A Bygone Era

Time for more reflection …

Everywhere around us we see evidence of former household names disappearing into the ethereal mists of commerce. How many UK readers will remember the grocery outlets of Liptons, George Mason and International Stores? Slightly later we welcomed the name of Gateway on to our High Streets. For most DIY materials, we either relied upon the local family store or visited a builders’ merchant. That was until the advent of Texas Homecare stores which were the first mainstream chain of out of town outlets.

Then we had men’s tailoring outfitters such as Hepworths (once the UK’s largest clothing manufacturer and now trading as Next), John Collier, Hector Powe, Austin Reed and the budget chain of Burton’s. Most have long disappeared and any remaining are but a shadow of their former selves. There a few bespoke tailors remaining and I suspect that if one wants a suit made to measure, it will be a unique shop that has to be found together with a hefty price. Of course, some big names still remain, amongst which are Marks & Spencer and BHS, formerly known as British Home Stores, but even these are no longer the bastions of Britishness that they once were.

Back in the bustling 70s, our once buoyant high streets were awash with names like Rediffusion, Granada, and Radio Rentals from where you could rent the latest colour television. For a quick snack, you had Lyons Corner House or a Wimpy Bar, and how many readers remember The Golden Egg? The high street boasted numerous building society names, many of which would be local to the town or surrounding area. There was the friendly Midland Bank, plus the smaller and long-forgotten Martins Bank with its grasshopper logo! Of course, the Midland became part of the giant HSBC whilst Martins was swallowed up by Barclays but still retained some of its identity during the early part of the 70s. Another long-standing name that disappeared was that of Timothy Whites, a cooking utensils and hardware outlet that was owned by Boots. This business was eventually amalgamated into Boots under the brand of ‘Boots Cookshop’ and most standalone outlets closed. The hardware division of Boots has subsequently ceased to exist meaning that a once cherished business is no longer represented in our town centres.

Whilst it survived into the early part of the 21st century, undoubtedly the biggest high street name to finally disappear was Woolworths. This store was once the mainstay of traditional town shopping due to the variety of products stocked at attractive prices. Invariably, Woolworths would become a first port of call for household products and knick knacks, not to mention the latest 45rpm record plus some pick’n’mix sugary delights! In essence, our high streets offered a cornucopia of different brands, most of which may have been traditional but nevertheless were reassuring and trusted.

It is easy to look back to a bygone era with affection and future generations will no doubt mourn the passing of such giants as Apple, Starbucks, and Waterstones in years to come. Please note that I only use these names as examples and in no way am I suggesting their imminent demise! However, as previous times have shown, no giant of the high street (or shopping mall and retail park of the present) is likely to have eternal life. As fashions and lifestyles change, so does the face of our high streets, and already the facility to shop for most things online is having a devastating effect upon traditional retail businesses. To be honest, I make most of my purchases online already as it’s so more convenient and takes away the hassle of marauding crowds and the struggle to find a parking place even in expensive car parks. Currently internet commerce is growing at a phenomenal rate so only time will tell what might happen to our modern shopping malls and retail parks.

Earlier I mentioned that Marks & Spencer still adorns our high streets. I remember the days when large banners displayed inside their stores proudly stated that over 90% of everything they sold was British made. Sadly, I would guesstimate that no more than 10% of the products they sell today are British, and most of that will be in the food category. Their reputation for quality and price is fast being reflected in their regular downfall in sales across clothing with only their food business propping up the business. We do all need to eat after all and in this department, they now compete more equally with the mainstream supermarkets. So whilst it is still very much British owned and named, it no longer flies the traditional British flag!

I would be the first to endorse the convenience and relative comfort of shopping malls but these are so impersonal compared with the high street. I remember fondly the times when one would hop from shop to shop, sometimes dodging the inclement weather, but almost always guaranteed to bump into someone I knew. There was something very sociable about high street shopping which has been lost with the advent of superstores, malls and retail parks.

Those were the days as back then the consumer had real choice. Today we are bombarded with countless different products but in reality they all look very much the same. One only needs to look at fashions (or the lack of them!), motor vehicles and computers to name but a few!

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Pitch and Putt

Anyone who knows me well will be fully aware of how much I detest the game of golf and anything remotely associated with it. To be honest, the thought of watching paint dry is more appealing! Recently I was persuaded to participate in a game of pitch and putt which in itself is a far cry from real golf but still very unappealing.

Clear blue skies, the sun beginning to go down and the temperature about 16C … the scene was apparently set for a very informal early evening a few weeks ago. I dutifully paid the entrance fee and collected an array of various implements ready to embark upon the nine-hole course. Immediately it became apparent that I was surrounded by so-called professionals who had brought their own tool kits to tackle the course. I later learnt that these tools were called clubs!

For many, teeing off for hole one presented few problems, there being a gradual downhill slope towards the hole. With player after player surprising each other, not least themselves, by their accurate shots, they proceeded to subsequent holes exuding with confidence. This euphoria was soon to diminish rapidly as slopes became mini mountains, the apparent short distances to the holes seemed like miles, and who was the mysterious person who persisted in planting prickly bushes in a direct line between tee and hole?

After hole number three, I was beginning to lose the will to live. More time was spent looking for the ball than actually hitting it and none of the available implements seemed to make any difference to my plight. After some unashamed cheating, the ninth hole was in sight and the thought of relaxation crossed my mind. I was not tempted by a few who decided to attempt a second round in a futile effort to improve upon first round scores as my only target was the bar and a large gin and tonic!

That must have been the first time in twenty years that I’d handled a golf club of any sort and it’s likely to be the last. Now where’s my paint brush …?

Changing Times

Some thirty years ago I was an active member of an organisation called British Junior Chamber, part of the worldwide Jaycees International. It is an organisation for young people in their 20s and 30s who meet on a regular basis for fun and friendship, and participating in many inspiring events and projects. It aims for members to broaden their network of contacts, get involved in community projects and develop new skills. For those fortunate enough to be able to afford it, there is the opportunity to travel to international events.

As a member of my local Chamber, I launched a regular news magazine to keep members updated on events and also held the position of Secretary seeing as others were reluctant to undertake the onerous task! The Chamber formed part of the Midlands Regional Group which was later divided into two areas … west and south. My local branch fell into the latter division and formed one of eight Chambers to the south of Birmingham. This reorganisation enabled greater interaction and competitiveness between Chambers as it minimised the travelling distances involved.

Inter-branch activities included regular debating competitions and business games. One such activity was the World Trade Game and what follows is a report of the 1982 task …

The cold night of 26 October, destination the Brandon Hall Hotel twist Coventry and Rugby. The experienced world traders Jayne, Andy and Nick (the writer) all primed for big business – if only we could locate the hotel in question.

After driving around in semi-circles (the fault, no doubt, of the person responsible for drawing the sketch map attached to the rules!) we arrived at the hotel some ten minutes later than the scheduled start time of 7:30pm. Various thoughts of immediate disqualification or severe trading penalties began to loom, but these feelings were quickly dispelled upon entering the venue as only about 60% of the teams had arrived. The sketch map was obviously causing problems to others too! Countries were allocated to teams by way of a draw, so obviously the early arrivals had a greater chance of drawing one of the so-called rich countries. For the purposes of the game, the rich trading countries were USA, Europe, Japan and Russia (then USSR). There were also nine poor countries comprising India, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Iran, Iraq, Brazil, Pakistan, Egypt and Venezuela. What a selection! In order to avoid any domestic disputes, we had elected Andy to make our draw seeing as he was responsible for us entering the game. Thankfully he did us proud as we were to represent Japan, a rich country, and so we thought a piece of cake in terms of world trade.

The rules of the game were explained to the competing teams. Unfortunately it wasn’t going to be a free for all as rich countries were obliged to offer spare manufacturing capacity to a poorer nation in order to, supposedly, improve that country’s financial standing. Briefly the object of the game was for each country to satisfy its consumption requirements in a specified trading period by trading with other countries, goods and raw materials that were surplus to requirements. Also money had to be accrued through selling spare manufacturing capacity (if you were lucky enough to have any) plus stockpiling goods which would convert into cash at the end of the game. After the final trading period, cash adjustments were made for each country depending upon their location and potential manufacturing capacities. This adjustment was known as the Equalisation factor with Japan bearing one of the highest amounts of cash to be deducted. You can probably see where this is going and hearts quickly began to sink!

During the trading periods, we quickly experienced a certain reluctance on the part if some countries to do business with Japan. Could this be an inbuilt prejudice? Sometimes we found ourselves being far too generous to other countries in order that we might satisfy our pre-determined consumption requirements. Needless to say, the organisers hardly played fair in that they arranged for an acute shortage of meat in one trading period. This helped those countries with surplus requirements but did little for countries like Japan who had to make high bids or barter more expensive commodities in order to obtain the necessary meat requirement. Should a country not have met its consumption needs in each trading period, a cash penalty would be applied at the end of the game. Japan only had a wheat commodity with which to commence trading, and there was always a grain surplus throughout the period in question. Even the USSR was able to meet its grain requirements – a far cry from the situation in real life!

Amidst the fun and frolics were several important lessons to be learned from this challenge. Above all, we found that setting up trade agreements with other countries on a regular basis proved far from satisfactory as there is always another party who will offer a more attractive deal. The end result – Japan was second behind Europe prior to the afore-mentioned Equalisation factor being taken into account. The result then was that Japan finished in seventh place, though the real surprise was that the USA failed to reach higher than eleventh place on both counts!

This was but one of many challenges. Others included participating in both the White Rose Walk in North Yorkshire and the Three Peaks Challenge in South Wales. The Chamber was also responsible for organising debating competitions between local secondary schools, community projects and fund raising events. Amidst all the serious business were regular social activities and visiting speakers on topics as diverse as the Mary Rose, guide dogs and wine tasting. In essence, the organisation was great for self development and education provided that individuals were committed to participate.

You may now be wondering what relevance all this has. When I was a member of the organisation, there were branches of Junior Chamber in most large towns, thereby providing opportunities for many young adults. The British arm of Jaycees International is still going but sadly is only represented in 22 locations nationwide. Only Birmingham survives in the greater Midlands area with all those branches with which I worked closely now a distant memory. There are huge pockets across the country now that have no representation whatsoever. Whilst I’ve long passed the age of eligibility, the nearest branch of Junior Chamber to my home is 170 miles away. I suspect complacency has been the death knell for so many former branches. Changing times indeed!