BOOK VERDICT: The making of the high street

BOOK REVIEW by  MATT BAIN

HIGH STREET HEROES – THE STORY OF BRITISH RETAIL IN 50 PEOPLE

By John Timpson

Published by Icon Books

£12.99

John Timpson, chairman of the cobbling and key cutting firm that has been in the family for five generations, is a businessman worth listening to. The company that has borne his name since 1865 has a turnover of £200million a year and the brand is stronger than ever. Since 2003 he has employed hundreds of ex-prisoners when most companies won’t look at them twice – they currently make up around 10% of the workforce. Then in January of this year his son James Timpson, chief executive, posted signs outside shops and on Twitter offering a free dry-clean to unemployed people going for an interview. Timpson knows a thing or two about how to run a successful yet ethical high street brand.

Wide-reaching in his narrative scope, John Timpson achieves two admirable aims in this book. The first is to provide an insightful historical overview of the vast changes in British consumer culture that were unimaginable when he started working as a young shop assistant in 1960. Secondly, he paints a portrait of his personal top 50 maverick maestros of retail; each creating (or taking on and growing) shops that have shaped our lives at some point over the last 50 years. He has produced a highly readable exploration of a chapter of British history which should interest us all. The shops which shape our houses, wardrobes, stomachs and pockets affect all of our lives in a way perhaps no other aspect of British life does.

In an age of multi-chain conglomerates and their crowded boardrooms stuffed with managers brain-storming over focus group research, it is hard to imagine that many of today’s surviving high street giants came from very humble origins. All were founded by extraordinary individuals armed often with only meagre resources and a powerful instinct; that they could provide something that people wanted or needed. Tesco for instance, was started by Jack Cohen, son of a Polish immigrant, as a market stall in Hackney providing decent food to local people at an affordable price. Timpson illustrates how these shops were often extrapolations of the whole personality and ethics of their founders which, when the stores became huge national chains, exported that personal brand into a household (like Laura Ashley, which he describes as an ‘extension of her personality’).

Timpson knows what it takes to survive in the turbulent and ruthless maelstrom of British retail, whilst running a firm which retains a strong sense of personal customer service and social responsibility. Yet his assessment of each of the big players’ success is not seen exclusively through an ethical lens, but rather through the prism of good business. Two main criteria emerge in his judgement; the first is whether the people who made the firms into giants had the guile to keep them afloat in the unsentimental world of supply and demand. The second is whether those people in charge of the brand were able or unable to retain the initial principles of their founders (and the brand’s Unique Selling Point) as they grew like unwieldy beasts into huge national chains. He says key to the continued success of giants we still see today like John Lewis and M&S is the strong customer service that was a hallmark of every good company when it began. Timpson’s greatest admiration is saved for those men who understood what the brand meant and strived to protect it at all costs  –  as in John Lewis, which for instance shunned the short-term Christmas sales tactics and steadily increased sales after the 2008 recession.

Anita Roddick of the Body Shop and Dame Mary Perkins of SpecSavers stood out for me as two women (and there are very few of them in Timpson’s rundown) who succeeded, against all the odds, in expanding a personal vision to change the world in a small way.  In Roddick’s case it was on profoundly ethical principles, whilst keeping the brand even as it expanded beyond all the dreams of its founder. By contrast, Tesco has struggled to retain public affection as it has turned into a bloated corporate giant. As Timpson well elucidates, becoming the biggest household name in the country often comes at a cost.

It is also, though Timpson might not have intended this explicitly, a critique of the trend of capitalism towards the domination or monopoly of a market by one or two giants, at the expense of smaller ones that fell along the way.

He notes, not without a tinge of sadness, the dullification of the high street as a result of how the Boots and Clarks of today had to envelop many smaller firms which started with just as much passion and contributed something unique to British life in their way, and how their loss on the high street makes it all the poorer for this deterioration in variety. Particularly sad to note are the traditional department stores that were allowed, after takeover, to keep their trusted brand but eventually had to give up this the last bastion of identity from the age which made them, and taken the names of their owners; like Browns of Chester which is now Debenhams.

And he warns us against falling into the trap of thinking that our favourite store is too big to fail; consumers are fickle and the winds of need and demand are ever-changing, making history of stores like C&A and Woolworths that no-one could imagine vanishing before the event but have quickly faded from the public memory.

The reasons behind the success or failure of each brand are clearly very complex, a web of competing and variable factors such as public loyalty and continued relevance to the zeitgeist. Like the benevolent uncle of British retail, Timpson’s warmth and passion comes across in this who’s who-style reference book as he gently guides us through the themes that make sense of it all in a way that a business-layman with no real knowledge of the industry (like myself) can understand. There is very little off-putting industry jargon or nerdery as he goes in-depth with anecdotes and insightful analysis of each company. He is also candid in his admiration for many of these trend-setters and in his admission to stealing ideas (such as Vision Express’s idea of sitting a craftsman in the window, which Timpson’s have copied).

Those looking for a more conventional history of the changing high street may be disappointed- there is no linear narrative thread- but then retailing history has not been a steady evolution but a messy and complicated saga. This is one expert’s quirky and very likeable take on it (avoid Subway and the sun-dried tomatoes, Timpson tells us, but most of us knew to do that already). It is also useful as a reference book so those not particularly interested in the history of say, JJB and sports retailers can skip to the stores that interest them the most. It’s easy to think that the goods we buy and the shops that dominate the high street in 2015 are set in stone, but Timpson is at pains to point out that the men and women whose radical ideas will shape our lives in the future have yet even to have their lightbulb moment, found their business, or even be born.

 

 

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