The rich and the poor: “Two nations between whom there is no intercourse and no sympathy…

…who are as ignorant of each other’s habits, thoughts, and feelings, as if they were dwellers in different zones, or inhabitants of different planets.”

The quote, of course, is Disraeli’s, and it was brought to mind after I read this piece by Marcus Leroux in Monday’s paywalled Times.

The gist of the article (for those of you without a Times subscription) is that 25% of non-essential retail spending takes place in just 3% of Britain’s shopping areas.  Of course, the crushing dominance of London – West End, City, Knightsbridge, Westfield – will help to skew those numbers, as London’s share of tourist retail is exceptionally high.  But forecasters CACI have reviewed 4,000 different shopping destinations, grading them from A to E, with anything below a C having questionable long-term viability.

The retail landscape has become more differentiated in recent years, as a combination of demographic polarisation, plus online, supermarket and out-of-town shopping, has caused the geography of the UK to divide more starkly between winners and losers.  I pondered this in a blog I published at the start of this year, seeking to identify 80 centres that I believed had future relevance; in Leroux’s piece, he notes that around half of Thorntons and Argos stores are in D and E banded locations.  And when stores close, which centres do you think will bear the brunt?

Well, here’s the good news (he said, a little acidly): the clone town will be a thing of the past.  No longer will there be identical parades and malls of the same jewellers, fashion stores, chocolatiers and gift shops, from Cornwall to the Highlands; instead, we risk a brutally stratified selection of pound shops, pawn shops and cheap booze in struggling towns and suburbs, while chi-chi boutiques and cafes overwhelm the rest.

I’m not convinced this is a good thing (I am a One Nation kind of guy); and I wonder if all of the government’s attempts to focus on local retailers (Portas towns et al) only takes us a short way down the road.  I very much support reducing business rates, slackening planning red tape and freeing up parking in order to revitalise a shopping district – but that revitalisation requires strong and solid national chains as well as entrepreneurs and start-ups.  Any smart indie retailer understands the appeal of well-known neighbours, preferably robust and well-managed ones.

There is a significant risk that squeezed, mid-market retailers will be closing in the top locations, pushed out by high occupancy costs and sophisticated online shoppers; and closing also in the poorer towns, where falling sales are precipitated by falling employment, collapsing aspirations and a general hopelessness.

We may need to move away from the purist “you can’t buck the market” view to a more nuanced standpoint that recognises that decent communities need a well-balanced high street (as well as good jobs, schools, healthcare, housing…), and that allowing high streets in densely populated areas to fail is akin to leaving broken windows unattended.  Of course, those retailers need to provide goods and services that their customers need – which of course is what mid-market chains have always delivered, tweaking their value offer as appropriate to local demographics.  But once “some quarters in the City” (Leroux) have prevailed on Argos et al to close their D and E locations, recovery in those towns will become just that little bit more difficult.

Blindingly obvious “two nations” photo: Cheryl de Carteret on Flickr

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Shapps/Portas – and now…?

Housing Minister Grant Shapps has announced the government’s official response to the 2011 Portas Review.  You can read the Communities & Local Government Office’s full text here.

It’s been quite a week for retailers, with the government promoting local shopping by manufacturing a petrol shortage which will ensure we’ll only be spending at shops we can walk to this weekend.  Much more seriously, the impact of channel change on established and historically successful retailers is being felt across the world – Game Group’s administration, the collapse of leading Dutch bookseller Selexyz, famous for creating the “world’s most beautiful bookshop“, and today the announcement from Best Buy that (a) it’s closing 50 US stores and (b), short of slashing costs and talking hopefully about online opportunities, it’s a bit short on strategy.

So, back in Britain, there are plenty of feelgood elements to Grant Shapps’ announcement: market days and Town Teams were particularly eye-catching back in December, so they get full support, but there’s relatively little money forthcoming – around £12.8m, which will fund a few more Portas Pilots, but is a tiny sum of cash – it’s rather less than, say, Foyles in Charing Cross Road turns over in a year, or under a third of the estimated cost of the Leveson Enquiry.

Paradoxically, though, I’m not calling for loads more cash; I’d prefer to see more real local power and accountability, with councils mandated to create a successful business environment for the communities they serve.  This will be the acid test of the programme, as there is much promised on revoking archaic bylaws and reforning planning  - will local councils have the guts to go the whole way, and will the government be prepared to devolve real decision-making and – at council level – revenue raising powers?  Step forward the first council that wants to tell Grant Shapps that, actually, we think a 5.4% increase in business rates is a little steep in the current environment, so here in Tomorrowtown, we’d like to do things a little differently.

Well, I can dream.  But beware of short-term revitalisation and too great a focus on heritage and bringing back “the old high street”.  There is, understandably, much hand-wringing about the number of vacant shops across the country – 14.6% of total stock across the country, it says here.

But hang on just a second – is that the number of empty premises, or the volume of empty space?  Or, to turn the numbers around (without knowing the answer) what is the total volume of trading square footage in retail today, compared to ten or twenty years ago?  I’m going to bet that the number has gone up, but that old stock has been allowed to rot on the vine.

As retail commentator HatmanPro has observed on Twitter, much of our empty retail space exists because newer space has superseded it.  In too many town centres, successive new developments – blocks of stores, little shopping centres – have been dumped into vacant spaces, increasing the total volume of footage and laying waste to older shopping streets and districts, on the assumption that, as the population grows and we all become wealthier, more and more shops can prosper.  Even without the internet, this is patent nonsense – I’d like to see new shopping centre openings accompanied by a structured reduction in dead space; a recognition that, with 10.7% of all retail spend now online (and that number will grow and grow), even the most Pollyannaish assumptions of future economic recovery will not merit the number of old shops cluttering up our old towns.

Will Town Teams and local councils have the ambition, the power and the cojones to repurpose spaces?  Will they be able to do so, and maintain the variety of chains and independents, generalists and specialists, commodity sellers and boutiques, that a thriving town centre needs?  I really hope so.  But the “beating heart of the community” needs to be strong and vigorous, and must look beyond the reduction of street furniture and controls on levels of parking fines – if 15%, 20% of all retail spend is going online (because that’s what the consumer wants), then those high streets need to reflect tomorrow’s needs, rather than yesterday’s longings.

And having said all of that – if this comes off, when those first Town Teams cajole their councils into really making a change and doing  things differently, this is going to be damned exciting.  Retailing is one of the things we do best in the UK, and everyone who’s committed to a retail career wants to make it better.

Pictures: The Sun; bhbeat.com


On libraries, DRM and Occupy…

My latest column for the Bookseller, in which I discuss the Occupy… protests, the impact of digital communication on ideas, and the importance of libraries in a civil society.  St Paul’s certainly got me thinking…  You can read it here:

http://www.thebookseller.com/blogs/occupy-word.html


The vanishing high street

As all retail watchers know (not to mention the millions of retail employees), these are difficult and unusual times on the high street.

The government - influenced by a bit of recession here, a bit of Big Soc there – has noticed that the high street, and most of the physical retail sector, is struggling.  They don’t know what to do about it, but there are some hopes that a quick fix might be found.

Most retailers can point quickly to the cost and hassle of parking, and/or inadequate public transport; an entrenched landlord world-view (not just institutional - many high street landlords are small and local); and a slow and unimaginative planning regime.  Mr Cameron has had retail leaders round to No. 10 for coffee, so one would hope he has heard these messages already.

Absolute shop numbers are falling, and will continue to fall, because the public no longer needs as many shops.  This is the result of a severe spending downturn, combined with the no-plateau-in-sight rise of online retailing.  The physical retailing cost-base – occupancy, payroll, red-tape - can only bear a limited and temporary fall in sales before serious restructuring is required.

120 Focus DIY stores are now set to close down following the company’s collapse; Mothercare is exiting a quarter of its estate (and warning of more, future closures).  Retailers large and small are quietly trimming their portfolios wherever the right opportunity arises.

This retrenchment is unlikely to be followed by a roll-out programme any time in the foreseeable future.  The biggest retailers are relying on international expansion to create growth.  At home, the talk is not of new stores; M&S is committing another £600m to refurbishing its existing store base, working as hard as a cash-generative business can to stay relevant in an increasingly online world.  The few physically expanding retailers are looking dangerously like bubbles.

Although there are some major schemes under construction, new store numbers at, say, Westfield Stratford will be counterbalanced by closures on the high streets of East Ham, Romford and the like.  Consumers want to use the major centres with the big anchors, and they want to buy cheaply online; they have yet to demonstrate (away from the likes of Marylebone) what sort of high street experience they will be prepared to support in the future.

All of the above is (I hope) reflecting a long-term perspective, illustrated through a few current activities.  The high street isn’t going away – but it has to change, radically, and it will take the combined and hard-headed efforts of government, councils, landlords and retailers to make those changes work, on a town-by-town basis.  Tough times are the best times for challenging orthodoxies and thinking the unthinkable.

Mind you, consumer confidence is “soaring” apparently, though I suspect that this is a stuttering improvement built on broader, briefer feelgood factors; the May retail figures will provide a more objective measure.

In the meantime, here’s a comparative situation.  From the 1970s onwards, Britain’s manufacturing infrastructure progressively transferred to low-wage countries, and the country became increasingly dependent on the service and financial sectors.  The view took hold that we “couldn’t” make things in Britain any more – rather than taking the view that old-fashioned metal-bashing had passed on, but specialist, R&D driven manufacturing could have a real future in a country like ours.  The tide is now turning, a little, though there are fears that too much expertise has simply vanished, and that the foundations for a manufacturing renaissance are too small and too weak.

Old-style, “till-bashing” retailing is now in a similar position.  The job can be done more cheaply and often more efficiently by a combination of the internet and large out-of-town supermarkets and shopping centres.  The high street that’s left then becomes today’s Jarrow or Merthyr Tydfil.  This doesn’t have to happen – the unique qualities of a strong, local high street are valued by communities who have them.  However, any slight sense that turning the clock back to the 1950s will work is wrong – just as keeping the shipyards open was doomed.

I don’t know what the high street of tomorrow will look like, but I know that good communities have centres, and that any gathering of people can translate into commerce.  Finding a role for the old high streets in the online/megamall world will be interesting – and for some, potentially very rewarding if they have the scope to look to future opportunities, rather than just today’s P&L.

“Shopping With Mother” – image taken, ironically enough, from http://www.find-me-a-gift.co.uk.


A World of difference between Night and Day

And there it goes – World Book Night.  For the first time in the UK, a successful celebration of adult books that reaches out to the general reader, that goes beyond prizes, promotion and celebrity to focus on good reads.  Every one of the featured books deserves its place – some that merit wider appreciation, some established big hits, and some older stalwarts.  If you or I were putting together an “interesting backlist” table in our local Waterstone’s, we couldn’t have done much better.

WBN was the brainchild of Jamie Byng, one of the most charismatic and imaginative people in publishing, and someone with that rare ability to drive inspiration into reality, powered by the force of belief.  He’s demonstrated this again and again at Canongate, and for WBD he brought together authors, agents, publishers, retailers and the BBC for a weekend festival of adult reading.

For an event conceived on such a short timescale, the sequence of activities was strong.  Though it was damnably cold in Trafalgar Square on Friday evening, it was good to see le Carre, Attwood, Bennett etc, live and passionate.  WBN has locked on to BBC Four’s books season, and provided an evening of decent book-telly on BBC Two.  Of course, I hope the commissioning editors at TV Centre aren’t ticking the box marked “books” before moving on to new seasons about favourite bus routes or kitchen makeovers (“note to self – contact J Byng re Spring 2012 schedules”).  Radio 4 does a worthy job preaching to the converted covering books and reading, and BBC TV should do much more, with WBN as a climax, rather than a loud blip.

Which leaves us with – ah yes.  The free books.  This is where the concept becomes trickier.  World Book Night is about generosity – giving time, giving resources, giving thought and care; creating excitement, sharing passion.

But is it about generosity with other people’s livelihoods?

Will one million unit sales be lost to the trade this year?  No, but is any loss sustainable in times of austerity and format change?

Will those free books lead to greater sales in the future?  This will be hard to quantify.  Will readers of The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie seek out other Muriel Sparks – that’s a stretch?  Will readers of All Quiet on the Western Front be on AbeBooks, digging out other Remarques?  No, though whether they will look for Sassoon, Graves or Owen will again be tougher to judge.  Perhaps the biggest winner will be Lee Child, with another dozen+ Jack Reacher novels for the newly converted.

Conversely, will the wide and free availability of these titles – which we’re encouraged to pass on, to share, to bookcross – cause regular sales to slump?  Which titles will join Peter Kay and Jeremy Clarkson as Oxfam staples?

Fundamentally, I think gifts are marvellous things, but free gifts sit on quicksand.  As I’ve already written (and others have, more passionately and eloquently than me), hasn’t the book been devalued enough before we start treating Marquez or Mitchell as freebies?

So I absolutely support both the passion and the practicality of Nicola Morgan’s “complementary World Book Night”, whereby the public was encouraged to buy books as carefully considered gifts, which encourages both giver and receiver to think about the books they’re sharing.  I did this, and it felt good in every way – not least that I had chosen and paid for the book I gave.  The spirit of this idea is much closer to the original Barcelona World Book Day, but of course it wouldn’t have achieved the take-off velocity that the Big 25 delivered.

So, I’m torn.  WBN could have been planned for an extra 12 months, and been a far safer, worthier event.  All parties might have been satisfied that their concerns had been aired and addressed, but I suspect we’d still be sitting on the runway.

For World Book Night, 2012, could we:

  • Start planning now
  • Be as honest and as surgical as possible in our assessment of the immediate and broader impact of the free books on paid-for sales
  • Be as honest as possible in separating the essential wider impact of WBN, from the book trade and the media having a terrific PR event (there is probably a more diplomatic way to word this…).
  • Move the event later in the year.  The weather in March is still frosty, and it would be great to have more outdoor events, and more sunshine.  2012 will be a challenging, with the Diamond Jubilee and the Olympics, but I think a warm spring weekend could drive much more local activity.  Keep politics at arm’s length, but my definition of the Big Society certainly plays to a community-based WBN.

Finally, World Book Day is at risk of getting completely lost in the WBN excitement.  This would be a tragedy.  I wrote of the importance of World Book Day last week.  Its impact is always muted in Comic Relief years, but this time around it felt swept away by the adult event.  So my desire to see WBN later in the year also supports the importance of a separate, child-focused World Book Day (a difference that I think Jamie Byng acknowledged on Newsnight last week).

I think the nation should be able to cope with two broad-based celebrations of reading each year, with clearly defined constituencies.  But if we are honing WBN for 2012, could we also challenge all the existing assumptions around WBD?  The integration of activities across schools, libraries, bookshops and writers/illustrators, and the contributions made by publishers, printers and retailers, all on the tightest of budgets, are exceptional.  Paradoxically, I believe that while the cuts that are being in direct government support for literacy should be challenged, I also think that they are an excellent springboard for the literary and educational establishment to reconsider the aims and reach of World Book Day.

A population that knows how to read – how to digest big chunks of prose, how to learn, to imagine, to inspire – is fundamental to our future.  World Book Day, however we reimagine it, taking place annually throughout a child’s education, reinforces this message through enjoyment and through personal reward.

To conclude, thank you to Jamie Byng – for reigniting the debate about the content of books, about enjoyment, about sharing and about giving.  Ultimately, these mean more to the future of books than delivery mechanisms or agency pricing.  Thousands of people are reconsidering books and reading as a result of World Book Night.  An established national festival of adult reading, and a separate focus on children’s books, can be a terrific legacy that all of us should want to be a part of.


What bookshops do well (II): Community

I still have shelves of books and computer files of old content, all attesting to the importance of the Third Place (Ray Oldenburg’s Great Good Place, Leon Kreitzman’s 24 Hour Society, etc).

Bookshops have always offered sanctuary, but in the 1990s, they started to offer more.  In the US, Borders and Barnes & Noble starting adding cafes to their newfangled superstores; in the UK, Books etc was rolling cafes into its mall stores; and on both sides of the pond, adventurous independents were doing the same.  Sometimes the cafes were corporate – B&N signed with Starbucks to serve their coffee when Starbucks was still small.  Sometimes, by contrast, the cafe operation was determinedly handmade and wholemeal.

Either way, cafes changed bookstores.  You could argue that they saved bookstores, in that they broadened the customer base, and made the bookstore into a place to meet as well as a place to browse or shop.

Or you could argue that it was cafes that ruined bookstores, pushing them into the mass-market and eliminating their spiritual calm in a clatter of crockery and fizzing espresso machines; that the traffic coffeeshops were generating inside bookstores pushed the chains into bigger sites – more prime pitch, more expensive, and ultimately more ruinous.

But the simple fact is that a cafe gives a bookshop its community hook.  Once there is a meeting place within the shop, then the opportunities for customers to visit increase exponentially.  The customer who buys a coffee in your store everyday is more likely to use you for their book and magazine purchases.  They will start to feel a sense of “belonging” – they have invested time in the bookshop, they approve of its atmosphere, its range, its staff, it becomes in some way theirs.

A golden age ensued in the nineties and the noughties.  Bookshops are odd places.  They encourage extended browsing, and customers don’t feel cheated if they spend an hour in the store and buy nothing.  This may be the case with large fashion boutiques, or with record shops, but both of these store types appeal to a specific customer.  A good general bookshop, on the other hand, provides something for every literate member of the community.  One of the reasons Borders appealed to landlords in the UK was that it provided a centre of interest and excitement for all the family, helping to turn the retail park visit, with Dad at B&Q and Mum in Next, into a proper family outing.

The existence of the cafe made all sorts of other peripherals much easier to organise – the book club, the author reading, the extended opening hours, the children’s story-time.  Mother-and-baby groups spontaneously formed in bookshop cafes – friendships were made, and store loyalty sealed.

Now, the golden age is over.  Bookshops are disappearing, and the community facility that they provided is disappearing as well.  Of course, cafes will survive – standalone Costas in retail parks, grim no-name eateries in giant supermarkets – but the bookstore cafe was more relaxed and less clattery than the dedicated food’n’beverage venue.

All of this is taking place precisely when all of us in the Big Society (however ill-defined that may be) would benefit from meeting places flexible enough to meet our community-enhancing needs.

Now would be a great time to reinvent the library.  I wholeheartedly support the principles behind the libraries campaign currently being fought in England, but I also recognise the inescapable fact that demand for physical books is going to fall, probably quite precipitately.  The campaign for the library as book provider is starting to look quixotic.

A smart Big Society would support a variety of community venues – church halls, pubs, libraries, basic entertainment venues – like the campaign for Vital Kingston, with which I’m involved.  This isn’t a political blog.  But if Mr Cameron et al do want to encourage and support community involvement and ownership (in the broadest sense), where better place to start?


Libraries, codex and the future

It’s library appreciation weekend, so I’ll go down to our local Carnegie to find some obscure books to borrow (which may be difficult, as it’s been somewhat destocked over the past year or so.  It’s starting to look more like a dancehall than a house of knowledge).

Anyway, this is Something for the Weekend – a two-part, 21 minute illustrated lecture in best wacky professor mode from a fast-talking US professor, pondering the migration from codex to digital content.  It will raise a smile and hopefully ignite some thinking as well.

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KqAwj5ssU2c

Enjoy.

EDIT: I’ve changed the title of this post from “Libraries are screwed” – which is the tenor of the YouTube clip, albeit one that proposes solutions.  Although the future amounts to much more than hugging librarians to save their jobs, I do believe in the value of libraries as community resources, in open access to information, and in encouraging reading in all its forms.  How these services and communal benefits (BigSoc, as Orwell might term it) can be delivered in a world of spending cuts and digitisation remains to be seen.  We can enlarge on that in a future post.


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