20 November 2012

Standard deviation

In Camden, plans are afoot to tidy up street trading.  Although the Street Trading Strategy devotes only one short page to “miscellaneous sites” (the kiosks that are separate from markets), it is exacting in its criticism.  The Strategy states “there are some sites where kiosks have become tired, unattractive and not in keeping with the area that they are in. They have advertising and sponsorship that doesn’t have full permission of the Council and the type of commodities which the trader sells has increased without the full knowledge of the Council. There have also been examples of traders over spilling the boundaries of their area and adding to the feeling of street clutter.”  These concerns were echoed in a number of interviews with representatives from the Camden Council.

(In contrast to these perceptions, I hope my photos generally highlight the order of these places despite their ad hocness.)

One solution put forward to address these issues is the standardisation of kiosks.  Currently, Camden owns the land on which the kiosks sit and the traders own their own structures.  Standardisation would see Camden purchasing new kiosks for all 50 or so miscellaneous traders and owning both the kiosks and the land.

As far as the Council is concerned, this would have three main benefits:  it would create visual and material coherency across the borough; it would allow the Council to control signage and advertising on the kiosks (which could generate some income in a division that currently operates at a loss); and it would clean up the “messiness” they associate with these sites.  When asked how these three points are ranked, the latter was deemed most pressing.  As such, the materiality of the kiosks is of greatest concern.  And while there are ways to control the goods sold through licensing and the sprawl of kiosks through a demerit point system, the Council currently has no way to manage the perceived “tattiness” of these businesses.

Standardisation has been on the agenda for some time.  In 2011 a design intensive – and controversial – kiosk was proposed with the help of Make Architects (see rendering below).  Ultimately the project was shelved, not only because of the polarising design, but also because the Council recognised that management problems were paramount.

For some time, the Council has allowed miscellaneous sites to trade with limited enforcement or interference – in part because street trading in markets is more demanding of the Council’s energies.  This has been of great benefit to miscellaneous traders who have long been able to make decisions which best suit their business.  Despite this permissive history, the belt seems to be tightening.

A standardised kiosk is now back on the agenda, with the kiosk below presented as a possible design.  Traders cite a number of issues with this model, including: the lack of canopy, which will have negative implications in inclement weather; the cramped quarters inside, which would challenge many traders with specialised equipment and those needing storage; and the limited space for display inside and out, which is especially an issue in the sale of larger items, fruit, and flowers.

With such a diversity of street trading, it will be challenging to find a “one size fits all” solution.  Currently kiosks are purpose built in a vernacular fashion to suit both the trader and the goods they display.  They have developed over time through minute tweaks and modifications, trial and error.  After such a long period of self-management and self-fashioning, this proposed shift in aesthetic and material control is sure to cause a stir. 

04 November 2012

Photo finish

On the 31st of October, the kiosk where I worked last summer closed its doors.  Although it could have been a sober day, the closure signals a great relief for the managers who have other projects on the go – projects that tend to generate more income.  

The challenges of convenience retailing cannot be overstated.  In a neighbourhood saturated with Tescos and Sainsbury’s, it is hard to stay afloat.  Not only do chains enjoy huge volumes of loyal shoppers, but they also have much larger profit margins than smaller shops.  For example, a bottle of water may cost Tesco 20p and is sold for 53p.  Instead of purchasing the water directly from the supplier – like Tesco – smaller retailers buy the same bottle at a cash-and-carry for an inflated price.  At my kiosk, the same bottle is purchased for 30p and sold at 52p.  Although you will find this bottle sold for £1 or even more than £1.50 (at both independents and chains) my kiosk held fast to its commitment to compete with Tesco on price.  (Did this seal their fate?)  This example may be slightly deceptive, as the mark-up on water is relatively high, compared to something like cigarettes, for example, which are marked up only 6%.  In any case, any kiosk relies on volumes, something that this one did not enjoy. 

Low volumes and margins mean empty registers and limited capacity to purchase new stock.  The challenge of filling the shelves was a persistent ordeal over the months I spent at the shop.  Without an abundance of product, attractive displays are difficult to create.  In addition, if customers aren’t sure to find their Mayfair Superkings or Extra Cool Breeze every time, they will soon find other more dependable retailers for their everyday purchases.

Shelves stayed empty due in part to challenges of buying stock and also as a result of product expiry.  Enjoying attractive offers at cash-and-carry shops meant that expiration dates often arrived before products were purchased.  Our in-kiosk offers, and strategic positioning, couldn't always clear them away.  Restocking the empty shelves was often funded through the managers' other jobs.  In fact, these other jobs tended to support running the kiosk.  To add to the challenges, with margins so low, the managers were never able to pay themselves, and working at the kiosk meant not working at their other paying jobs.  

Under the flourescent lights, we packed up the stock in Tesco carrier bags and large black bin liners – our fingers black with the dust that collected over the summer.  The shop took a surprisingly short time to pack and was collapsed into a pile of plastic bags within a couple hours. 

It was strange to displace items that had amassed so many stories, and so much familiarity, over the summer: the Mars bars that melted in the crawl space during the heat wave; the assorted sizes of Doublemint gum – bought by accident – which always posed a challenge for pricing and display; the Chew-its that required extra dusting in the folds at their square ends; the boxes of matches that didn't quite fit in the TicTac containers used for their display... 

With any luck, the managers will sell some stock to other shops.  The rest will likely be consumed at home or sent to family in Bangladesh.  I also took a number of things as well at a deeply discounted rate.