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Drapers book review: High Street Heroes: The Story of British Retail in 50 People by John Timpson

John Timpson has been in retailing for so long that he recalls the time when in around 1966 Philip Green was making him coffee when he visited shoe importer Martin Geminder.

Eric Musgrave reading High Street Heroes

Such are the vagaries of fashion’s fortunes, Timpson also tells us that about 33 years later, after buying part of the failing British Shoe Corporation, Green as landlord gave him notice to quit a footwear store in Ilford. When he requested an extension of the deadline, the future retail knight instructed his property agent to tell John Timpson to f*** off.

This 262-page book is part historical analysis and part personal memoir and it is a damn good read. The 72-year-old chairman of the Timpson Group – key cutters, shoe repairers, photo processors, dry cleaners and so on to the nation – has produced a well-researched and fascinating overview of British retailing, from fashion to supermarkets, mobile phone shops to food on the go.

For anyone relatively new to retailing, this is a brilliantly detailed overview of trends that have affected British shopkeepers, mainly but not exclusively since the Second World War. It is also an entertaining reminder for more experienced veterans of just how much they have probably forgotten. It has a long time since I have brought to mind Kendall Rainwear, Curtess, Van Allan, UDS, Timothy Whites and umpteen other extinct businesses that Timpson mentions.

A fifth-generation retailer - John’s great grandfather William Timpson opened his first boot shop in Butler Street, Manchester in 1865 - Timpson knows whereof he writes. He is clearly still sad he had to sell the family Timpson shoe chain in 1987 to Oliver Shoes (which was in turn swallowed up by what we now call Shoe Zone). He recalls that with Thomas Black, a pal from the shoe trade, he once managed to list 72 now-disappeared footwear businesses that once had 10 or more branches in the UK. Truly, nothing stands still in retailing.

The author’s insights and asides (the style is familiar to readers of his business advice column in The Daily Telegraph) are often refreshingly common sense and will serve to remind today’s young executives that nothing is quite as innovative as it seems. Timpson observes: “Those who think we are currently going through a once-in-a-lifetime retail revolution have been misled. The current change in shopping habits is just one more tremor in a long earthquake that was already shaking up the high street when I started work as a shop assistant in 1960.”

In his introductory overview, looking back to the 1980s, he reminds us that back then traditional mail order companies like Littlewoods, Grattan, Freemans, Kays and British Mail Order, sold almost 10% of all clothing and footwear in the UK. This is, he points out, “a figure yet to be overtaken by internet sales, so the threat of online shopping has a fairly familiar feel”.

John Timpson

John Timpson (Source: Scott Wishart)

Pure-play online traders are excluded from Timpson’s analysis but he is very up-to-date in his news, including Philip Green’s disposal of BHS for £1 in his narrative. His interesting approach is to outline the story of modern British retailing by assessing the performance and importance of 50 players, which he lists in order of influence at the back of the book.

Ray Kroc, the founder of McDonalds, is the lone American-based retailer on the list. Only five women are among his 100 influencers – Jacqueline Gold of Ann Summers, Biba’s Barbara Hulanicki, Laura Ashley, Mary Perkins, the owner of Specsavers, and The Body Shop founder Anita Roddick, who is the highest-ranked at No. 9. From Greggs’ Michael Darrington at No 50 to Marcus Sieff of Marks & Spencer at the top of the pile, Timpson’s take on retail heroes will stimulate a lot of debate and the odd pang of nostalgia.

This book comes highly recommended.

One gripe: there are a few typographical errors and the odd mistake. Shoe chain Brantano is spelled Brantana, defunct tailoring chain Willerby is rendered as Willoughby and Timpson says Viyella shops have disappeared from the high street when they are still a part of the Austin Reed group.

High Street Heroes: The Story of British Retail in 50 People is published by Icon Books at £12.99.

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