Christmas…is it good for your ‘elf?

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Christmas is an artificial Construct

I aways wanted to write that since I was a wee child and bumped from a key role in my school’s nativity play. Well probably not true, but I was given lead role, a few years later, as Basildon Bond, 0013. Result… and probably the reason I have such a jaundiced view of Christmas.

Churches and Children listen up, I am not saying Christmas doesn’t exist or it is bad for you, this is about, not being good for your ‘elf or your ‘welf’.

Since Victorian times, Christmas has become the ultimate consumer event of the retailers’ year. In recent times, this has extended beyond societies of mainly Christian based populations to virtually any society, of no matter what faith, as long as that society has the wherewithal to spend some money in order to experience and enjoy the ‘non’ religious aspects of let’s spend a load of money for no particular reason time of year . For crying out loud , the whole traditional Father Christmas image is  an artifical construct (got it in again) by  the marketeers of Coca Cola in the 1930’s.

For many years the Christmas season, often defined as the last three months of the year, has been the period where most within the retail sector, manufacturers, importers, distributors and of course the retailer themselves, have made their money . The rest of the years trading covered their cost base , and loosely speaking, the last quarter was the time when real profits were to be had. Within the last twenty years that has started to change . Retailing has become so aggressive, margins so pressurised that without good Christmas trading , the shear existence of those within the chain is threatened.

This is not healthy. All retailing is subject to event based peaks and troughs, whether it Christmas, Valentines Day, Easter, Mothers Day, Fathers Day, Halloween, summer sales, Boxing Day Sales, and now Black Friday. Apart from perhaps the catering and travel industry I can not think of any other market sector that has created such a bumpy annual trading period. In a weird sort of way all those events have, historically, been latched(or in some cases such as Valentines and Mother’s Day created) onto by the retailing fraternity in order to boost their business. Yet, the consequence is now the mad scramble to sell stock at any price. Perhaps a slight exaggeration, but relying on the success of such seasonality can only add to a retailer’s misery.

An example of using a season to smoothen annual trading is unusual but not unknown. A number of years ago Garden Centres, understanding that during winter they had a load of unused space and came up with the idea that they would be the perfect outlet for Christmas decorations as they had the space to display the products at their best . The consequence of this action is that they now dominate the Christmas decoration market. Conversely, the toy industry, in about the late eighties, so concerned about the size of the end of year peak at Christmas attempted a campaign to get parents to give a gift of a toy at Easter. Needless to say it was not a success. Paradoxically ,the party industry which, as Christmas is supposed to be party time, does not perform especially well at Christmas, but has become very reliant on Halloween. If it’s a poor year for Halloween, it is an especially poor year for Party retailers. Turn the clock back a few years, Christmas was the time Party Retailers revelled in it literally . Wind forward and Party Retailers become fearful of a bad Halloween and do little business at Christmas(New year is ok).

There is no magic wand to smoothing out big spikes in Retail. Yet, I have one client who started about five years ago and refused to buy product related to any major event . His business model was to make the operation profitable on everyday business. Within a couple of years he had achieved that . Any additional business created by these spikes was icing on the cake and as a consequence the core business is a lot ‘elfier’ for it (apart from all the icing -which can be very bad for your teeth).

I am not a grinch (perhaps a bit of one) but the Christmas for retailers and consumer alike, juts seems to be a load of stress. Stress in buying stuff they don’t whether is right for  those they are buying for and more often don’t really have the spare cash to afford. Then a load more cash is spent on far too much food, much of which does not get eaten. And that, that does get consumed , is because everyone overeats. No it ain’t ‘elfy, it makes you less ‘welfy’….And the Elf in the image ? By the look on his face , I think he is skiving, cos he is fed up with fat block with a beard in a red suit bossing him around. Oh and the Elves…No, they are real. They are just a transmogrication of the poor buggers stressing around in their white vans trying get that last present delivered on Christmas Eve, you were too stressed and forgot to order, for your nearest and dearest….

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

To Perceive …or Not to Perceive ?

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When Willy the Bard first wrote those (not exactly) words, he probably did not think they would be bastardised in such a frivolous manner . Well, get with the project Mr Willy , if you are listening, time moves on…

Neither would he have tolerated plagiarism, well once again move on , it’s all the rage. so that what I am going to do . I will ‘plagiarise'(felt a Gloria Gaynor song coming on, but soon stopped as I can only ever remember first lines), myself or an article written by myself for a trade publication,a couple of years ago. So much of what we see, hear or do is subject to perception.

‘….what we believe is based upon our perceptions….what we perceive depends upon what we look for….what we believe determines what we take to be true…what we take to be true be our reality…. ‘

Gary Zukav (American spiritual teacher, former Vietnam special ops vet and advisor to the American security services)

I return to it , not Gary, ‘cos I don’t know him, but perception itself as it invades every aspect of our lives and never more so.

You get up, go to the bathroom, and, invariably, stare into a mirror. What do you see? In my case , it is a ‘gormless dork’. Should Julia be passing by she might see an extraordinary specimen, she might not, but at that moment in time it is down to how she perceives me. Throughout the day everything you do will be affected by perception. So how is that entire sections, commercial, personal, religious, play, health and everything else from cradle to grave, of society seem to ignore that. A very simple example is you go into a rubbish shop ( not one selling rubbish, and not one I ‘perceive’ as being rubbish, but a bloody awful shop, plenty around just look) and think what is there about this place that the owner thinks makes it an attractive environment for a consumer to come in and buy stuff. Only this weekend we were both in Brick Lane , East London. In this street there is a very famous Beigel shop. There are actually two, only two doors away from each other . One was empty, the other had punters , literally, queing into the street. I am not suggesting one is especially bad , indeed reviews say there is little difference, and that they are owned by the same family members. The only apparent differences are the colour of the signage,  one is one hundred years older and one is open 24/7 but at 2 o’clock on a Saturday afternoon that if pretty irrelevent. My suspicion at this stage was thatthe queue created a perception that this was the best shop ??

We are plagued by the phrase ‘fake news’ but essentially most of it is about how each of us perceives a piece of information. Of course organisations of all shapes and sizes know this and manipulate that information to convince us about the message they wish to convey. Whether it be the mighty Apple, Coke Cola, BMW, Macdonalds, through every democratic political party ( even dictators use perception manipulation, its just they are less bothered about it), the worlds major faiths through to your next door neighbour (who you think are a really nice family ‘cos that’s what they want you to think, but behind the scenes they are criminal masterminds).

How was it for you….?

A pretty simple question, with potentially a pretty simple answer . Yet it is one those questions that carries a whole load of baggage and pitfalls. Does the questioner want a truthful answer …?

Hi Alf, its been a great summers day , hasn’t it ? Blue sky all day, birds singing…

Nah Liz, I got burnt in the sun, my fault, but then I tripped over some idiots bike in the park and broke my wrist on the footpath….so it ain’t been that great…just remembered I got fired ….

At this time of year, within our industry,immediately post Halloween , the question on every one’s lips is how was it for you (or rather for everyone else)?

Well the answer is not so straight forward ‘cos it was different for most. There are local issues that have affected some in completely different ways. For example one customer had a very good Halloween because a competitor had closed but another not so good as major road works hampered their customer flow , so it was ok but not great. But for some ‘it were great’.

Marks & Spencer’s have recorded their eighth year of falling clothing sales and consequent decline in profitability. Yet over a similar period, selling presumably similar product (clothing) Seasalt has recorded ten years of annual growth exceeding 20%.

Their gross profit increased last year from 55-57% and their net profit was five times higher than last year at £2.5 million. Their total turnover was £66 million and they have been going since 1981. So they may not as large or as long established as Marks , but they are not the the new kids on the block either. They have and are experiencing the same high street retail as everyone else, but they would have a very different answer to the the same question. Oh, and just one other thing , they dont only sell clothing but their focus is women’s clothing , Mark’s biggest problem. Come to think of it , so do Primark, so do Next and they are doing quite well, if asked how’s it for you….

It’s a question , I am regularly asked but think about, before opening my big ‘gob’. I think about who is asking and what do they genuinely want to hear. If they are having a really tough time, especially through reasons beyond their control I don’t really think they want to hear how wonderful everyone is doing (rarely quite that straightforward). On the other hand, if I figure that they are having a tough time and would want to know if others are having a better time then they may get some inspiration, motivation or just ideas that will help change the course of their business, I tell ’em.

So my theory on the post heading is….If you ask the question, consider whether you will get a truthful answer, and whether you want a truthful answer. If you are asked the question, ‘sod the questioner’, give the answer you want to give .

Happy?….who says so?

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A mind boggling, bonkers piece of recent research proposes that ‘Brits’ were happier in the 1880’s. How does it know? Well because they read loads of books, no,not the happy fun loving Brits of the 1880’s, but the researchers . And not really them but computers,or rather we must assume that as the claim was made that the research was conducted by going through 8 million books and 65 million articles, from that period analysing the words used that may construe a state of ‘happiness’ (14,000 to be precise). I know computers are super fast and they can work how many calories martians need to survive, without knowing what they look like. But I am not convinced they can interpet that amount of data without quantifying the quality and origins of the written pieces.

You have to question the methodology.  Infant mortality was around 15%, extreme poverty was still pretty rife, women did not have the vote, yes from the 1880’s improvements were starting to filter through to everyday life but it was hardly a bunch of roses for the average family. Whilst literacy was around the 70% mark,its hard to imagine the Smith family sitting down on a Sunday afternoon (oh yes no telly then, don’t you know …no not even X Box’s) pouring over a pile of books or the Sunday papers.

More to the point who funds this type of research and why ? More recently I read some research coming out of the Economic Research Unit (Unit not the famous Group as in ERG. I believe that Economic and Research has little to do with the ERG), where one of the economists suggested that if UK retailers embraced Halloween in the same way as the US then UK Retail would be a lot more buoyant. If I remember correctly they said something like ….if more retailers stocked Halloween, novelties, cards  ( what Halloween cards? flipping ‘eck-my words), decorations and dress up stuff…. What are these people smoking when they write this stuff.

Only this week more amazing research has come out showing that an interview is decided within the first seven words the interviewee has spoken. The study was carried out with the interviewers not knowing the background or seeing the cv of the person they were interviewing . So the candidate who drops their ‘h’s ‘, talks with a west indian patois, interlaced with a heavy geordie accent,  with a  background of having spent ten years in medical research, developed a cure for brain cancer, climbed everest, given numerous presentations to the UN and has written 23 best selling novels under a pen name(so they dont recognise his name) in his spare time , has little chance of getting the job ‘cos they don’t know anything about them and can’t understand a word they are saying.

I know the media only publishes this stuff as fillers,but ultimately they get funded by someone, and someone else (plus the first someone) will make use of the results. Its a bit like the Coffee is good from you one week , bad for you another, no alcohol is better for you  then the following week and half bottle of whsky a day will stop you going bald. you pick the one that suits you best and take the consequences.

Worse still it feeds into the fake news narrative. Not that this type of research is fake news per se. But taken in isolation and out of context , it most certainly is. Why is society littered with ‘fad diets’ ? Because a bit of research has just shown that by eating the grass in the park twice a week will help you loose ten kilos, make you faster, fitter, more intelligent and more attractive to the local farmers cattle. No, of course , it hasn’t really, just trying to illustrate the idiocy of some the apparent data that the media is so keen to dispense.

So it’s nearly one hundred and forty years since we, in the U.K., were happy. Not so, says research published in The Times, only last week. Apparently, despite all the political and social discord, we are , mostly, all pretty happy now ?? See chart below if you doubt me(perish the thought now!) and this was additional research published in , no less than, the Financial Times , in May .

 

Shopping Centres ..or Retail Temples ?

If you are face to face, and you don’t know the face that’s facing you, then fess up .

Well I didn’t know The Face, or at least I had heard of it but never read it. It was a magazine first published in 1980 but closed down in 2004. Now subject to a rebirth, I came across an article which seems rather out of character but nevertheless intriguing.

The magazine originally was known for its articles on fashion, style, arts and culture. This article perhaps covers all of the above and a bit more. So how come it has something to say about retail. Don’t really know ‘cos I don’t read or rather I don’t read it but I did read this article of which I have nicked some paragraphs as they have some relevance. Apologies for taking chunks out and just repeating them, but there’s not much point in paraphrasing if the real thing better.

To drift through the middle of Leeds is to drift through several versions of “town” all happening at once. The city centre is almost entirely atomised, separated into distinct districts, each with its own name, history and target audience.

Trinity, which opened in 2013, is the largest and most popular of these shopping precincts, and the aimlessness we call “shopping” is everywhere: parents and children abandon Jack & Jones for lunch at Giraffe; vacant sixth-formers sift through the slim pickings of another Urban Outfitters sale. These are scenes of the unremarkable; the sort that fold away entire weekends like receipt paper.

In other ways though, Trinity is a future vision of “going into town”. The centre’s smooth walkways are wrapped around an atrium, at the heart of which stands a 15-foot metallic sculpture of a packhorse, drenched in dazzling silver light. This is still “town”, but more pristine than in the past.

So far so good . Or rather, in terms of retail not so good. But is a reasonable representation of our current stock of shopping centres. ‘Architectural’ attempts of regenerating retail but not very successfully.

Five minutes’ walk away from Trinity is Leeds’ newest shopping precinct. Built in 2016, Victoria Leeds looks more like an art gallery than a mall and has machines permanently buffing the floors. While not designed by Chapman Taylor(designer of Trinity)it has similar qualities: it’s smooth, open and glassy. As well as Calvin Klein, COS and Charbonnel et Walker, it contains the largest stained glass window in the country, created by the artist Brian Clarke, and there’s a Damien Hirst angel, wings spread, cordoned off by a low-hanging rope. A cluster of passers-by take photos while two smartly-dressed security staff watch on, walkie-talkies crackling.

What’s most striking, though, is the almost total quiet and lack of crowds. In the old shopping centres this minimal footfall might have been a cause for concern – a hallmark of irreversible decline. But in the retail world of the future this doesn’t matter. Since internet shopping precipitated the “death of the high street”, shops have taken on new meanings. Rather than focusing on selling things, they’ve become tools for building brand awareness. Mary Portas, the so-called Queen of Shops, coined an unintentionally chilling name for this new model of shop: the “brand temple”. It’s a phrase that speaks to the repositioning of retail as an experience, rather than an exchange.

This is, I think, the most interesting or perhaps relevant. Shops not actually selling anything. Which is a little disingenuous, as they are there to sell, but you don’t physically take anything away . This has vague echoes of a concept I described in a post last August, concerning a development in Dubai whereby the experience, as opposed to the shopping was paramount. They are only feint echoes as the Dubai concept is a lot more ‘Dubaish’.

The last excerpt from the article tells of a more significant aspect to this type of development. There are other similar ventures that are detailed in the article which just reinforces the trend. The last paragraph of this excerpt , is the most telling if these ‘new temples’ are successful.

Whether shopping centres can be understood as public spaces is questionable. They are ultimately businesses, so to consider them as sentimentally as we do parks or plazas is perhaps naïve. But they are also significant. For better or for worse, our towns and cities are built around shops and shopping culture. If we accept a future where cheaper shopping takes place entirely in the digital sphere, and where familiar brands like M&S and Debenhams are replaced by big-brand temples, then we accept a world in which the everyday shopper is tacitly edged out of civic life.

We’ll always be drawn into town. Even if the day comes when trainers are drone-flown directly onto our feet, there will always be time to kill. There will always be a centrifugal force pulling us back to the splash of fountains, the smell of candied nuts, the cackle of doomsday preachers through amplifiers somewhere in the middle-distance. What is waiting for us – how welcome we feel – when we get there will play no small part in defining the changing surface of our lives. Call it experiential retail or enforced window-shopping; the future, it seems, may not be for everyone.

Perhaps it’s overthinking, but there are potential unseen consequences if this was to repeat itself throughout the U.K., and elsewhere. These are social consequences, that could be the result of making the retail focus of major towns that of high end brands. It has the potential to divide town centre shoppers to the ‘have’ and the ‘have nots’ . A divisive feature much like Temples and centres of faith .

Without getting into a deep theological diatribe, it has long been an accusation of most faiths within the U.K. that the pursuit of happiness is shifting from spiritual worship to that of consumerism. Whilst there maybe some truth in that, it is surely up to those religions to make their temples a more attractive proposition than those of the retailer.

United Kingdom …a Nation of Shopkeepers…discuss..

Napoleon, that great French retail analyst, famously said that England ‘was a nation of shopkeepers ‘. Fake news he didn’t. The first time it was recorded was

To found a great empire for the sole purpose of raising up a people of customers may at first sight appear a project fit only for a nation of shopkeepers. It is, however, a project altogether unfit for a nation of shopkeepers; but extremely fit for a nation whose government is influenced by shopkeepers.

— Adam Smith, The Wealth of Nations1776

It was then used by a French revolutionary, M. Barère. Meant in a complimentary manner alluding to England’s great wealth and prosperity.

Well I am sure we used to be jolly good opening little houses, sticking stuff in them, entrapping the passerby and swapping their hard earned dosh for stuff they didn’t know they needed. I am also pretty sure, the French, Germans, Americans, Chinese, Australians and everybody else are also quite good at shopkeeping. But this is all ancient history. I think it is a very apt time to look our recent retailing history and look at some the less obvious factors that have had an impact upon retailers especially independents.

In the mid 1970’s , the corner shop/newsagent started to feel the chill of an extended winter. There had been a gradual expansion since the early fifties. By now the growth had become a decline. The independent shop keeper wanted out. Yet at the same time, there was a large influx of East African Asians, who were being flushed out from various East African nations. Many of these families came from successful trading backgrounds and were looking for commercial possibilities. The Corner Shop was the perfect opportunity for many, as it also involved living accommodation. By the early 2000’s 75% were owned by Asian families.The rest is history . Moreover some have since become the very wealthiest families in the U.K.

But the story did not stop there. Newsagents saw gradual declines owing to various factors such as Supermarkets starting to sell newspapers, decline in smoking , general increase in competition from the supermarkets, less newspapers sold, but there a couple of positive blips. In the early nineties, indeed nearly the same year, there were two significant developments, the National lottery and phone cards. In the early stages both were only available in the independent newsagent or convenience store. The insidious negative was that whilst they were high revenue (low margin) and they brought a lot of punters into the shops it had a massive impact on the said punters spending power. The money spent on phone cards alone was over £75 million (at 1990 prices) and the first lottery week in 1994 took £49 million. This money had to come from somewhere. For the most part a lot of this spend replaced other non essential independent spending eg confectionery, magazines, pocket money toys, stationery etc.

Fast forward and the decline of the independent newsagent has been rapid for a whole gamut of other reasons past and present. Whilst difficult to get exact numbers it is estimated that the number has at very least halved in the last thirty-five years.

So what? You may ask.….’All High Street retailing is really tough’ . The point I am trying to make, yes it is, but retailing is a very tough business and always has been. What changes are the circumstances and the reasons. It is not even cyclical or at least not economically cyclical. Trends, tastes, fashion, technology, competition and a whole bunch of reasons make retailing eternally difficult to master. Newsagents are just an example how over a period of many changes, the outlook has consistently changed for streams iof unrelated issues that are not necessarily common to other types of retailers.

Here are a couple things Napoleon did say (apparently) which have a current ring of truth….

When small men attempt great enterprises, they always end by reducing them to the level of their mediocrity.

Nothing is more difficult, and therefore more precious, than to be able to decide.

The Good, The Bad and the Ugly …

Bad is not Good. Not because it is pretty obvious, but I have posted a lot recently about what is bad in retailing. A little balance is good , ‘cos sometimes you need to say what is ‘good’ just to re-emphasise the bad. I haven’t yet written anything about Ugly.

Whilst it’s not always helpful to mention names when talking about ‘bad retailers’ , I think it’s really important to use names when they are ‘good’.

The Good

Whistlefish -Cornwall

This is an independent chain (11 branches I think) of card and print ‘galleries’ in Devon & Cornwall. Julia and I happened to visit one of their Galleries in Dartmouth. Our opinion, is sort of, purely as consumers. They are called galleries but essentially they are shops. The stores are very clean, very white in a ‘Cornwall Coastal’ type style. All the products, mainly cards, certainly in space given, are designed and created by the Company. It is very nearly a one price concept, in that nearly all the cards were £10 for 8, which was terrific value for U.K. design and made product (apparently all done in house).

Service was excellent. And they took no cash. For some, this maybe a drawback, but from a business model it meant no cash handled, no cash on the premises and no cash to pay in the bank. As the shop manager said , ‘there was not a bank in the town to pay cash into’.

Conclusion…it is attractive, inviting, I think it’s fair to say ‘uniquely’. Certainly very different. It’s one of those shops you are sucked into and probably end spending money on stuff you never thought you needed.

Sharp looking web site

http://www.whistlefish.co.uk

Studio Dix Neuf- Devon

Dartmouth again. Same day , but totally different ‘kettle of fish’, so to speak, using a marine like analogy. Small gallery run by husband and wife . Products sold are prints by Wife and lamps by Husband. Sounds pretty straight forward and a tad dreary, but not so. Lamp maker extraordinaire is French and very French to boot, in a good way. What he makes is amazing and quite literally unique. He refuses to make two of anything. His work does not come cheap, nor should it. Every piece of work comes with a complete set of technical drawings . Moreover, most of this happens within the shop. Even if you are not in the market for a lamp, it’s worth a visit. If you want to see creativity in its naissance thru to completion, I think this might be the only shop to find it . Plus a bit of Gallic charm.

http://www.studiodixneuf.com

Broadway Deli and Grocery

This is a bit closer to home, or rather it’s a ten minute walk from home. I have posted about this before. This is the case of a Dutchman bringing back to life a struggling local organic grocery store. The Dutchman not only knows his stuff, he engages with both suppliers and customers, and delights in distributing his knowledge to his customer base. In a very short period of time he has established his place within the local community and provides a range of product that is different , often local (from within the South East, but some much closer such as using local bakeries) and responds to customers requests .

The Bad

I lied. I said I wouldn’t mention bad retail. Well I don’t see why not. It’s quite simple, there’s a lot. But from very recent experience let’s take two , WH Smith & Boots. Have you been into one of either and wondered why they exist? I can only sum up the former as a lot of nothing, and a very tired and uninspiring nothing to boot(nothing to do with the latter). The latter often displays much but offers little, especially in some of the larger stores, where there is a bucket load of space but in reality not a lot of product. Or there are a lot of ranges but not much within each range . Some of the smaller stores are very grubby. But with most of the estate big or small, service is poor , particularly at the till. Why do some retailers do this ? Provide the least service at the place where the customer is giving them their dosh and just about to leave the store. Is there some retail moral there about ‘lasting memories ‘?

I have picked on these two but in fairness, the High Street is littered them. But with these two I am not sure what service they do provide. Boots, obviously, have the pharmacies, but independent pharmacies are often in evidence and generally look and feel more professional. With Smith’s even the airport shops, which are the really profitable part of the chain, don’t look and feel any different. In some cases they are worse, as they are in such a ‘high octane environment‘ and feel more ‘calor gas

and The Ugly

More lies. I said I wasn’t writing about Ugly .

Mountain warehouse is not a bad retailer. We have, on occasion, bought from the store. Product range is good, value is reasonable and on the whole the staff are knowledgeable and helpful. The image below is why it is ugly. And it’s not because of the hanging white arm. Though it don’t look great.

Very recently Julia purchased a pair of fleece lined trousers at £15.99 down from £59.99 in a ‘Sale’ . I wanted a pair (why? Not telling!). So I asked the manager if they had my size. He said ‘no’ but if I try this other branch (not saying where because Staff might get a grilling if this was ever read. Yes it’s possible as I am hash tagging it). So we drove the relevant fifteen miles and sure enough they did. I took them to the counter and the till showed £59.99. Naturally, I queried it. I emphasised that I understood the sign said ‘upto’ 70% off. Thus knowing it maybe anything up to that figure. But the response was ‘I am sorry, but there is nothing off these trousers. But I do understand the confusion as you are not the first to question this. However, the company does have this policy of putting the Sale signs all over the store…’

I needed the trousers (not telling) and said I would let head office know of my discontent (I have not). I think this is ugly practice(nb: my trousers came off the rack just under that horizontal red Sale upto 70% card)

Come on Mr Neale(CEO) this not a good look.

I’m not name dropping. I don’t know the guy but this is too good a retailer to let this one go.

In the immortal words of the man with name

Punk…make my day get yourself sorted if you want our money.

Yes I know he did not say that in this film . Nor did he actually use those words. But I would bet a fistful of dollars that he would have if there had been retailers like this in the Wild West. Actually , he probably wouldn’t have, he would have just shot them.

Renting is the new Black….and I don’t mean property…

Listen up ! Check it out ! Stuff goes in cycles ! Back to the future! There is nothing new ! Bunch of clichés , none have any relevance. Well sort of not .

Within our own industry, party and fancy dress, much of today’s market was first created by retailers who used to hire out costumes for fancy dress parties. If you go back, perhaps, twenty/ twenty five years, the only fancy dress available was to hire . Then came along some innovative suppliers who discovered they could source very inexpensive alternatives for the consumer to buy and keep, from the Far East. The idea of actually buying and keeping the costume for less than the price to hire, leads us to the huge market it has become. A slight over simplification, but the principal and consequence are the same.

Within fashion, there has never been much of a tradition with hire, apart from maybe Wedding and formal evening wear clothing, certainly within the U.K. Yet, in the USA, approximately ten years ago , appeared a website called Rent the Runway, initially for the purpose of renting formal wear, since then it has become ….

subscription fashion service that powers women to rent unlimited designer styles for everyday and occasion

Ten years later others have joined the fray. In 2018 the American State of fashion Report 2019, highlighted that the End of Ownership was one of the industry’s top 10 trends.

The lifespan of the fashion product is becoming more elastic as pre-owned, refurbished,

repair and rental business models continue to evolve. Fashion players will increasingly tap into this market

to gain access to new consumers seeking both affordability and a move away from the permanent ownership of clothing

Has this trend crossed the Atlantic? You bet your ‘sweet bippy’ it has , hirestreetuk.com, ourcloset.co.uk, frontrowuk.com to list but a few.

Environmental issues are front line news and at the same time creating new and different opportunities for pretty much most businesses, if they have got any commercial sense . The thought that much ‘fashion’ wear gets worn little and is dumped into landfill is not an appealing thought. Not that I am totally convinced it is completely true , but the concept of hiring is perhaps attractive to the conscientious consumer despite the somewhat counter intuitive issue of the CO2 miles travelled by each piece of apparel as it continually goes backwards and forwards. Is that really better than the distance traveled between retailer, consumer and local dump? It also ignores some of the benefits accrued to Charities via clothing given and sold in charity shops. Oh well, subject for another day , maybe . Nonetheless the environment is undoubtedly an influencing factor.

So where does that leads us within our own market place. I am not totally sure. There are theories within our own market and throughout Europe, that the total market for fancy dress is close to a plateau. There is, undoubtedly, a move by the consumer to buy accessories that can be used again as opposed to a specific character costume that can only be used for a one ‘style’ event . So perhaps there is a perfect storm brewing . The meeting of converging energies, trends, environment and economics. If this were to be the case, I am not sure what the business model would be. Could be very ironic . One of the most notable features over the last couple of years within our industry has been the mass closure of fancy dress hire operators. There is no suggestion that there is going to be a 180 degree shift in the market but it may an indicator for retailers looking at closing their hire departments to hang on a bit .

Whatever the consequence,I don’t think it should be ignored. There will be somebody out there thinking about it. There’s a bit of a rule concerning trends (it’s only my rule) and that is if you follow them , they don’t happen, if you don’t , you look back in anger ….

So back to the opening sentence. Loads of clichés, having no meaning to anything sort of makes them no longer clichés. Well, if you take the definition as the overuse of the word or phrase to the point of losing its meaning , then you can include trends. Once over used, they cease to be trends. When everyone has forgotten about a previous trend, it can once again become a trend . A bit like ‘hire’. Something to figure out over breakfast.

Independents…Poor Relation or Relatively Poor?

Travelling the length and breadth of the U.K. , Julia and I come across some rubbish shops. That’s not just within our own market place, cafés , sandwich shops, newsagents, convenience stores, petrol station shops and loads of others that sell stuff as opposed to retailing. They are poorly lit, poorly stocked, grim layouts and apathetic service. In reality, they are not retailers. They are not owned and run by retailers they are owned and run by people . Which is just not the same.

I remember that during the mass closure of the coal mines, the most popular start ups with redundancy money were Bakers. I assume the rational were that the ex miners liked their bread, used to early hours and hard graft and perhaps their area did not have an independent bakery. All good reasons but not necessarily the right reasons . Firstly they did not question why there was not a bakers, they had not run a business before, least of all a shop, they would have had little training and I suggest just as significantly they had been used to working in a team. Now they were on their own. I would doubt that any of those bread shops, still exist today.

In recent times, I am being in exact so as not to offend the subject, I visited a potential new customer. The shop did not look attractive. The proprietor was very pleasant, not always the case, but when asked why he had started this business, the response was…

I didn’t enjoy what I was doing before

Not an usual nor unreasonable response, but the motivation and rationale for opening a new retail outlet was completely absent. Further into the discussion illustrated a complete lack of knowledge of both retailing and the market within which he was operating. What was even more disturbing was the lack of local knowledge of the area in which he lived.

Now none of this may preclude his future success, but it is symptomatic of many who think opening a shop is a good idea. About three or four years a couple approached me at a trade show because they were looking for suppliers for a new shop they were planning to open. They were enthusiastic, had previously worked in a cafe (worked in not owned) and felt that the small town in which they lived needed a party shop. I knew the area and suggested that they looked at other good party shops to get an idea of locations, ranges, prices, costs…..None of these things had even crossed their minds. Fortunately for them, and I don’t think because of my advice, the shop never materialised.

Independents, this may be a surprise to some, do have advantages over multiples. By definition they are independent which enables them to be more fluid, innovative, flexible, original , in touch with local needs and above offer a knowledgeable and personal service. Yet the rubbish ones seem to go to every length to avoid all of this. Forty years ago, you could just open a shop and sell whatever and maybe make a reasonable living, or at least as much as in paid employ, and be your own boss. You can’t now.

When Julia and I first started working together, we would go into a potential new customer and at the end of our discussion with the proprietor we said we would confirm everything we discussed by email. Occasionally, we received the somewhat strange riposte that

I don’t do email

So invariably we didn’t do business. Just to be clear , we are not talking last century or even last decade. And this not about us doing business with them , but them being able to do business with anyone, suppliers or customers .

The really good independents , ‘Sparkle’. You know when you are in one. It doesn’t matter what type of retailer it is, it does not matter what they are selling. But from the moment you enter that store, you are ‘wanted’ as a customer . You know that you want to buy there and probably know that you want to come back again….‘wanted and want to…‘ being the key words

I have previously posted about two brothers , in their early twenties, having no retail experience , started a small convenience store outlet, which has matured into small but successful chain. The significant difference is that they had vision, drive and focus. Most days we will experience an independent retailer whose only drive can be found on their way to and from work. Some may think this a little disingenuous, but there is no given right for a shop to succeed just because it is there. I have seen it so often in my own local shops. Local residents bemoaning the closure of another dreadful independent retailer, which they rarely visited. Then to have the gaul to moan about the new one because they are new and different! They even went to lengths of opposing a licence to sell alcohol as they felt there was enough shops selling booze in the parade. Three others to be precise, one being a crappy wine store that has since closed, the other two are a Sainsbury’s convenience store and a Co-op. The new store turned out to be an excellent deli, which has become a roaring success.

Poor service, poor product ranges, poor atmosphere and poor stock levels will inevitably lead to a very poor shop keeper. Good independents should never consider themselves the poor relation of the multiples . They are (generally ) leaner, fitter, happier and more adaptable. In many respects they are in a better position to meet the stresses and strains of the constantly changing retail scene. If they do it well, they need never to be relatively poor.

I believe that a ‘good’ independent retailer has a better future than any mediocre chain .

Many Falls come before True Pride…..

This post is very ‘left field’. It has little to do with any retail market place. Or maybe it does , as any commentary on the human condition effects every aspect of society.

I make two apologies …

1. I have not written this post . Of course , I have written this preamble, which should be pretty obvious as I keep using the first person.

2. I apologise, in a sort of way, for those who will have already read the contents in a recent Facebook post. But as I know the author wants as many people as possible to read this, then if I only reach another half dozen , then I shall retract the repeat apology and consider that I have helped a little more in sharing this message.

I make no apology, whatsoever, about the rest of this post. I would just ask you to read it.

So the following is written by our daughter…..

On Being Queer in London and Essex – 1993 to 2019

I don’t often write anything personal on social media as I’m a private person however in recognition of Pride this year I wanted to share an ordinary persons experience of growing up and being LGBT from 1993 (when I came out) to 2019. To be clear and out I am exclusively attracted to and romantically love women. I don’t hate or am repelled by men in any way; I just don’t fancy them or could ever fall in love with a male. I am female in body but also identify as non binary (neither male or female) and fall on the trans spectrum. Very few people know this. Perhaps I’m still don’t feel entirely able to be open about this as gender identity is still very much beyond most peoples understanding at this time. But this is who I am.

Since I came out many things have changed, most notably the law and general society, however homophobia is still very much alive as the recent incident of two gay women being physically assaulted on a bus in central London shows. I don’t need anyone to like this post but I would please ask you to share, if you agree with the underlying message, so this reaches as far as possible.

In 1993 (my third year of secondary school in Woodford) when I came out I did so as I’m not someone to hide or be ashamed of who I am. I had been that way since I could remember and it was nothing but natural to me. At that time Section 28 (Thatcher legislation) was in full force and prevented any support or intervention to protect me in school. There were numerous other pupils who targeted me, mainly verbally but on occasion physically, during school time over the course of three years. At no point did staff intervene or show any support – I even recall one teacher telling me off for reacting verbally when a group of boys in my year taunted me openly with homophobic names in a classroom. I don’t know if the teachers were afraid to intervene or simply agreed with these attempts at bullying but not once did anyone challenge them. In fact the only intervention was a referral by school for a psychiatric assessment after I came out. I didn’t need psychiatric support, I was happy with who I was, the only reason I needed any support was because of how others/society treated me and people like me.

So I learnt to fight back and stand up for myself very quickly. I had a group of friends who were supportive, and this grew in time as I stood firm in who I was, but they were limited in the force of peer pressure and wanting to fit in themselves. I endured school but this made me more determined to be out and proud. I simply found my own community of LGBT people in London and gravitated towards them before finally leaving school at the earliest opportunity and going to a sixth form college/university. I’ve not retained contact with anyone from my educational years which is common for LGBT people, as although I always made friends easily, our pathways and experiences were so far removed from one another.

I had to lie about my age and pretend I was older from the age of 13 until I was 18 as no youth groups for under 18 were allowed to exist by law for LGBT. Due to the age of consent laws many of my male gay friends under 21 were at risk of imprisonment if they entered into any relationship that was automatically afforded and encouraged by society for the same peer group who happened to be heterosexual. Without this pretence I would have had no means of support at all. This meant I had to socialise around pubs and bars mainly and enter into an adult and very real world very early on. This opened my eyes to diversity for the first time as the community consisted of people from all backgrounds, race, religion, class and identity. I met young people, teens, who were homeless because their own families had thrown them out and abandoned them after discovering they were gay. Women and men who had survived sexual assaults because of their sexuality. People with substance issues and mental health problems because of how society and their families treated them. And just ordinary people trying to live and love like everyone else free from fear and prejudice.

Marriage, children, protection by law if your partner was to die, pension rights, and the right to enter all professions did not exist for our community. In Ireland it was an illegal offence to be gay at all until 1993; the world health organisation had only just removed homosexuality as a mental disorder from diagnostic manuals. I came out in a world where I soon learnt I was lesser and had none of those rights heterosexual people are automatically granted. The foundation and glue for the gay community existed on solidarity and love alone.

The pubs I frequented were subject to hate graffiti and groups of straight males lying in wait for us outside at night. Once the windows were smashed and glass scattered everywhere inside the pub. Several times people I knew were physically assaulted and even at risk of sexual assault in London for leaving such premises.

I was attacked physically twice. By a group of men. I was asked to renounce my sexuality to save being hit. I wouldn’t so I was held over the train platform in Hackney. I was scared out of straight pubs especially in Woodford where I lived and even now I have a fear of entering any bar which isn’t LGBT. I was verbally abused 100’s of times, beyond count. I maintained a list for a while in 2000 (which I found recently) but gave up after recording 20+ incidents in three months. I’ve been threatened by a gang of 10+ men in Leyton and challenged them alone resulting in an apology. I’ve been called names and jeered at by children and whole families in supermarkets, from cars, in parks. Summer meant, and still does, a higher risk. Winter is safer due to the cold and darkness. I’ve been called a queer, a faggot, a f-ing dyke, a poof…any gay slang term you can imagine. I’ve been spat at the first time I held hands with another female in Soho. I’ve been threatened with death by a gang if I continued to ride the Walthamstow to Liverpool Street train line. A passerby intervened (a woman) and I will never forget her act.

There were no laws to protect us and criminalise this behaviour. I reported it for a while but heard nothing from the police ever. The only time the police approached me in East London were to suspect me of joyriding (my own car) and burglary (of my own flat).

Teachers, the police, organised religion, the state, the government, people. I grew up thinking they were all against people like me. Family values meant the exclusion of gays – family was, and still is, who has my back and I have theirs regardless of blood or DNA. I felt excluded, alone and it was frightening. In the UK in the 90’s and into the 2000’s.

As time went on things got better as I moved from Waltham Forest back to Woodford then to Buckhurst Hill. Society started to change, laws protected me and I felt safer. Never safe but safer. Some neighbours took time to warm to the presence of LGBT on the street and every single holiday (until this day) has to be planned with great care around location. I have experienced holidays were everyone would stare at me with my partner and make us feel unwelcome. Comments made and threatening looks in some areas. So for now I can’t visit countries that many other people take for granted…parts of the USA, some Caribbean islands, parts of Asia, Africa and even Europe. Simply because I am at risk of imprisonment or death at worse; at best a holiday of pretence or discomfort.

Sadly in the last couple of years I’ve been reminded of how homophobia still lurks beyond the surface. On public transport, people close to me. Public toilets are a daily concern – I’ve been asked to leave many toilets or gendered spaces. I’ve had a whole group of middle aged women congregate outside a toilet I was in in Ilford asking the attendant to ask me to leave. I’ve experienced recent direct homophobia at my gym in Chigwell including not being able to use the changing room for two years after one incident making it clear I’m not welcome. I will always challenge and stand up for myself but it gets tiring and exhausting. People still think it’s okay to make light banter of ‘gays’ but it isn’t – this is all part of what leads to more serious incidents. Like any prejudice. I’ve had white straight middle class men comment that they need a straight pride as heterosexual men are they are now the oppressed party. I remind them that the National Front may still exist if they feel the need to rally in this way. I would never think it okay to comment that a White Pride is needed or joke about colour, the majority have their own culture reflected and validated every single day as I do in my skin tone. I don’t know what it’s like to be an ethnic minority but I do know that they will face barriers I will never know exist. I know they will feel that same sense of exclusion at times and fear in certain parts of the country. I know being both an ethnic minority and gay is even harder.

I would give many examples of people close to me and how they face prejudice and discrimination today. But I won’t because in the LGBT community we understand the need for discretion and respecting many of us can’t still come out for fear. We still don’t have any role models above us in day to day life to guide us. We have no template for getting old yet. We have very scarce resources for older people, I hope that changes by the time I get there.

I am still expected and asked to be patient and sensitive towards people who need to adjust to being around someone like me (LGBT) who may feel discomfort. I’m not sure we would feel it is acceptable (although I’m sure people like this exist) to ask a person from an ethnic minority background to be sensitive to a white person who needs to adjust to the visual difference in skin colour. I would refer to the experiences in this post and question why I am still expected to be sensitive to people’s fears and prejudices – surely the onus isn’t on the minority but on the majority to be sensitive. I don’t need to be liked but I do ask to be respected and not pre judged. I would ask anyone reading this to understand the huge courage that people take to come out and to attempt to live freely. The fear that never quite goes; the daily risk assessing of every room and situation you enter. The daily effort of always having to prove you are a positive representation of being Queer so as to change peoples views slowly. Pride isn’t about having a party and dressing up; it’s about being visible and safe for a day, remembering our shared history and learning from this.

But it’s not all bad…I’m fortunate to have parents who support my choice in partner, to be relatively comfortable financially (lower income areas can be higher risk of physical attack), to be confident as a person and to have some very good close friends who I consider my family (all LGBT). It’s also taught me the importance of standing up for others, questioning everything including those in power, the need to be focused and determined, to seek respect not a wish to be popular, to not be afraid to stand out, to fight my corner and those around me, and to never judge until you know someone. I am happy and comfortable with who I am and who I love.

I will end with a quote that I will never forget seeing on the wall of someone close to me many years ago when I was 19. I truly believe in these words and feel they apply to any minority or oppressed community. Indeed they apply to everyone. “First they came …” is the poetic form of a prose post- war confession first made in German in 1946 by the German Lutheranpastor Martin Niemöller. It is about the cowardice of German intellectuals and certain clergy (including, by his own repeated admissions, Niemöller himself) following the Nazis’ rise to power and subsequent incremental purging of their chosen targets, group after group.

First they came for the socialists, and I did not speak out—

Because I was not a socialist.

Then they came for the trade unionists, and I did not speak out—

Because I was not a trade unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—

Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.