29 July 2012

Rhyme and Reason

I’ve been doing some casual work at a kiosk to understand the rhythms of practice, see the flow of things, and better appreciate the logics of display.  The experience has shown just how deliberate all decisions are in the organisation of goods.  And while I try to be helpful, at times my efforts are overenthusiastic or undo careful configurations, and require some remedy guided by my patient shopkeeping friend.

The “ramble and face-up” refers to the practice of reordering goods to fill gaps in displays and ensure they are facing upwards and forwards.  There’s something particularly satisfying about creating a flush plane of shiny packages, but it seems I tend to ramble with a bit too much zeal.  As important as it is, too much “rambling and facing up” makes the products seem unpopular, I'm told.  There’s a psychology of keeping shop: gaps in display make sweets look like they’re flying off the shelves.  I have had to undo some of my fanatical reorganisation.  

I also spent some time untangling umbrella straps, only to be told they were intentionally twisted so they cannot be nicked with ease.

Although we're in the dead of summer, Halls cough drops are positioned in the most prominent place, beside the cash register.  Why?  Because they are nearing their expiry date. 

On a shelf of extra stock, pop cans are intentionally stored upside down to avoid collecting dust and grime on the openings -- an on-going issue in the kiosk, being so close to the road. 

As spontaneous as kiosks may look, their curation is calculated.  There's much for me to learn.

23 July 2012

News and Weather

This summer has seen some of the wettest conditions on record.  Recent reports from high street chains describe disappointing sales.  Most ad hoc shopkeepers also bemoan the rotten conditions.  Wet days change our regular routines: we dart to the Tube station after work instead of sipping a cold drink in the park; we forego the ice cream sandwich on the street in favour of a hot drink in a cafe; we spend less, hibernate more.  This all hurts convenience retailers, souvenir shops, kiosks, and newsagents. 

There’s no way to the ward off the rains, but material adaptations mitigate its effects. 

For kiosks, the canopy is particularly essential.  Shopkeepers discuss how patrons take refuge beneath it during the rain and how they’re more likely to stop for a purchase on wet days if it means a short time under cover.  Without a canopy, many have to close when the rains come so products don’t get soaked. 

I’ve spoken to a number of shopkeepers with broken canopies, waiting for corporate producers to deliver promised branded covers.  Many have been waiting a long time and others have thrown up their hands and shelled out themselves, knowing these delays cost their business.

Albeit a bane to most, a few retailers in my neighbourhood have sheepishly delighted in this soggy season – namely those selling umbrellas.  Some of these vendors – with licences to sell “weather goods”: sunglasses, umbrellas, scarves, gloves, pashminas, etc. – report record sales.  Although it’s rained almost every day in the last few months, it seems people are still often caught out sans brolly.

15 July 2012

Press Gallery

I’m told selling magazines and newspapers is a tough business.  Shopkeepers pay for delivery of the material and margins are low.  This is compounded by print media sales being down overall, owing to so much online information and so many free papers.  Shop-front promotion of print materials helps to some extent.  By occupying a significant portion of the frontage, it also contributes to the texture of shops in the neighbourhood.

Newspapers and magazines are promoted in purpose-built frames – affixed to windows, paper boxes, and exterior walls – and on wooden news boards, which hold headlines behind wire mounts.  Generally, the former are designed for blown-up magazine covers, and the latter for newspaper headlines... but rules are made to be broken.

Newspaper headline posters may be sent to shops through the post and positioned by the shopkeepers themselves, whereas the magazine posters are often placed directly by magazine reps who tend to organise them in multiples for higher impact.

Of course, mobile companies like Lebara and Lyca produce posters that also slip into these frames and have created stickers to capture this space.  Shopkeepers use them for their own unbranded promotions too, and tend to use text instead of image. 

News boards are an enduring part of the high street.  Here, an image taken in 1903, on (a now demolished block of) Marchmont Street, shows an array of headlines... not to mention a good deal of chocolate branding in the adjacent windows.  Everything old is new again.

11 July 2012

Birds of a Feather Flock Together

There are almost 80 ad hoc shops in my study area.  Delineating the area took some consideration -- walking, mapping, counting, reflecting -- but when the dust settled, I found myself looking at an area that behaved very like my neighbourhood when I lived in WC1N.  I lived on Mecklenburgh Square through my first year in London and will return there in September.  Although my flat was towards the eastern edge, daily life pulled me westward, where ad hoc shops are woven around cultural landmarks, educational institutions, and other wide-ranging commercial offerings.

It strikes me how clustered these shops are and how they stick to the thoroughfares -- Tottenham Court Road, Southampton Row, and Gray's Inn Road.  Economies of agglomeration?  I don't think that's it.  The reasons are surely complicated, relating to history, built form, zoning, and shifts in neighbourhood composition.  And I also think they go with the flow; the current locations relate to pedestrian traffic around transit nodes, main streets, and institutions.  The British Museum is obviously a major anchor for ad hoc action and fruit stall vendors told me they would never consider locating away from a Tube entrance.

Although it may seem unsound for corner shops to locate so close together -- take the four at the northern corner of my site, for example -- it seems each specialises as a result.  Some sell lotto tickets; some trade in magazines; some provide produce; some stock newspapers.  Others don't.  Apparently corner shops in the area defy popular convention in at least two ways.  One, they aren't all distributed equally through the urban area to supply residents with daily essentials.  And two, they are seldom found on corners.