Your editor reminded me that it was thirty-five years ago that I wrote a book (Nation of Shopkeepers). In those thirty-five years the face of retailing has changed considerably. Look close to home; Dulwich Village is almost unrecognisable. In those days there were two butchers, a fishmonger, two greengrocers, a hardware stores, an electrical shop, two drapers/haberdashers (one doubling as the post office), two sweet shops, a sports shop, the Village Dairy and a Cullens grocers and a baker's. The Village Cake Shop doubled as small restaurant, which did not open in the evenings. Even the Village Toy Shop and the Art Stationers were at opposite ends of the village, with Mr. Green senior very much in charge. There were no dress shops, no shops comparable with Tomlinsons or Aqua, and Estate Agents were a rarity. Similarly Lordship Lane - there was hardly an eating place or antique shop. But then there was no large Sainsbury's in Dog Kennnel Hill, no Whitgift Centre in Croydon, and no Glades in Bromley and no rash of Ocado vans on the streets of Dulwich.
In a wider context how many remember Allied Suppliers, the company that had more than two thousand high street grocers, some also trading under the names of Lipton and Maypole. Similar chains were David Greig and International Stores. They are no longer with us. The decline of the small independent and chains of small high street shops was brought about mainly by the dominance of the big supermarket chains - firstly Tesco and Sainsbury, later to be joined by Asda and Safeway - and more recently Morrisons. Shopping habits changed. Many more women work and the weekly shop by car to a large supermarket has become the norm. In the 1950s more than 40% of the average household budget was spent on food, by the early seventies this was declining, until today it is less than 15%, although the amount spent in restaurants and fast food outlets has increased enormously.
In the late 1960s half of Sainsbury's 228 shops were still counter service and most of the others were self-service rather than full-scale supermarkets. Their turnover in 1968-9 was about £165 million. This compares with a turnover of £18,300 million today from nearly 600 shops. Interestingly, both Sainsbury and Tesco, having for two decades concentrated on large supermarkets are now going back into smaller convenience stores to compete with the re-emergent small independent sector.
The starting point for my book was the difference I had perceived between Jack Cohen, founder of Tesco and a small shopkeeper in South London. In the 1920's one had started with a market stall, the other as a newsagent. By 1969, Cohen could shrug off "leakage" of, then, hundreds of thousands of pounds, while the other was desperate because a few thousand cigarettes had been stolen from his shop and he was having cash-flow problems while waiting for an insurance settlement. Why was one man a multi-millionaire and the other struggling? Both were essentially shopkeepers. One can never satisfactorily answer such a question. Factors include ambition, determination, luck, the ability to take risks and straightforward skill in being a shopkeeper. Cohen had all these in abundance and he built a company that then 800 stores and supermarkets, turning over £191 million. Now there are 440 large stores, about 500 smaller ones, a large overseas business and sales of around £33,560 million. About 18% 0f all the groceries bought in the UK come from Tesco.
At that time, and for a while after, Tesco had strong family connections on the board - Cohen himself and his sons-in-law Hyman Kreitman and Leslie Porter. It was still not unusual for large companies to be family dominated. The two most successful at the time were Sainsbury and Marks and Spencer. Marks and Spencer had been founded by Michael Marks, a Polish Jewish immigrant who started "Marks' Penny Bazaar" in Kirkgate Market ,Leeds in 1884. Tom Spencer, who was to become his partner, died in 1905, leaving no heir and it became Marks' own company. As the business grew so it became even more a family concern. The Marks moved to Manchester and Michael's son Simon went to Manchester Grammar School where he met Israel Sieff. They became friends and eventually married each other's sister. The two families were to control the company for decades. At the time of my book two thirds of the board were members of, or connected to, the Marks and Sieff families. The directors' dining room was like a family party. WH Smith was another large company that then had a number of family members on the board, and was very successful. There is now no direct family control in any of these four companies although there are still large family shareholdings. There is an irony; three of them have suffered a decline in the years since the families were no longer managing. The fourth is Tesco.
In the late sixties the department stores were in decline. Their share of the overall market had never been large, but they were an important part of the retailing scene; very often the focal point of a shopping area. Many were not well managed, and the increasing tendency for the supermarkets and chains like Marks and Spencer and BHS to diversify into household goods and even furniture was hitting them hard. In the intervening years the downward trend continued. Locally Jones and Higgins in Peckham, Bon Marché at Brixton, Pratts at Streatham and Grants of Croydon have all gone. Nevertheless they have not all disappeared. Shops like Debenhams, John Lewis, and Selfridges have flourished, partly because they have gone into the big, new shopping centres like Bluewater, Meadowhall and the Trafford centre while modernising both their management and their merchandising. In the area of clothing both the department stores and M and S and their like have suffered at the hands of the more aggressive price cutting firms like Matalan, and the emerging fashion chains. Surprisingly the small independent fashion shop is making an impact in the more affluent suburbs like Dulwich.
Change, then, there has been in abundance. Did I see it coming? Well, I looked hard at the future and it is interesting to see what I got right and what I got wrong. Big out of town shopping centres were only gleams in eyes in this country then, although they were common in North America and Scandinavia. I said: "In Britain one-stop shopping must be an occasion, and in a tight urban area, one stop is enough for a whole High Street, and the sense of occasion, of an outing, is far more than on a visit to a concrete and glass palace miles out of town." Oh dear! How wrong can one get? What I did get right was forecasting computerised checkouts linked to a company's stock control which could directly debit one's bank account. It was before the time of home computers and the internet but I was rash enough to forecast. "It could be that the housewife will be able to dial the [store's] computer, place her order - perhaps selected by using closed circuit television - and later drive to the store where here goods will have been automatically packed, sorted and accounted." Not quite right but going in the right direction, given the technology of the day. Internet shopping, both with specialised firms and with supermarkets, wine merchants, department stores but more particularly with the supermarkets, is perhaps the latest phase in what was once called a retail revolution, but which is probably more accurately described as "radical evolution."
Many of the main changes in conventional retailing in the previous three-quarters of a century had been the work of Jewish immigrants or their sons. Not only did their methods change retailing, they changed the way we lived. Inexpensive goods of high quality for the masses, new foods, new fashions, all affected our lives. Looking to the future I concluded "If today's shopkeepers, at all levels, do not attract the right successors, inefficient distribution will hold up social and economic progress. It could be that this will allow some new immigrant market trader with energy and idealism to found another Marks and Spencer and show that society can be changed over the counter." This may be so, but the influx of immigrants from East Africa and the sub-continent have, in fact, created a counter-revolution (no pun intended) by rescuing and restoring the corner shop, the newsagent and the independent pharmacy and allowing us to maintain some sense of community in an increasingly corporate world.