Archive for March, 2013

I’m just not buying it


Two articles on the future of retail. One talking from an personal experience and the other mostly pontificating url-1based upon stories that had been in other media. A vivid contrast in thoughtfulness, judgement and identifying what can be concluded from experience. To start with the second:

“Redefining the role of retail in regeneration policy is now a key challenge for planners in the UK. Much of the urban re-generation through the 1990s and the first decade of the new century focused on the importance of the city centre(1). UK projects drew from European success stories: Barcelona, Berlin, Bilbao and applied it to our new public spaces. Planning criteria drawn up under John Prescott during the first term of Labour Government acted as a constraint on the out-of-town mall and sprawling retail parks as the first priority for retail chains. The rules didn’t halt out of town development but it did push the balance back toward the urban centre. Had this been a matter of solely planning intent it would have been doomed from the outset. The market was on the side of the planner. Affluence, increasing disposable income and cultural changes created in the UK a much expanded ‘after hours’ economy which was to do with far more than mere alcohol consumption. Eating out in the UK had been something only the better off could do until the 1980s since when it has grown dramatically. The growth of dining out as much as anything else made city centre became a destination for the evening and created employment for an increasing pool of young part-time labour. Music, club culture and the resurgence of cinema all played their part in transforming the ‘closed after work’ UK city centre to an all day, all night economy.”

I’ll start with a declaration of interest in that I was involved in the successful work to revamp the city centre of a imgresmajor southern town in the 1990’s – that’s my qualification for commenting on the shortcomings of this piece. I’ll come back to the first sentence later. The following paragraph I essentially agree with though it wasn’t just the examples from abroad which were followed, there were examples, both the good and the bad, from closer to home that were able to be learnt from. During this time I was also an employee trustee on my pension scheme and after the early 90’s recession the investment which gave the best returns was retail so people were seeking to invest in it too. This undermines the following paragraph as the motor came from investors looking to build new or expanded retail. The paragraph also puts too much emphasis on night-time activity. People want to eat-out, go to the cinema etc as well as shop, and not just at night but throughout the weekend.

“But whatever else was going on in city centre regeneration retail was always the magnet. In the UK we like our retail. Enough urban planners and politicians grasped the notion that ‘going to the shops’ was and is a major part of the lives of many ordinary people, especially women. It was a constant, a given, aspirational consumerism that crossed class and culture. Through the past two decades we created a quality experience around it and our cities thrived. Whatever else might change people would always ‘go to the shops’, wouldn’t they? Well, no and it is having a significant effect in our cities. UK commentators have focused on the recession and falling consumer spending but more significant for the retail sector is the effect of web-based retail. Recent closures at Comet, Jessops and HMV have added to a range of familiar names that have been left behind by the shift to online spending. Retail staff report that ‘going to the shops’ has become a scouting mission – find the facts, touch the product, compare, contrast, get a little demonstration, then go home to order it online for a few quid less. Staff in fashion retail outlets report spending as much time dealing with internet returns as making sales. You don’t need to be chief economist at the IMF to work out the consequences. The trend won’t end with this recession either (whenever that may be). Recession confirms and accelerates market trends, rarely does it create them.”

imgres-1The paragraphs here shows the danger of this kind of black/white pontification. By overemphasizing the constancy of shopping in the first paragraph it sets up that now there have been changes it is catastrophic. I remember the recession of the 1980’s and that at the start of the 1990’s. Some chains of shops went out of business. Largely those who were the least secure economically or just those that were badly run. The last sentence is one of the few things correct about the piece. Recession means that economically under-performing businesses are more likely not to see the other side of the recession. The statement that web-based retail  is a more significant effect is supported with no evidence. Is it really the case that people are buying washing machines on the internet and not at Comet? Really? We then get another unsupported statement that all people do is go to the shops to check things out then go home and buy it on the net.

The crass mention of women though highlights the major error of this piece. Most people do not go shopping to buy something as imgres-2cheaply as possible. Last weekend was my birthday and after eating lunch we went to a nearby record shop on a whim. between two of us we ended up with three records and had a great time looking at different records, showing them to each other and talking about them. When I lived in the southern town I often worked on Saturday and we’d go out or lunch which was often followed by some shopping. Done for the fun of it. I could probably have got the records cheaper on eBay, I would always have been able to get what I bought after my lunch cheaper elsewhere but it was the social aspect of shopping. I have just lost a large amount of weight which my existing shirts do not reflect. When paid last month and this month I’ve bought a couple of new shirts. In one case because I lusted after it in the window of the shop as I passed. You cannot do that on the internet. Another tow shirts I bought because I saw the shops were having a sale, I went in and found shirts I wanted at a reasonable price. One of the shops sends me details by email, I could have bought from them online but I preferred to go in the shop, look at what was available, try the shirts on and buy them.

There was a lot of similar hand wringing when Woolworths departed the High Street, well in the UK. In September I was staying with family in Derbyshire and went into a shop I’d not experienced before, Wilkinson. They were great for the kind of toiletries which are hideously expensive here in France. I visited them again when in the UK staying with different family in Walthamstow where a visit to Wilko’s is an almost weekly event. Just as one of life’s certainties is death, another is that as one dies another is born.

“In Reading, one of the UK’s leading retail centres at a highly successful 90s city centre regeneration that has punched above its weight in the good times has seen a marked increase in vacant and available (on the market) retail space since 2009 (2).

Q4 2009 6.72% 4.69%
Q4 2010 9.03% 7.01%
Q4 2011 10.97% 8.93%
Q4 2012 11.13% 10.03%

While still below the UK average this trend should worry local policy makers, landlords and city centre business operators. The challenges they face are clear:

  • If the magnet for the city centre economies is losing its pull, how do we maintain the health of our cities?
  • How do major retailers respond to the challenge of web commerce?
  • How do national governments and the EU deal with tax sheltering multi-nationals who undercut local trade and put nothing back into communities?
  • What does it mean for property owners, investors and landlords when there is increasing vacancy in relatively new properties?

And aside from the more obvious economic consequences, what does this say for the quality of leisure experience when diversity is sucked out of city centre commerce? What does it do to our social lives? Two experiences brought this home to me: going to a major department store to purchase a lamp advertised in their mailshot only to find stock levels were so poor we were told to order online; and seeking in vain a pair of boot laces (off and on trying around fifteen stores) only to resort to Amazon.

If our city centres are not to enter a new period of crisis and decline creative thinking will be needed on many levels to adjust to these powerful market trends.”

A look at the number of empty properties in the last recession would give similar figures. More important than raw numbers though is the question of where the empty properties are. Are they in the prime retail spaces or in secondary? A much more important piece of information is footfall. The number of people visiting a place. What’s happened to that in the major and secondary shopping ares? As for the questions, well the first is an ‘if’ question so we have not received any evidence in the piece that the magnet for the city centres is losing its pull. In response to the second by selling what people want in a place they want to go to to buy it. The third question is not just restricted to retail, it applies throughout the economy and the fourth is not as obvious as it seems as the way the system works having property empty is not always a problem for a landlord or owner, when it’s retail, as it is when it’s other property. The two finishing anecdotes just reinforce that those retailers that survive will be those which sell things people want and have it available. The message of the much more thoughtful first piece:

What happens after the great retail clear-out?

url“Not long ago Oxford Street had ten book shops. Now it has none – unless you count WH Smith. Not long ago it also had half a dozen places you could buy records. It now has just one – and a sorry, understocked specimen it is at the moment. Records and books are fast disappearing from our retail environment. You no longer encounter them on the way to get a sandwich. They enter most people’s lives as noughts and ones or via the sturdy cardboard Amazon package. I wonder whether they’ll come back. Obviously not on the same level but maybe at a level enough to sustain some manufacture, distribution and retail, many notches below the mad over-supply of ten years ago. We always cherish things just as they’re about to slip away altogether. People had been gaily chucking away vinyl for years before they realised that this redundant, fragile format was about to be reborn as a soulful antique. When I did a programme for Radio Four about bootlegs a few years back there was reputedly only one record deck in the whole of the BBC. Now they’re ordering them up like there’s no tomorrow. Even CDs are now starting to feel just a little bit precious, which never happened before. This is bound to be more the case as new CDs and books become less visible and more expensive, as they’re surely bound to do as the number of retail outlets shrinks and Amazon, having taken control of the market, decides to push the price. I was in Waterstone’s in Piccadilly on Saturday, which is a pretty civilised place to buy books. I saw a book I was interested in. It was £9.99. I looked it up on the Amazon app on my phone. They had it for £6.89.On two occasions recently I’ve walked out of independent book shops which didn’t have what I asked for and hadn’t heard of it either, stood on the pavement outside and ordered from Amazon from my phone. Both times I was thinking “I hope they’re watching.”In Waterstone’s I bought the copy in the shop. It’s a nice environment, easy to navigate and the staff were pleasant. But more important than they, they had it. That’s the clincher.I don’t expect to be able to find comprehensive book stores on every corner. A handful in the centre of London would probably do me fine. I would be perfectly happy with that.”

Two pieces on retail, the last quoted thoughtful and reflective upon experience, both good and bad. The other trying to bend the facts to fit the black and white pontificating, which they don’t, and then ignoring a whole part of the subject. The piece on Reading shows the ignorance and poor judgement which explains why the writer ran away from involvement in politics in the town, just before being run out of the place, after the debacle and lack of judgement that was the one-way IDR. I know who I will turn to for insight and intelligent commentary.

50,000 miles beneath my brain


When a teenager at school someone in the same year as me said he had just got a load of cassettes from a relative and would I like to buy them. ref=sr_1_3They weren’t prerecorded but previously blank tapes that people had recorded albums onto. They were in a cardboard box and I didn’t get to choose which I wanted it was all or nothing. There were some I wanted and some I knew nothing about. One of the ones I knew I wanted was the whole Woodstock album. David Hepworth talks about the film of the same album here.

One of the tapes that fell into the second group, that ref=sr_1_3-1I knew nothing about, was Ten Years After’s ‘Cricklewood Green.’ It’s not often that something blows me away but this did. In particular tracks like, ‘Love like a man’, ‘50,000 miles beneath my brain’ and ‘Working on the road’ are just fantastic with a mix of blues and great organ playing topped off by the fantastic guitar playing of Alvin Lee. His big break came via the performance the band put in at Woodstock.

The cassettes have done what my mother calls “gone the way of all flesh.” A couple of years ago something reminded me of the tracks and I downloaded them, I think they might even have been the first tracks I downloaded, and I enjoyed playing them again. On Tuesday night whilst out seeing Jake Bugg at the venue round the corner I’d been reminded that Ten Years After were playing there in October and I’d remembered that I wanted to go.Then yesterday it was announced that Alvin Lee had died. I was sorry that I would now not get to see Ten Years After but in the process of writing this I discovered that he had not been playing with the band for some time and that the gig seems still to be on. Here they are with working on the road. Enjoy:

I don’t normally do re-posts but….


….when someone has written something so well and you know you will not better it why not re-post it? This comes from the blog of David Hepworth, someone I first knew of as a presenter of the’The Old Grey Whistle Test‘ and then as editor of my all time favourite magazine, that is sadly no longer with us. I have listened to the podcast about the school in Chicago referred to in this post and it is very good. I too would recommend ‘This American Life‘:

Harper High School is a two-part programme from NPR in the States. I heard it via the This American Life podcast. It’s the kind of radio you don’t get in this country, not even from Radio 4. It sets out to discover what it’s like in a school on the south side of Chicago where they’ve “lost” (how the language of warfare clings) over twenty students in the last year.

The teachers and social workers of Harper High patrol the halls relentlessly exuding positivity. One of them, Crystal, says “let me appreciate you in advance” as soon as any student doesn’t directly refuse to comply with an instruction. This is the kind of school where they have to offer students a cookie for turning up at a class on time.

Even the police around Harper High reckon it’s impossible to escape being allied to one gang or another. It’s not to do with drugs. It’s to do with where you live. The kids are frightened, which is why they sound depressed. One boy, who has gone back into his shell after accidentally shooting and killing his brother, says “I don’t like to remember”. His words are those of a toddler. His voice is that of a man. 

Harper High School flips the picture presented by British teacher recruitment advertising. You know that one – “work with the most exciting people in the country”. At Harper teachers are the ones who sound like the brightest, most questioning people in the world. The children are the ones who sound closed off, beaten down by life. They walk down the middle of the street, not merely to annoy the traffic, but because experience has taught them it’s the best place to be if the shooting starts. A star football player says he has learned that when you hear a shot you should go down as if you’ve been hit. It’s safer than running. If you run you will definitely be shot.

One of the reasons Harper High succeeds is because at no stage does a government spokesman or a representative of the teachers union or an academic pop up to try and explain it all. The relative looseness of the format allows them to break off and explain complex sequences of cause and effect without needing a single interviewee to stand them up, as would probably happen here. 

Because the programme is not committing itself to coming up with a solution, because it doesn’t fit into any pre-existing current affairs strand, because it’s only setting out to answer the “what’s it like?” question, it can do at least a tiny bit of justice to the exhausting complexity of the problem.

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