by Peter Franklin
Wednesday, 26
August 2020
Idea
07:00

Britain: A tale of two retail giants

by Peter Franklin

Can anyone stand-up to Amazon? The online retail giant was going great guns before the pandemic, but now it looks unstoppable.

Yet there is hope — a challenger that might just beat BezosCorp at its own game.

Remarkably, it’s a British supermarket. Ocado doesn’t have any shops, but it does have state-of-the-art automated warehouses. One of these ‘customer fulfilment centres’ features in a report for The Economist

The anonymous author describes how hundreds of robots whizz around, assembling customer orders. It’s a truly remarkable feat of advanced engineering.

Right now, Ocado is a David to Amazon’s Goliath; but David has better technology. In any case, Ocado’s no pipsqueak. The growing company is already bigger than big names like Marks and Spencer:

Ocado is now valued at £5.7bn ($7.6bn), and venerable M&S at £5bn. M&S is on the brink of dropping out of the FTSE 100, and may even by replaced by Ocado. If it were, there could be no better symbol of the old economy making way for the new.
- The Economist

We’re not just talking retail here. Britain is full of institutions that command public affection and customer loyalty, but rely too much on their history and too little on reshaping the future. M&S is one example, others include the BBC, the civil service, the Church of England and, dare I say it, the NHS.

It’s not that they’ve gone to complete wrack-and-ruin. They still do some things very well. So well, in fact, that it’s allowed them to get away with the things they keep on doing badly. Just think of M&S food and M&S clothing — you wouldn’t eat the former if it tasted how the latter looks.

As a country, we can’t keep carrying the deadweight. Like M&S, with its store-closure programme, there’s a lot of downsizing coming our way. To save the best of the old, the worst has got to go — and thus we desperately need enterprises capable of building anew.

By this I don’t mean disrespect for tradition or novelty for its own sake. Indeed, lazy institutions can always conjure up novelty by disrespecting their own traditions. Pull down a statue, cancel Rule Britannia, job done.

Real innovation, however, is harder won. So when it happens we should celebrate it. That means making some room in hearts. Cherishing old institutions is all very well, but they too were new once.

Join the discussion


  • August 28, 2020
    'Most people have nothing but contempt for all these institutions.' Where are the data in support of this assertion? Having recently joined Unherd, I'm appalled at the quality of discussion here. Read more

  • August 27, 2020
    Nom Nom :-) Read more

  • August 26, 2020
    Yes, I remember going into M&S in those days. The 'assistants', if you could find them, were in the corners talking together and looking miserable; the clothing was tat. The smell of rubbish management was recognisable as I was working for the Post Office at the time. Read more

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