Category Archives: Observation

An economic reality

Nottingham skyline

Nottingham skyline

I’m not really sure why, but I decided to change my habits today. It’s a day off and I was at a lose end, so decided to make it a “mooch day”. Ordinarily, this would involve public transport and, as likely as not, a public house or two. This morning, however, I developed an irrational aversion to catching the bus. I think I basically decided it would take too long, be too expensive and be a not particularly pleasant experience. You know, all the usual reasons people give for not going on the bus.

So I drove to Nottingham.

Sure enough, I was entering the city centre of Nottingham at about the same time the bus would have got me to Derby. So far, so much quicker. Except that Nottingham City Council, in their infinite wisdom, chose a weekday morning to cone-off the outside lane of Maid Marion Way to weed the central reservation. Yes, I know it has to be done some time (* see footnote)  but given the immense congestion it was causing, and consequent cost to GB PLC, wouldn’t have been more cost effective to pay the workers unsociable hours and do it in the evening?

Moving on (eventually), I needed somewhere to park. Normally if I was driving into I’d come into the city from the A52, a route which naturally leads to the car park next to the Crowne Plaza at Wollaton Street. However, today I came straight from home so approached from the A453. Hence I took a spur-of-the-moment decision to turn off Maid Marion Way and park in the NCP St. James Street Car Park. Bang – there goes the bus-is-more-expensive argument.

Only as the unwary visitor to the area is committed on the in ramp to the multi-story do the good folk at NCP see fit to announce their scale of charges. First off there’s a minimum charge of £2 for 30 min, so exiting straightway and finding somewhere else becomes pointless. For a reasonable mooch period of four hours, the charge is an eye-popping £9.20. Lest the bright lights of the city of Nottingham prove such a draw that a stay of over four hours is contemplated, then get ready to stump-up £12.80. Needless to say, the machine takes plastic!

Welcome to Nottingham

Welcome to Nottingham – parking charges at St James multi story car park

How I wish I’d availed myself of the services of Parkopedia before I entered the city limits. As I was to later discover, had I followed my first instinct and gone round to Upper Parliament Street, I’d have saved myself a few quid. Tish.

Exorbitant parking wouldn’t, of itself, be much to complain – or even remark – about. However, I was struck by a pervading feature of modern city life as I mooched the streets of Nottingham: Even Clumber Street, the street reputed to have the highest density of footfall in Europe, has empty shop fronts. If a retail business can’t survive here, it is no wonder that slightly less popular (but well trafficked by pedestrians) thoroughfares such as Market Street have rows of empty premises.

Empty shops on Market Street, Nottingham

Empty shops on Market Street, Nottingham

Having recently watched and enjoyed Charles Furguson’s Inside Job, which clinically deconstructs the 2008 Global Banking scandal (with only the barest of inevitable anti-capitalist agenda), I think I have a basic understanding of why money is tight. That said, this is just one of a depressingly large number of examples of just how that corporate greed is killing communities. Each of these empty shops represents a loss of income to the local economy. Theoretically someone will be paying business rates on these premises, but I bet the reality is different. Quite apart from that, rows of empty shops are indicative go a downward spiral of fewer people in the area leading, eventually, to more decay. Put simply – Where Has All The Money Gone?

But is it all the fault of the bankers and their reluctance to lend money to keep businesses afloat? I wonder if a parking charge of nearly £10 for a usable amount of time isn’t at least part of the reason people aren’t visiting city centres to spend what “spare” money they have?

Think I’ll go on the bus next time.

* Actually – Does it? In this time of financial constrain (the theme of this post, when I get to the point!), do central reservations really need weeding?

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Not One-off Britishisms

Hands across the water!

Via a fairly circuitous route, which involved a curiously beguiling essay about commas, I fell across the above titled blog of Ben Yagoda, a professor of English at the University of Delaware.

Yagoda’s fascination is how distinctly British English is finding a toe-hold in American pop culture. I’m not sure I had consciously considered it before, but I find this equally fascinating. The onslaught in the opposite direction is obvious and, given the population ratio, understandable. That English is the dominant language of the United States is, of course, a quirk of history. That this small island, stubbornly detached from the continent it is part of, is the origin of what almost passes as a global language is in itself remarkable.

The two branches of the language quickly set off on different, and diverging, tracks many generations ago. So it is of considerable interest that the old country can still exert any influence at all on American English.

Probably born out of the leg-up that a broadly similar native language gives, the disproportionate success of UK artist (principally in acting, but often in music as well) is something that has struck me as notable. One simply has to leaf through Entertainment Weekly, in which barely a page goes by without some British reference, or listen to the sound system in a North American ball park, to ‘get’ the British influence.

But influence the day-to-day cadence of American speech? Never, or so I would have thought. To be fair, the examples Yagoda blogs about don’t exactly add up to a seismic cultural shift, but is gives me a warm wet feeling to think us Brits can still punch far above our weight when it comes to changing the world!

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My Kind of Station [Updated]


Sheffield station has to be one of the better places to have to wait for a train. Not only is it home to the Sheffied Tap – a fabulous real ale pub in the Midland Railway opulence of the former refreshment room – but there is now a Starbucks kiosk on the platform. Good job there’s not one on Derby station or I may be tempted to take up train spotting. (Again!)


Um. Having now used the Starbucks kiosk pictured above, I’m less enthused. I’d enjoyed a pint of Dark Star Milk Chocolate Stout and another of Partridge Best Bitter (no, never heard of it, either) in the Sheffield Tap. So I felt obliged to wash the beer down with a Pike Place as the 1654 Edinburgh – Plymouth Cross Country rolled in.

The telltale “we don’t take Starbucks cards here” notice (because they are a licencee, not a real Starbucks) was a bit of a warning. So I wasn’t overly surprised when the Barista told me the “filter coffee was off” and “would I like an Americano instead”. Normal practice in a real Starbucks in such cases is to charge the same as a drip coffee, but given its licencee status, I wasn’t at all surprised when I was charged for an Americano. So, it’s £2.10 rather than £1.70, but it still bugs me no end when it happens.

The licencee Starbucks at Pride Park have tried it on a few times and I’ve always challenged it, with the result that the last couple of times they’ve “run out” of fresh coffee, they’ve done the right thing. This time, two pints of fine ale to the better, I was sufficiently chilled and decided to live with it. Still think it amounts to sharp practice though.

They Giveth, and They Taketh Away

Starbucks Rewards animation

Frame from the Starbucks Rewards animation

Earlier this month, coinciding with the end of “The Holidays”, the good people at Starbucks completely revamped their Starbucks Card Rewards. For some time now, in return for paying with a Starbucks Card — and so presumably speeding up the process as well as giving them money up-front —  you were “rewarded”. These rewards took the form of things like a free extra shot, free syrups, or soy milk with the extra charge waived. Also, for people like me who drink freshly brewed coffee rather than espresso based drinks, the reward was a rather generous 50p discount.

The new system is a true loyalty programme in that for each transaction (not each drink you buy, each transaction) you earn a “star”. Get 15 stars and you are rewarded with a complimentary tall beverage.

With the new system, existing cardholders such as myself have been automatically given “Gold” status in the new rewards scheme. Mere mortals who get a Starbucks card from now on will have to use it 50 times to get Gold (as I will in a year to keep Gold). The perk of having Gold is that you are given extra rewards, such as  a free extra shot, free syrups, or soy milk with the extra charge waived. Sound familiar?

Except that anyone who drinks good old fashioned black coffee gets rock all.

So by paying £7.50 more than I used to, I get a “free” drink worth £1.10. Wow, thanks Starbucks. That’s loyalty for ya.

Don’t get me wrong, I understand that the 50p discount was not only very generous, but also had to be unsustainable. I just think there is a middle ground in truly rewarding repeat customers. Even at McDonalds  it only takes SIX coffees for a freebie (Ssssh! Don’t tell anyone I drink McDonald’s coffee!).

So that’s the taking away. What Starbucks have given is a refreshed iPhone App, the killer feature being able to pay with the phone… the future has arrived.

By signing in to the App, all the Starbucks cards I’ve ever registered (complete with the not-quite-paltry sums I’ve allowed to lie dormant on some of them) are available to use at the cash register, despite the fact the cards themselves are completely lost somewhere at home**. Tapping “Touch to Pay” brings up a barcode representation of the card which you wave under the  scanner and you’re good to go.

Actually, the first time I used it, the Barista had to take the phone off me and wave it several times under the scanner before it worked, but I put that down to teething trouble. That said, it didn’t seem to have been the first time this particular Barista had accepted payment this way as she was totally unfazed by it. A colleague, however was, as they asked me what App was needed to do it. On hearing my reply a third Barista was amazed; “You mean there’s a Starbucks App? That’s great“. Maybe a bit of internal communication needed Starbucks?

So that’s the Good and the Bad. I’ve emailed Starbucks to moan, er, observe, about the Bad (with my suggestion to make it better), and as far as the Good is concerned, well, they get this blog post!



** – And by completely lost somewhere at home, I of course mean neatly preserved in my extensive collection of Starbucks cards from around the world!

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Occupy Nottingham

I’ve had in mind to blog something about the ‘Occupy’ phenomenon for quite a while. Indeed, I have the thoughts marshalled in my mind, I just need the time (and drive) to get them out. That said, rather as Nick predicted, I haven’t done much in the way of bogging at all recently – surely 4th November wasn’t my last post?

Anyway, as I passed the Occupy Nottingham camp this evening, and with that bastion of capitalism, Starbucks, close by, I felt compelled to sit and write something.

There are still about 20 tents, squeezed into a corner of the Market Square by a funfair and another temple of Mammon, a Christmas market. Credit where it’s due, it’s starting to get nippy of an evening, so they’re hard souls. Let’s see what the frost & snow of December does to their principles?

I will try and get found to my essay on the subject in due course… I’m sure you can’t wait.


The Memory of Steve Jobs

An awful lot has been written about Steve Jobs in the days since his passing. From the tech blogs to the mainstream media, all have covered his death copiously and respectfully.

One such heartfelt and carefully crafted piece of writing is by M.G.Siegler in his Tech crunch blog. However, he makes a statement which, no matter how high an opinion of Steve Jobs I may have, I simply can’t subscribe to…

He’s someone who will be talked about a thousand years from now.

In trying to grapple with the concept of an individual’s influence surviving over a millennium, I struggle to get past saints, kings, or other biblical figures. Steve Jobs was none of these (Cult of the Mac, notwithstanding).

Granted, a thousand years ago the world was in the Dark Ages and the concept of fame, or even an historical legacy, would be alien to most folk of that time. By contrast, we live in an age of data overload, where any Tom, Dick or Harriet leaves a huge digital footprint ranging from official records to social networking. Perhaps the written word and a healthy respect for history will mean our descendants will retain a much firmer grip on our strories than we have of our ancestors. There’s an awful lot of history to be written in the next thousand years though.

If – and I think it is a remote If, given how much can happen in the next thousand years – Steve Jobs is remembered, I dread to think how folklore will mangle his story. Steve Jobs invented the computer? Steve Jobs invented the internet? the telephone? music? the printed word? Steve Jobs managed Elvis? Steve Jobs negotiated music rights with Beethoven? Steve Jobs was the Messiah?

Sorry, as important as Steve Jobs unquestionably was during our fleeting time on Earth, in a thousand years I’m afraid his Wikipedia entry will have long been over-written.

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Latest Facebook changes touch privacy nerve –

Facebook logo - Wikipedia

Laura Antonini, research attorney at Consumer Watchdog, says Facebook’s new sharing features “disregard the privacy of its users by making sweeping changes that expose personal information without giving users the chance to choose what information they want shared with the world.”

via Latest Facebook changes touch privacy nerve –


Of course, I have found a way to completely control what Facebook shares about me….


Not An Indian Summer

It’s a beautiful day: blue skies, wall-to-wall sunshine and temperatures in the mid-20s. Not bad for the last few days of September and a forecast that suggests it will continue for a few days.

Though I learnt something yesterday. Apparently, despite the poor weather thus far in Summer 2011, this late spurt doesn’t count as an “Indian Summer”. The definition of such a thing, so I’m told, is that the return of good weather should be preceded by a frost. To my knowledge, we have yet to have a frost this autumn, so there you have it.20110927-135906.jpg

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Healthy, maybe. Popular, no.


That this place has closed down sort of amuses me as a perfectly good carvery type place made way for it. (Yeah, maybe the carvery place wasn’t popular enough, either!?).

That’s “progress”.

The Essence of Starbucks

I suspect this is the subject of many an academic dissertation, as well as Reports to the Board in competing companies. What is it about Starbucks?

Inevitably, I am sitting in a branch of said chain as I type this – Sheffield, as it happens. Although other than most of the customers around me being apparently students waiting for term to start at the nearby Hallam University, I’m not sure the location is too relevant. That said, what did strike me about this one is that there was no queue. 16:00 on a weekday on the periphery of Sheffield city centre, that is as odd as it is unusual.

So, back to the Question: Why Starbucks and not, say, Costa or Nero? For me the immediate answer is that the other two insist on serving espresso based coffee only – Americano, if you will. SBs stand alone in serving drip-brewed coffee, which I much prefer… I find it has more taste.

There has to be more than that though. There was a time SB branded themselves as “the third place”, meaning not home and not work. A place to meet, sit, relax and do whatever. The problem is, sitting, relaxing, whatevering doesn’t generate income per se. Sure, it equates to ‘footfall’, a crucial metric in retailing, but one coffee that lasts three hours bought by a customer who occupies a table (and uses electricity for their laptop) isn’t profitable… Especially when the next group of potential customers look in and decide the place is full, moving on instead.

With a notable exception, which I will move onto in a moment, there are few outward sign of this apparent dilemma. Power sockets are still – sparsely – in evidence but the comfy settees seem to have largely disappeared in favour of more densely packed tables. They even stll do free refills on brewed coffee – ever an invitation to linger – although the availability of this perk is no longer advertised.

The exception I alluded to is Derby.

For a short but halcyon time we had five Starbucks in and around the city. The recession and Starbucks’ admitted belt-tightening in the mid-noughties whittled that down to one and a half. The half, by the way, is the franchise branch at Pride Park… Though for its many faults, that one is by far the most meeting/laptop friendly, for fairly obvious reasons. The “local” at Willington services disappeared virtually to the day of its first anniversary, due, no doubt to an introductory rental rate expiring and some failed brinksmanship by the company? A sad loss to me personally, but I have to grudgingly accept the economics involved.

Less understandable, however, is what happened in the city centre. The original Derby SBs was on East Street. A deceptively small but cozy space located in a first class people watching area. Then the Eagle Centre transmogrified into the Westfield, with two clinical and souless SBs. Soon after, East Street bit the dust – Derby city centre clearly not being able to sustain three Starbucks within a quarter of a mile of each other. This isn’t Manhattan we’re talking about!

As it turned out, the Westfield was unable to sustain two SBs and a year or so ago, the larger, and slightly more preferable one closed. The location now plays host to Ilkeston Co-op Travel! It was preferable in my mind because it was an enclosed unit. Though lacking a view of the wider world, it at least insulated you from that world for a while. The remaining outlet is barely more than a kiosk servicing an open seating area… and so is the exact opposite. Plenty of world passing by, just too open and windswept.

The end result of all these shenanigans is that the one remaining Starbucks in Derby city centre is always stupidly busy. I was once told by a loose-lipped barista what the turnover the previous bank holiday Monday had been. The figure he quoted was so mind-bogglingly high it was simply not believable. I estimated it equated to each customer spending over £50 – maybe I wildly underestimated the throughput of customers, but my estimate was a high number (and was based on personal observation!)

My plea to Starbucks (which I have written to them about – receiving a polite brush-off in response) is to reopen East Street. The unit has remained empty ever since, and with the re-incarnated bus station, growing Riverlights complex, and temporary relocation of the City Council offices, the street is busier than ever. The absurdity of the decision to close it must be obvious to them now?

Maybe once the economy gets itself on some sort of even keel they will slowly reverse the contraction that Starbucks underwent. Sure, they grew too fast and realised in the nick of time, unlike many other companies who rode the boom of the 1990s. I just wonder if there’s a middle ground?

What was good about Starbucks in the growth years hasn’t gone away. Nor, I suggest, have the customers. The competition has undoubtedly caught up so the market has narrowed, but The Essence of Starbucks is what will always win.

PS: The queue is back, and has been constant while I have been typing away.