping, The Conversation, Towns, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Coffee KRUPS

In the middle of 2021, I bought a coffee grinder.  I looked around, read the reviews, and ended up getting a KRUPS burr grinder (cost c£35).  So far, so good. 

Just after Christmas 2022, the grinder stopped working.  Dead, nothing, not a bean.  A quick check, and yes, it is still well within the standard 2-year warranty period.  Great.

Now the fun starts.

After some exploration I found the form to raise a case with KRUPS.  A barrage of questions followed, some a little bizarre.  Plus requests for various external photographs. And a request to clean it properly. Some of the questions are in the exchange below.  

After a few days of this (seemingly trying not to take ownership of any issue) KRUPS said it would be collected for repair and back in about ten days. The grinder was duly collected and sent off to KRUPS’ agents, Staffords.  Then silence. 

A few weeks later I cracked (after all KRUPS had said it would be back in ten days) and rang up Staffords.  They said the motor assembly was broken and needed replacing.  Secondly, there were quite a few people in my position.  But thirdly, KRUPS could not supply the spare part needed for ‘several months’ so nothing could be done.  They said the lack of parts supply was due to Brexit (I don’t know if this was a Staffords or a KRUPS view, or simply an easy excuse). 

Leaving aside why I had to be the one to initiate contact, Staffords were helpful on the phone, but said I would have to contact KRUPS to assess what the next action was (other than simply waiting for months).

So back I went to the KRUPS online forms and from there a long set of interactions with a customer service agent.  I will spare many of the details (and the name of the agent as I do not know if they have any ability to act here or have simply to follow orders) but essentially: 

  1. Yes, the product is broken and is under warranty.
  2. Yes, there are no available spare parts so I would need to wait for months.
  3. Yes, this is inconvenient.

So, I discussed fitness for purpose, reasonable time and duty of care to customers.  Stonewall; then an extension to the warranty offered for six months (is this a hint that several months is at least six?). 

Back I went asking for a replacement rather than just sincere apologies (as opposed of course to insincere ones).  The response was, there were no replacements available, nor would there be until April. 

I then pointed out that on the KRUPS website itself, the item was for sale – via Amazon. 

Why could they not replace mine with one they could buy from there?  Apparently this is beyond KRUPS as the product they source has to come from France. I have no idea what this information has to do with anything.

And so the end of the road was apparently reached. Case closed.

This saga about sums up what more and more companies seem to think about their customers. The onus is placed on the customer to solve a problem of the company’s making. In KRUPS case, the product appears to be prone to breaking according to their agents (so not fit for purpose), is not available to be repaired for months due to their supply chain problems and despite there being stock available in the UK it is not available to me, unless I buy a new product (and the price seems to have jumped c60% in 18 months).  In short, tough, suck it up and we (KRUPS) don’t care. 

When I buy stuff, I expect it to work and for a reasonable time.  If it breaks during this time, repair it.  If it can’t be repaired, then replace it.  And do this reasonably quickly. I don’t expect the issue to be left for months or become my problem. Apparently KRUPS disagree and I need to learn to just wait.  I’ve learned my lesson about them; you can make your own mind up.

And yes I know this is a first world problem and a broken coffee grinder is not that earth-shattering, especially given some of the things some companies (thinking of utility and water companies) get up to. But customers deserve better.

Posted in Amazon, Brexit, Consumers, Customer Service, KRUPS, Service Quality, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , | 4 Comments

The architectural heritage of Montague Burton’s Art Deco shops


Anyone who follows me on Twitter will, over a number of years, probably have got fed up with pictures of storefronts and ghostsigns.  A common theme in this has been the architecture that is being lost – something that this blog has commented on as well, for example generally (place vandalism) and very specifically in Hull.

Amongst these tweets have been the more than occasional photo of an old Burton the Tailor’s store.  Sometimes it is the store front, sometimes a detail including foundation stones, occasionally an elephant.  Elements of these store sightings have appeared in the blog as well, for example at Halifax, Dublin and Greenwich.

The historic building of Burton’s are architectural gems in many cases, but they also offer more than the façade.  I am known to always look up when walking in a town, trying to spot interesting historical store features.  Burton’s however gets me looking down as well, in search of foundation stones, mosaics or grilles, as these photos from Aberystwyth show.

In many cases when I tweet on Burtons I tag in @KA_Morrison for her historical shop expertise (follow her wonderful blog at Building our Past), but also @laidbymonty, an expert on all things Burton.  Between them they seem to know most things on the subject. ( you might like Kathryn Morrison’s Spotter’s Guide to Montague Burton, the Tailor of Taste Part 1 and Part 2, which explain more about the design, the stones and so on)

Last week because of this I fell down a virtual rabbit hole.  @laidbymonty (you can find out more here about the background to the development of their database of Burton’s stores) has produced a website using their database, cataloguing all of the Burton’s stores in the UK and Ireland, those surviving and those that we have lost.  Where to start?  It is a labour of love and a masterpiece.  Hours of fun for any retail history buff and if you are interested in Burton’s or retail architecture, then heaven.

The website outlines each store (present or gone) and provides as much details as it can, especially on features, foundation stones and elephants.  Where available there are photos.  A comparison feature allows you to see similar stores. Links to articles and further information about the individual stores are also present where available.

Are there gaps?  Yes, of course.  The site remains in development and the intention is that it will be added to.  I am happily sending in my photos of Burton’s stores, foundation stones and other features. If you have any, then there is a link to get in touch with @laidbymonty on the site.

This site is a brilliant addition to the virtual streetscape of British retail history and I recommend it to everyone.  

At a time when we are still struggling to see the beauty of what was built for us, those years ago, and seem to want to replace it with identikit nonsense (yes, looking at you Marks and Spencer and Oxford Street, amongst others), it is sobering that @laidbymonty writes “Surprisingly, only six locations throughout England and Wales are listed buildings (Scotland does better)”. I defy you not to be fascinated by the wonderful retail heritage and stories in this new website.

Posted in Architecture, Art Deco, Burtons, Dublin, Halifax, Heritage, Historic Shops, Hull, Oxford Street, Places, Retail History, Uncategorized, Urban History | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Strange Things in Self-Service

My twitter timeline has been populated recently by photos of retailers doing, for me, some strange things with self-service tills.  These tills have popped up everywhere over the last decade and not always to universal acclaim.  B&Q and WH Smith have often been prime offenders, but there are new culprits on the block.

I can see the point of self-service tills, sometimes, for both the retailer and the consumer.  But, I do feel a balance is needed and there is something positive about good service in a retailer.  I appreciate that the service some consumers want (including me) at some times is best served by a self-service operation. It is the routinisation of that that concerns me. So the almost complete removal of full service checkouts in some large food retailers worries me.  I don’t feel this is a good look and worry where it ends up for retailers and consumers.

In a couple of cases this seems to be combined with a desire to make it difficult to actually get out of the store.  I still don’t follow the rationale for the recent steps in Sainsbury’s, as shown in the photograph below (and I have seen photos of other Sainsbury’s with this as well). What is that all about?

Sainsbury Islington Store Exit Barriers – Photo by @kientan74

And then last weekend I popped into a large Marks & Spencer and found they had removed all the service counters in the clothing and non-food sections.  I was surprised at this further expansion of self-service. My short observation of the tills showed not a single transaction that did not need staff intervention, including my own. 

Clothing self-service till area in Marks and Spencer Edinburgh Gyle

I tweeted that observation and received a very large (for my tweets) and varied response.

Most respondents were against such changes, pointing out the difficulties, the isolating tendencies, issues for those with hidden and/or visible disabilities and generally the feeling that shopping (even paying) needs to be more than this. 

Others pointed out that this was not new and other retailers were doing this and had been for some time. This was combined with an observation though that M&S self service checkouts were amongst the most unreliable in the sector; whether this applied only to food or not was unclear.  My reflection after all this was whether the typical M&S clothes shopper is ready for such impersonal ‘service’.  Time will tell of course (and I do understand the labour and cost saving point) and maybe most people are (resignedly) accepting of what now makes up so much “service”. But if it does not work consistently and seamlessly then consumers will be unhappy and take action accordingly.

Retailers are increasingly polarising into functional and experimental types. Moving to the former lays one open to more direct comparisons on function (including price).  I wonder if unintended consequences will emerge from this rush to automate.  Or maybe I am too nostalgic for service in retailing that actually involves humans? (and I know that too can also be dreadful!)

Posted in Amazon Fresh, Amazon Go, Clothing, Consumers, Customer Service, Employment practices, Experiential, Functional Retailing, Marks and Spencer, Retail Change, Sainsbury, Self-checkout, Self-Scanning, Self-Service, Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

E-commerce: economic growth and empowerment of women and girls

This evening (18 January) I am a member of a panel at an online Royal Society of Arts (RSA) event looking at the topic of female growth and empowerment in the field of e-commerce.  The invitation came from Ann-Maree Morrison who is the co-author of a report on the topic.

“This event is open to everyone, and will be centred around the recent report which calls for ecommerce to be a sector in its own right, with accredited courses and funding, while also exploring issues relating to the economic empowerment of women and girls. RSA Fellow Ann-Maree Morrison will give a presentation on the report, which will be followed by observations from Ann-Maree’s fellow panellists. “

Given my interest in retail and 5 minutes to make some remarks I am focusing on retailing and e-commerce and am posing four questions.  Each of these is worth a seminar in its own right, so the notes below are superficial, but hopefully will lead into a wide-ranging and interesting discussion.

By way of background, I use the Office for National Statistics (ONS) chart on the internet sales as a percentage of total retail sales in the UK.  I have commented/used this chart before and new data will be out this Friday.

Source: Office for National Statistics

My four questions/areas for discussion:

What has been and is the impact of e-commerce on retail?

As can be seen in the graph the penetration of online is significant. There has been a replacement of some physical retail by online retail.  But this is not an either/or situation and there is a need for balance and accommodation of both forms.  Online will not entirely replace physical retailing, but enhances aspects of it. The impact of online though will not be wished away and the internet will not be de-invented.  Online has impacted all retail and all shopping, not just the high street, where it has added to pressures for change.

What sort of retailing do we want and why are we failing to achieve that?

Retailing is a reflection of society and culture and for decades we have valued a car borne, disaggregated and decentralised model of living.  We have penalised the operations of high street and smaller business and comparatively privileged others, and especially out of town businesses.  We have a choice to make about what we value, need and want in a social, cultural as well as an economic sense.

What is the (current and future) impact of the climate emergency on retailing and e-commerce?

We are in a climate emergency and our behaviours have led us to this point.  We now need to consider what behaviours are sustainable and which are not and make appropriate decisions accordingly.  Not all e-commerce is the same and not all forms of e-commerce have the same impacts on the planet.  We need to recognise this and adjust our thinking and behaviour to support the “right” sustainable components of e-commerce. 

Are there specific barriers/restrictions/biases against women or e-commerce advantages/opportunities for women that are different to those experienced generally?

It is not clear to me whether e-commerce is so distinct that the issues for women differ to the biases we know already exist and are/should be a focus for action.  We are all better when women are included/leading and we need females in e-commerce, but also in retailing generally.  E-commerce is changing rapidly and we need women to be involved, engaged and not to be left behind.  There is a key component of this for younger cohorts and ensuring access, support and in lighting imaginations. But are there specific things that e-commerce forces us to confront in this area? Or is it that we need to challenge stereotyping and inequality wherever it is found?  The last thing we need is for e-commerce as a sector/operations to perpetuate such things, so maybe given its rapid growth and change we need this specific focus.

Posted in Amazon, Climate Emergency, e-commerce, Education, Entrepreneurship, High Streets, Independents, Internet, Internet shopping, Multichannel, Office for National Statistics, Online Retailing, Retailers, Retailing, Small Shops, Town Centres | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Conversation: UK Retailers Christmas Trading Updates

The University of Stirling is a supporter of The Conversation and I published a piece there on the 12th January about the recent UK retailer trading updates from Christmas. I reblog it below.

The starting point for the piece was the better than expected Christmas trading updates from Next and B&M, but as the week developed and the piece was being written so more positive news emerged from a wide range of retailers. The article therefore looks at some of the trends the updates were suggesting, and whilst not wanting to cast any shade on some excellent results, looks forward to the pressures, but also the possible better news, in 2023. Retailers and consumers face challenges, but there are also some very interesting things going on in retailing and in towns and high streets which provide more confidence about the evolving landscape. That is not to say that sections of the population are not clearly struggling and much work is needed to reduce disparities. Locally the recent opening of a number of independent stores seems to reflect a more national trend, with quite a lot of this activity not recorded in data which focuses on national chains and bi-annual snapshots.

Cost of living crisis: why it’s been a happy new year for UK retailers keeping up with changing shopping trends

Woman buying goods in a grocery store with a queue in the background.
Several UK retailers announced better than expected sales over the Christmas period. Nejron Photo/Shutterstock

The significance of Christmas to retailers’ bottom lines means that updates on trading during this time are always closely watched. This year, the cost of living crisis has weighed heavily on shops. As well as inflation (especially in food), energy, pay and other cost pressures on retailers, transport and postal strikes and the ongoing impact of Brexit also caused concern in the run-up to Christmas 2022 that the retail losers would far outweigh the winners.

But results – particularly among clothing and some non-food categories – have pointed to a more positive picture than anticipated before the festive period. British retail giant Next produced a downgraded estimate of annual profits last autumn, but its Christmas trading update points to strong sales – and in its stores more than on online. Budget store B&M also reported excellent Christmas trading figures as did retailers as diverse as Boots, Greggs, The Fragrance ShopCard FactorySeasalt and Oxfam.

Grocery shopping figures for December showed stellar performances from Aldi and Lidl, while Iceland also did well. Market leader Tesco performed strongly and Marks & Spencer produced far better than expected results in both food and non-food. In further good news, independent bookstore numbers are at a ten-year high.

It is early days and there are more retailers to report, of course – certainly, the data for Morrisons and Waitrose showed comparatively poor Christmas sales numbers. Plus, several retailers, including online furniture shop Made and clothing company M&Co, did not survive 2022, while others such as homeware seller Wilko were forced to refinance or had to be rescued like clothing brand Joules and McColl’s, the convenience shop operator that was bought by Morrisons last year.

Retailer Christmas figures are also unaudited, focus on sales not profit and can cover different dates depending on the retailer. But, in general, results so far have been better than anticipated. This could be because consumers have started to change their habits in the following ways in response to the cost of living crisis.

1. Searching for value

The effects of inflation have caused more consumers to search for value, causing many to switch to discount retailers and own-brand products, which are typically perceived as offering value. Some of the comparative sales increases over Christmas were due to rising prices and thus while spending is up in total, the number of items bought is not.

2. Shop local

The impact of the pandemic, combined with recent transport and postal service strikes have caused a switch to local spending. When pandemic restrictions were in effect, people explored their local areas and used local and independent retailers, something that has continued with working from home. Difficulties accessing some larger towns and cities by public transport and uncertainty over postal deliveries due to strikes has increased the importance of shopping local.

Figures for December show the highest footfall since the pandemic, with a notable bounce on high streets. Online retailing may have had a weaker Christmas boost than previous years because consumers wanted to visit stores, were uncertain about delivery and wanted to shop around for the best bargains.

3. Buying with credit

There is some evidence that people used credit cards and savings to ensure a good Christmas. The slowdown in the housing market, and the desire to reward ourselves during the first Christmas without pandemic restrictions for three years, combined to encourage those who could to make the effort to spend.

Men wearing Christmas jumper/sweater and eyeglasses holding credit card and using smart phone, laptop, christmas present in foreground.
Some shoppers put Christmas on their credit card in 2022. Zivica Kerkez/Shutterstock

With all this changing consumer behaviour, well-run retail businesses that manage their product offerings, supply chains and stock levels to hit the above “sweet spots” for consumer demand did well during Christmas 2022. Those who were less effective or perceived to be less consumer focused, suffered.

But there is also a clear and growing disparity among consumers. There is no doubt that, for many, last Christmas was a good one. But at the same time record numbers of people are in food and fuel poverty, and large numbers are really struggling to cover basics, with consequent effects on health and wellbeing.

A uneven ride ahead

And so, while more positive than expected figures many retailers should be welcomed, they probably mask future problems. Even in its upbeat Christmas results, Next pointed to possible price rises in the coming months and concerns about affordability, as has M&S previously. Sainsbury’s, Greggs and Tesco are among retailers that have recently increased shopfloor wage rates, reflecting a tight labour market but also reacting to the cost of living struggles of their staff.

Among these economic headwinds, however, there are indications that inflation should decline in 2023 and that energy prices may not rise as fast as predicted, or could even fall. The UK may also see an end to recent interest rate rises during this year.

In January 2022, the economy looked fairly stable, but got worse very quickly. Now in January 2023 the hope is that things will improve faster than anticipated. Any gains will be hard won. As the economy continues to adjust to the effects of COVID and Brexit, while also absorbing the cost of living crisis, further change in 2023 will not be spread evenly across all retailers, nor all shoppers.

Posted in Aldi, Christmas, City Centres, Consumer Change, Consumers, Cost of Living, Covid19, Discounters, Grocery, High Streets, Independents, Internet shopping, Local Retailers, Market Shares, Marks and Spencer, Next, Retailers, Retailing, The Conversation, Town Centres, Towns | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

The Changing Climate through Ice and Seeds

I try to use my break at Christmas and New Year to catch up on some reading that is non work based (whether administrative or academic work). A couple of books had caught my eye some weeks ago and they formed the basis of my reading this year.

On the surface they are very different, being focused on topics that at one glance seem to be poles apart.

The Iain Cameron (@theiaincameron) book (the Vanishing Ice) is about his fascination with snow in Scotland and more particularly the persistence (or now non-persistence) of snow all year round. The subtitle – diaries of a Scottish snow hunter – gives a flavour of the content. Some of his photos may well be familiar to you from a range of outlets.

The Adam Alexander (@vegoutwithadam) book (the Seed Detective) concerns the origin and maintenance of vegetables and in particular the preservation of heritage varieties of seed. Again, the subtitle – uncovering the secret histories of remarkable vegetables – is aptly descriptive. As regulars of this blog (and of twitter) will recall, in a very small way I have shown an interest in heritage seeds and their produce.

I found both books to be fascinating individually and with components that resonated with me in distinct ways. In their own ways, each are inspirational. It was the common components though that interested me more. Both books are about an obsession – snow/ice and authentic seed varieties – that shouts about curiosity, commitment, intelligence and information. In an age of the superficial this detailed painstaking construction of knowledge and history is essential in my view, and of course is likely to attract an academic (and especially one with a collection of Argos catalogues perhaps). Whether it is measuring snow as it melts in Scotland (and the UK) or chasing down original and historically adapted seeds, dedication, commitment and enthusiasm seem essential (and come through strongly in both books).

Secondly though, and at a level I had not expected at the outset, both books are warnings about climate change and the climate emergency. Reading Iain Cameron’s book and the history of snow persistence in Scotland until recently, one can not but recognise the changed climate. Likewise, though, in Adam Alexander’s volume, the importance of climate and locality (terroir) on crops and the dangers of monocultures is writ large, particularly as climate changes globally and of course locally. Both books have at their heart a concern about the changing climate and the potential impact this will have on places and people. We need action(s).

At a personal level the Vanishing Ice is fascinating but there is little I can see myself getting actively involved in – the pictures of some of the ridges and places visited terrify me (and that’s before I fell down a small mound in Orkney). I have though tried to grow some of the seeds mentioned in The Seed Detective and am experimenting this year with a more widespread collection of my own seeds. I don’t grow much but every little helps perhaps. We will see how successful some of this experimentation is. It is more interesting than buying clone plants from the supermarket for certain.

Alexander A (2022) The Seed Detective. Chelsea Green. ISBN 9781915294005 (https://theseeddetective.co.uk/product/my-book/)

Cameron I (2021) The Vanishing Ice. Vertebrate Publishing. ISBN 9781839810879 (https://www.adventurebooks.com/products/the_vanishing_ice)

Posted in Books, Climate Emergency, Community, Food, Gardens, Home Growing, Ice, Real Seeds, Scotland, Seeds, Snow | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

2022: the stirlingretail.com year in retrospect

This time of the year I normally produce my last post and look back at the activity on the blog during the calendar year. My reviews for 2020 and 2021 covered the two years with the most visitors the site has ever received. I assume this came both from lockdown and the pandemic and people having more time to browse, but also the release, work, consequences and debates around my report into the New Future for Scotland’s Town Centres for the Scottish Government.

My review of last year concluded with the wish that 2022 would be a Happy New Year, but for so many it has been anything but, with the war in Ukraine, the accelerating impacts of Brexit, the cost-of-living crisis and various economic and social woes.

2022 saw fewer visitors to the site than the record-breaking previous two years, but it was still the third highest year since I began in 2011. As with last year the top 10 posts contain only 4 new posts, again suggesting a longevity for some of the previous posts. The themes are broadly the same – this is not that unexpected given the topics covered – but some of the longer lasting posts do rather surprise me.

Looking at the top 10 or so posts, I can draw some categories out (last year we had Food Retailing Change, A New Future for Scotland’s Town Centres, Retail Change and The Outliers (or history?)):

Local Controversy – Stirling All at C

The number one post this year was on the decision by local councillors in Stirling to permit the development of an out of town Asda at Crookbridge. The original post was followed by another (#4) on the same topic and the hypocrisy I felt over the decision. My flounce out of the Stirling Town Centre Working Group as a consequence saw me on the front page of the local paper, probably had zero effect but did make me feel better.

I do have to say I felt somewhat vindicated when the decision was overturned in November and the project rejected/refused by the Scottish Government Minster on Call-in (and my post partially on that is #12 this year).

This theme of out of town development and retail strategy generally, town centres, planning (National Planning Framework 4) and the response to A New Future for Scotland’s Town Centres was a large part of the blog and posts on recent aspects of these come in as well at #11 (Retail Strategy for Scotland), #13 (the report of the Inquiry into Retail and Town Centres in Scotland) and #15 (Town Centre Action Plan 2).

Food Retailing Market Shares

For a good number of years I have been using Kantar data to consider the changing market shares of food retailers in Great Britain. Two posts, Grocery Market Shares in the UK 2020 and Twenty-One Years of UK Retail Grocery Market Share have been regulars in the most read posts each year. It is no different this year with them being placed #3 and #2 respectively (#1 and #4 last year). The annual updates in summer each year seem to do less well, especially since I switched from describing them as covering the UK to be the more accurate GB. This year the annual update does not feature in the top ten again, but another historical post from 2019 (UK Grocery Market Share 1997-2019) does (at #6). There seems to be an enduring interest in UK food retailing market shares and their change (probably mainly from students), and less interest in the accuracy of UK vs GB!

Retail History

Two posts with an historical bias have also regularly featured in the top ten in any year and this year is no different. My review of a book London Welsh Dairies: The Welsh Milk Trade (#5) is of continuing interest and the discussion of Co-operative Tokens, Sports Direct and the Bristol Pound (#10) despite being an eclectic mix, continues to attract readers.

This year they have been joined (in #9 place) by another review, this time of the issues facing our places as their core department stores fall vacant and are subject to potential re-use and demolition. This “Place Vandalism” is both retail history and current town centre change and policy and the report by Save Britain’s Heritage is well worth reading.

The Outliers

This year’s outliers are on two very different subjects, with one being a very recent post and one from a while ago, but which got currency due to events. The recent post is on Who Owns Scotland’s retailing (#7), a summary of work by The Ferret and The Herald. The older post is on Checkout the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee (#8), a post from 2020 looking forward to the June 2022 Platinum Jubilee and reflecting on the 25th Jubilee in 1977 and the moves by Tesco that redefined their strategy and took them to their #1 place in UK food retailing.

It just leaves me to wish everyone a Happy New Year, thank those that comment and contact me about the blog and specific posts and to yet again hope that 2023 is an improvement on what has gone on in 2022 in so many ways.

Posted in 1977, Bristol Pound, Cooperative Tokens, Department Stores, Food Retailing, Grocery, Local Authorities, Market Shares, MIlk, New Future for Scotland's Towns, NPF4, Places, Planning, Retail Change, Retail History, Retail Strategy, Scottish Government, Scottish Retailing, Stirling, Stirling Council, Tesco, Town Centre Action Plan, Town Centre Review, Urban History, Who Owns Scotland? | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment