Are Retailers Social Engineers?

A few months ago, we published our report for Food Standards Scotland (FSS) entitled “Identifying and Understanding the Factors that can Transform the Retail Environment to Enable Healthier Purchasing by Consumers”.  The report and various summaries along with our brief commentary on it can be found on this blog here.

Reaction to the report can be best described as polarised, both directly to our face and in emails and social media.  There was a lot of support from health professionals and it has been described as thought-provoking and challenging.  Retailers and retailer bodies also found it challenging, but with a different slant, more often (though not always) casting it as misguided and disappointing.

One of the hopes from FSS and ourselves was that if nothing else the report opened up a debate.  And it was in that spirit that I presented the report to the Scottish Grocers Federation Parliamentary Cross Party Group on Independent Convenience Stores.  This Cross Party Group is proving a very worthwhile forum for debates on retail issues and is testimony to the renewed energy, desire, ambition and forward thinking of the Scottish Grocers Federation.  A full committee room listened politely to me, didn’t throw too much and engaged in the debate.

My overheads can be found here.  Not surprisingly the questioning and commentary on this was robust and challenging, but always fair, polite and recognising that diet and health in Scotland remain a big issue and a government priority.  The role of retailers in this is also recognised widely; the questions being over how best to improve diet and health and how other sectors fit into the equation.  As our report is at pains to point out, focusing on food retailers/shops alone and ignoring other food consumption sites and digital opportunities to purchase is not sustainable.  It runs the risk of damaging the very communities policy is seeking to help.

For me, the last question from the group crystallized some of the issues: ‘why do you want retailers to be social engineers?’ The point being made was that asking retailers to focus on health cast them in this role, and it is one they are not suited for.  So restricting unhealthy in-store ‘activities’ and rebalancing towards healthy is social engineering. It is a slightly different version of the ‘nanny state’ argument.

One of the key points in the report is that consumers are being asked to adopt individual responsibility in an inherently unfair context.  With the overwhelming balance of stimuli at the point of decision being towards unhealthy consumption, how can a consumer exhibit personal responsibility, at the point of purchase/consumption?  To that extent, my response to the question is that retailers are already social engineers, but are doing it unwittingly.  More exposure and questioning of the practices undertaken will make this more obvious.

We all agreed on one point though.  This ‘social engineering’ (if it is that) is also practised in sectors beyond retailing and in many cases is embedded in the whole consumption eco-system.  Unlike food retail shops, such other situations (cinemas, coffee shops, pubs, fast food and other restaurants) are actively focusing on super-sizing and upselling.  So you really need that bucket of popcorn in the cinema that is twice your body weight don’t you?  And staff are often rewarded for such ‘additional’ sales.

More positively, the Scottish Grocer’s Federation has for a number of years done a lot of work in Healthy Living and their efforts are underpinning the Healthcare Retail Standard. If you are unaware of the SGF’s positive efforts on Healthy Living then check out their work here.  This is one activity that could do with some super-sizing.

Thanks again to Scottish Grocers Federation for the platform and debate they provided. Their next Cross Party Group is on the proposed uncontroversial (not!) Deposit Return Scheme (DRS). The Scottish Grocers Federation view can be accessed here.

Posted in Community Grocer, Consumer Lifestyle, Consumers, Convenience stores, Cross Party Group, Deposit Return Scheme, Diet and Health, Food, Food Retailing, Food Standards, Health, Healthcare Retail Standard, Healthy Living, Independents, Local Retailers, Restaurants, Retail Change, Retailers, Scotland Food and Drink, Scottish Grocers Federation, Small Shops, Social Inequality, Social Justice, Sugar Tax, Waste | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Barclay Review

A few weeks have now passed since the publication of the much anticipated Barclay Review of Non Domestic Rates in Scotland.  I was away at the time and did not get much sense of how it was received, though did note the headlines about private schools.  So, given rates has featured on this blog before, I thought I should have a read.  If you want to do likewise then it can be downloaded here.

A couple of points can be made at the outset.  Despite its length, it is well written and is a clear read.  It is not often you can say that about such reviews.  Secondly, it does rather go out of its way to point out its constraints (tax neutral, no re-opening of 2017 issues) and that many respondents wanted to either range outside its brief, or have a good moan (there’s a nice line about the hospitality industry crying ‘woe is me’ probably in their best Frankie Howard, but then being completely unable to come up with any ideas for solutions).

Barclay recommendations

The Review’s recommendations come in three areas.  First, reforms to support economic growth; secondly to improve the administration/experience; and thirdly to ensure the fairness (level playing field) of the system/process.  I won’t dwell in detail on this but do note the clarion call for improved clarity, consistency, transparency, modernisation etc. that pervades the recommendations.  This is to be welcomed, though the side-swipe at the assessors may have ruffled a few feathers.

From a retail and a town centre point of view there are a few key suggestions, and in my view one glaring omission.

The report illustrates clearly the huge burden on the retail sector that rates are.  Making the system better will help a little.  The Review of the Small Business Bonus Scheme is overdue and there is a very interesting point about learning from Northern Ireland and focusing such a scheme on town centre situations.  The suggested reduction of the large business supplement (and the nice nuance of renaming it the large property supplement) to equate to England will please some operators.  The extension of Fresh Start to town centres likewise will have some, probably limited effect, as will associated issues for empty properties.

Barclay money

But my real attention was caught by two particular points:

  • The ‘glaring omission’ I referred to earlier (though I accept this is an over-statement) is the way the whole digital issue is swept under the carpet/kicked down the road. The Review is adamant that a property tax remains appropriate but by doing so, under its constraints, ignores the digital ‘elephant’.  It is covered briefly in Annex C (Annexes are for issues beyond scope or rejected in the main) but it opts out of the problem by simply saying the Scottish Government should in time consider ‘how should the digital economy be taxed?’ and ‘how should they contribute to local services?’.  I just hope this is not too late for many bricks and mortar businesses.
  • The most interesting (and depending on your viewpoint, disturbing) point is perhaps made in paragraph 4.30. Here in the recommendation on town centres, it recognises that possible primary legislation could “enable councils to impose an additional levy on rates in certain limited circumstances”.  The circumstances the Review lays out include a supplement for out-of-town businesses or predominantly online businesses.  Such amounts raised would then be used in town centres locally.  If thought about fully, such proposals could begin to address a call made in this blog and elsewhere for better spatial policies to focus on town centres (e.g. rates, VAT).  I feel it has to go beyond the out-of-town retail operations and online distribution centres mentioned by the Review, in order to reflect the multifaceted reasons for shifting town centres performance.  But the basic idea is one that has to be trialled.

Barclay Road Map

Posted in Barclay Review, Buildings, Closure, Government, Internet, Legislation, Online Retailing, Policy, Property, Rates, Retailers, Scotland's Town and High Streets, Scottish Government, Small Business Bonus Scheme, Small Shops, Tax, Town Centres, Vacancies | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Traditions and Ghosts in Scotland’s Shops

Anyone following my twitter feed (@sparks_stirling) will have encountered my fascination and interest in ghost signs. It has also been included in some musings from me and a guest contribution to this blog.  I had a previous tendency to focus on the uses above ground level as I wander about towns, but this has been exacerbated recently by searching for signs and features of the shop past in Scotland’s towns.

The slide show below provides some of the recent shots from Edinburgh, Culross and St Andrews.  There is little systematisation in my search thus far, and so the slides are serendipitous discoveries and interests.

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These traces of the past are only a small part of the historical legacy that we can find in our towns.  There is a very rich context that can be uncovered and has been explored by Lindsay Lennie in her excellent 2010 book on Scotland’s Shops.  Now there is an updated Historic Environment Scotland Short Guide on Scottish Traditional Shopfronts.  It can be downloaded here.  This is a 2017 Second Edition of the previous 2010 version.

This short guide is a fascinating verbal and visual exploration of the key elements of historic shops.  It covers shopfronts and architectural features before focusing on signs and lettering, sun blinds and awnings, security, ventilation, exterior and interior elements.  There is then technical help in researching and maintaining historic shops.  It really is an excellent guide and I love the fact that one of the target audiences is the “enthusiast”

Scottish Traditional Shopfronts

Its publication is also timely given the changes going on in retailing and town centres.  We need places to be distinctive and different, as well as interesting.  Reflecting the legacy of shops is one way of ensuring that there are points of interest and engagement in often increasingly bland places.  We need good modern design and new shops and buildings, but in addition to the wonderful expressions of the past we should seek to preserve and use.


Posted in Advertising, Architecture, Buildings, Edinburgh, Fife, Ghost Signs, Heritage, Historic Shops, History, Places, Retail History, Royal Mile, Scotland's Town and High Streets, Shopfronts, Streetscapes, Urban History | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

The Big Show (Y Sioe Fawr)

A few weeks ago I attended the Royal Welsh Show (Y Sioe Fawr) at Llanelwedd/Builth Wells.  For a number of years I have been to the Royal Highland Show at Ingliston and have always thought it to be a large and busy event.  But the Royal Welsh really lives up to its billing as the Big Show.

The sheer scale is daunting and one day is barely enough to really take it all in.  My interest was in the retail provision and the efforts both national multiples, smaller retailers and the range of specialists put in to inform and sell products to the showgoers.  Food and clothing are the obvious draws (assuming we are discounting machinery, equipment and other outdoor requirements for farming and rural life) and the range and quality is impressive in the main.  The national retailers were there in their pavilions but it is the specialist food producers that are always fascinating for me.  The variety and quality is tremendous (as it is in Edinburgh to be fair).



The show format is one that is overlooked in many discussions of the retail sector but the Royal Welsh is simply too big to be overlooked.  The amount spent, the sales achieved and the deals done, let alone the boost to the local economy is far reaching.

The show  concept of course harks back to a long tradition of local and regional markets and fairs.  If we add in the modern version of these and yes I did go to the Lampeter Food Festival again this year,  then it seems their significance as a leisure and retail format continues to grow, and to be underrepresented in our thinking and our data.

The Big Show was an eye-opener and was tremendously well organised – even if I could not find my car for ages in the Park and Ride.  Very impressive all round.



Suspiciously removable “Welsh” sign – wonder where the next show is?


We stayed the night before the show in Ludlow.  We stupidly chose the day the 800 year old market does not trade, but instead used the excellent local independent stores and also visited the Ludlow Food Centre.  The latter, a few miles out of town was controversial when it opened  (for distracting trade from the heart of the town) but seems to have added to the overseas sense of Ludlow as a place for local and good food. A great place to visit and spend in a place that values localness and authenticity.

More worryingly though, many of the local shops had posters up bemoaning their rates increase and its unaffordability and its unfairness.  The example below was not the highest increase I saw, but is typical.  If we want to have such vibrant local food (and business) cultures we have to revise this ruinous state of affairs.  The rates (and the corporation) tax system is not fit for purpose and is destroying the very elements we need to cherish and encourage.



But back to the show – if you can’t make the big ones, go to your local shows.  Great food, interesting events and a reminder about the value of community in its widest sense.

Posted in Farmers Markets, Festivals, Food and Beverage, Food Quality, Food Retailing, Markets, Producers, Rates, Retail Economy, Retailers, Rural, Sustainability, Tax | Tagged , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Embracing Failure in the Shadow of Success

This post’s title is the sub-title from a book I recently read.  It concerns Mick Channon Jnr and his relationship with his father, who he describes as “an arthritic workaholic grumpy old bastard” and only grudgingly as an ex England footballer and successful horse racing trainer.  Now what’s that got to do with retailing?  Absolutely nothing of course, but it’s a good book, so more of it later.

I was intending to write about a couple of retail books I’ve recently read, but one of them, which needed special ordering, has not yet arrived and so I am left with Phil Hubbard’s The Battle for the High Street, the subtitle of which is retail gentrification, class and disgust.


This is a book of these times perhaps, but reflects a sustained effort at understanding places and transitions. It is a very class oriented book providing a strong argument against retail gentrification and what the author sees as an attack on working class culture.  Counter pointing betting shops, fast food takeaways, discount stores and bargain booze outlets against boutiques, galleries, coffee shops and other middle class twee-ness he argues that the death or decline of the high street has been used as a cover for an all out class war on the working class and the things they need, value and the communities that they are part of.

The book is well worth a read and there is much in here that makes sense and with which I would agree, but at times it perhaps overstates the core proposition about high streets.  The high street is no longer associated enough with community these days, both in reality and in this text. It is undeniable that large swathes of the country have seen (and are seeing) a fundamental reshaping of town centres, and not by gentrification.  The problems are systemic and not derived from austerity alone, but rather arise from our overall behaviour and values over decades, allied to technology change,decentralisation of lots of different activities and access enhancements to different locations generally.

Which brings me back to  the Mick Channons.  The link is his quote ‘if you don’t like how things are, you can always xxxx off’ said by his father in a slightly different context.  Yet these words also in a way sum up Phil Hubbard’s book – except communities (especially working class ones) have not really been able to hold their position in the same way as Mick Channon Snr has.  The forces against them are too powerful and/or manipulative as is well, illustrated by the various threats to street and other markets across the country.

I don’t know how accurate Channon Jnr is about his relationship with Channon Snr, but the book ‘How’s your dad?’ is a great read with some very funny but also very poignant and thought provoking elements.  The relationship with a successful father and one who is well known can be tricky and claustrophobic for any son.

So that’s your holiday reading sorted; but don’t blame me if you’re offended by the swearing.


Hubbard P (2017) The Battle for the High Street: retail gentrification, class and disgust. Palgrave Macmillan. ISBN 978 1 137 52152 1.

Channon M Jnr (2016) How’s Your Dad? Embracing failure in the shadow of success. Racing Post. ISBN 978 1 910497 30 2.

Posted in Academics, Bookmakers, Charity Shops, Closure, Consumer Lifestyle, Discounters, Heritage, High Streets, Local Retailers, Markets, Places, Planning, Pound Shops, Property, Regeneration, Retail Economy, Shopfronts, Social Inequality, Social Justice, Store Closures, Town Centres, Towns | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Dublin’s Fair City

Every two years the conference of the European Association for Education and Research in Commercial Distribution (EAERCD) comes around.  Now in its 19th incarnation, this academic conference attracts retail scholars from across the globe to present and discuss their latest research and the state of retailing.  The latest version took place recently in Dublin, hosted by the Dublin Institute of Technology (and a very fine job of it they did too).

Whilst it is tempting to talk about the various papers presented, the social events and the deep, meaningful discussions on retail, I am not going to.  Instead I want to reflect mainly on one store, the changing nature of retailing and the historical legacy that survives.  Dublin seems to be a good place to do this, as it appears to continue to value its built heritage, especially in its pubs and some of its shops.

On a walking excursion around the retailing of Dublin, my eye was drawn to the old Burton’s store on Dame Street, not too far from the DIT conference site.  It is the corner building with much of the external features, including the sign and balconies still visible.  It is of course no longer Burton’s, but it is a fine remembrance of a previous era.  As the pictures show it must have been magnificent in its prime.

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A quick Google search found the following description on the archiseek website :

The former Burton’s Store on the corner of Dame and South Great George’s Streets is one of the most expressive and exciting facades in the city. Built between 1928 and 1930, it is a good example of a restrained Art Deco building designed by Harry Wilson from Leeds.

Clad in faience tiles and with a wonderfully coloured roof, the building was in the tradition of Dublin ‘corner-turning’ buildings with its similar facades along both streetscapes. Every detail has been designed to promote Burtons: from the elaborate signage near the roof to the meticuously detailed air vents (with their Burton’s logo) underneath the main shop windows. The facade is incredibly detailed with moulded ornamental capitals, window surrounds and decorative cornice.

The pictures provide evidence of these details. if you want more wonderful Burton’s detailing and stores and are on Twitter then take a look at @LaidByMonty

Nowadays, as the pictures also show, it is a Spar convenience store. Even then however the heritage is recognised, if perhaps not celebrated.  The Spar interior has panels about the Burton building, but they are not readable due to merchandise proximity and general difficulty to read.  This is a shame, but perhaps understandable.  Whilst sad to see the history ignored, at least the building is in use and the exterior mainly kept. In passing it is also a great Spar store and its story can be found here.

Just up from the Burton’s was the South City Market/Georges Street Arcade.  This from the outside was a fine building as well, covering a large block of land.  But, despite marketing itself as ‘Europe’s first shopping centre’, inside was a bit of a retail disappointment.  No longer a food market it is a cluttered style alleyway of uninspiring outlets.  But looking at the core architecture one can see what it might have been. Why though can such spaces not find proper market uses in many cases?

Finally, across the road from the market/arcade, I spotted workers fitting out a shop.  As the picture shows the fascia was fabulous. I tweeted the picture below, with the hope that the fascia survives the development.  It deserves to and is a fine addition to Dublin’s heritage. Little known to me, this fascia had been mentioned in public for a few days before and on the day I saw it was featured in a piece in the Times. A version is also available here and the website Dublin Ghost Signs is well worth a visit.

Dublin Awning LS


But then, much to my surprise and delight, I was tweeted the picture below by the shop owner. What a great find and also so good to see the heritage being valued.

Dublin Awning

The Burton store – and these other buildings, fascias and artefacts – speak of a time when retail was being built, and built to last.  The contrast to today’s efforts is dramatic, and one hopes that in future we do try to present and provide spaces that enthrall and enchant rather than simply sell stuff.  We need more of the best visions of the past, not less.

Posted in Advertising, Architecture, Art Deco, Buildings, Burtons, Convenience stores, Corporate History, Dublin, EAERCD, Ghost Signs, Heritage, Historic Shops, History, Markets, Retail History, Shopfronts, Spar, Tobacco, Urban History | Tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

Understanding Welsh Places

USP Infographic

Since the development of Understanding Scottish Places (USP) there has been a lot of interest in both the development itself and its potential to be replicated in other countries.  At events in Scotland and when STP and others have presented outside Scotland, attention has turned to potential extensions and expansions.  Could an ‘Understanding xxxxxx Places’ be developed, and if so, would it be the same as, or different from, Understanding Scottish Places?

(If you are unaware of USP then check out my previous posts on it – 2015, 2017 – and then visit the site)

For some time this (my) interest has been focused on Wales.  There are a number of reasons for this, ranging from the engagement of the Welsh Government in our towns based actions in Scotland, the scale of Wales and its potential similarity with Scotland at some levels, and of course my own origins in Wales.  Carnegie UK Trust themselves (one of the partners in USP along with University of Stirling, CLES, Scottish Government and Scotland’s Towns Partnership) – and the clue is in the UK bit of their name – were also interested in scoping out a Welsh version of USP.

So it was no surprise that finally, two weeks ago we were able to have an invited workshop on Understanding Welsh Places, in the really interesting surroundings of the Design Commission for Wales in Mount Stuart Square, Cardiff near the Senedd and the Bay.

Now I stopped living in Wales some 34 years and though I go back perhaps 6 times a year, I can hardly be called an expert on Welsh Towns and the ‘political’ landscape for towns in Wales.  But I do know how we got USP off the ground and what the benefits and uses are.  So, with Matt Jackson of CLES, we outlined the ‘Road to USP’.  The slides for this are available here and the intention is that an accompanying article (currently in production by the wider consortium) will be available in due course.

The Welsh situation is different, but there are lessons to be learned and things to be borrowed.  The slide below outlines the principles behind USP and these have guided development, sometimes to the detriment perhaps of an easy life, as for example in the strict condition about data coverage.  But what these principles have given is a strong sense of identity for USP and something that is immediately useable and understandable.  These principles are perhaps generic for all possible expansions of USP, though the exact definitions of size of town or data to be used may have to be altered depending on availability and intention.  The heart of USP – typology, interaction model, data visualisation – is common (probably).

USP Principles

Others can say what they thought of the workshop as a whole and the interactions (and Gina Wilson from Carnegie UK Trust has already done that here).  For me, time flew and the engagement in ideas and discussion was palpable.  There were however some jarring notes from my Scottish perspective:

  • Some (not all thankfully) felt our insistence in Scotland on avoiding league tables and pejorative labelling reduced the need for places to strive to improve;
  • Some were wedded absolutely to the idea of the local authority being the unit of analysis above all else;
  • The desire for any tool to provide solutions (as opposed to kicking off conversations) also featured in some quarters.

Overall though there did seem to be a sense of interest in an Understanding Welsh Places (UWP)  which would open up conversation, stopped blaming people and which was easy to use and explore, and which critically focused on the town (place, community) as the unit of debate.

How UWP would differ from USP is a question for Wales, if it goes ahead.  The choices we made in developing USP (size and number of towns, range of data, boundaries, more visual than verbal tool etc.) may not be exactly the right ones for Wales.  But, and even if nothing happens now, which we sincerely hope is not the case, at least we triggered a series of conversations and discussions, which will be taken forward to the betterment of Welsh places.

To quote from the two reports which set the scene for USP:

cspp 2011

“There is a real absence of good, reliable, consistent data on Scotland’s town centres.  All towns and town centres need firstly to understand themselves through a systematic, replicative, efficient and affordable data collection and benchmarking exercise.  How else are we meant to know what is going on and what works and what does not?  In an era of “evidence based policymaking” this is unacceptable.  Indeed, it begs the question what local authorities and central government are basing their decisions on?  Good data that is routinely and systemically analysed is a critical first step for local government that should be centrally funded by the Scottish Government.” (p3)



Fraser Review

“We accept that there is a need for action to be based on a clear understanding of the health of our town centres.  The evidence here is patchy and inconsistent and the different types of data need brought together to present a useful overall picture.  We recommend a model is developed, through a demonstration project, showing how data can be collected, presented and shared.” (p5)

The way we use data and think about towns, places or communities has to change or we are doomed to repeat the mistakes of the past.  Understanding Scottish Places has challenged conventional perceptions; we hope Understanding Welsh Places can join us.

Pob lwc!

Posted in Academics, Carnegie UK Trust, CLES, Data, Local Authorities, Places, Planning, Relationships, Scotland's Town and High Streets, Scotland's Towns Partnership, Scottish Government, Small Towns, Town Centre Action Plan, Town Centre Review, Town Centres, Towns, Towns Typology, Understanding Scottish Places, Understanding Welsh Places, University of Stirling, Wales | Tagged , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment