Tattoo parlours make their mark on Britain’s high streets

Published in The Financial Times

Deptford High Street in southeast London has all the staple shops of our times: a 99p store, a string of bookmakers . . . and a tattoo parlour.

The parlours have become an increasingly common sight across Britain’s towns and cities. Their number has more than doubled in the past four years – far quicker than the expansion of businesses most associated with the changing high street, such as bookmakers and coffee shops.

In 2009 there were 402 of them across Britain’s 650 largest town centres. Today there are 1,014, according to the Local Data Company.

Marcus Broome, who owns the Kids Love Ink parlour in Deptford, believes there is a simple reason that explains why his business is thriving while general retailers have retrenched: “You can’t get a tattoo delivered.”

Now that the internet accounts for about a fifth of all non-food retail sales, according to the British Retail Consortium, the businesses that have prospered on the high street are those that require customers to be there in person.

There is another big factor in the proliferation of tattoo parlours: high street vacancy rates shot up after 2008 and have remained high ever since. This is because general retailers – under pressure from lower consumer spending during the recession and the shift to online shopping – have either gone out of business or moved elsewhere.

The high vacancy rate has provided smaller businesses with opportunities to get a foothold where they could not before, says Peter Cooper, UK retail portfolio director at Hammerson, a property group.

“There [are] opportunities for companies that couldn’t previously get a look-in: local products, local operators, bespoke smaller stores,” he says.

Alongside tattoo parlours, discount stores and betting and coffee shops have been among those filling the gaps.

The increasing dominance of coffee shops, in particular, shows no sign of slowing. There are now about 16,500 of them in the UK, according to Allegra Strategies, a food and drink consultancy. This figure will hit 20,500 by 2018, they say.

The rise of internet shopping does not necessarily mean high streets will end up as parades of endless betting and coffee shops. Retailers will have a future there, in particular if their bet on click-and-collect, where customers buy online but pick up goods in store, pays off.

“[It’s] not about bricks versus clicks – the most successful retailers combine these elements. Digital technology can reinforce the high street,” says Will Roberts, head of media and campaigns at the British Retail Consortium.

Click and collect has been seized on by some in the industry, particularly groups such as Argos, where it accounts for about a third of sales. In the run-up to Christmas last year, almost two-thirds of online orders at John Lewis were collected in store.

There are also some signs of recovery on the high street. In December, the vacancy rate in Britain’s town centres dropped below 14 per cent for the first time since 2010, as new businesses filled the gaps left by retail, according to the LDC. It currently stands at 13.5 per cent.

But despite the growth in tattoo parlours, the future for this line of high street business looks less steady – the increase in numbers has not been matched by a similar rise in demand, says Marcus Henderson, a former president of the Tattoo and Piercing Industry Union.

This has not put off the hundreds who are attempting to forge a career in body art. Diamond Jacks, a long-established tattoo parlour in Soho, said it receives between 50 and 100 inquiries each week about apprenticeships.

There is a worry in the industry that the recent expansion is unsustainable. “Over the past few years it has never been easier for someone to come into the business,” says Mr Henderson. “There is a feeling that we are reaching a breaking point. People want a slice, but the pie is not getting bigger.”



Geopolitical Gatsbys


Originally published in The Financial Times

The Johnny-come-latelies of geopolitics

Review by Tanjil Rashid

Miriam Cooke’s ‘Tribal Modern’ argues that Gulf states have forged a new strand of modernity

Tribal Modern: Branding New Nations in the Arab Gulf
By Miriam Cooke (University of California Press, £19.95, $29.95)

In Dave Eggers’s novel, A Hologram for the King, an American IT consultant is dispatched to Saudi Arabia. Every day he is driven to a large white tent in the desert to test a holographic tele­conferencing system; it is his job to flog this to King Abdullah, custodian of the holy mosques. Imagine the possibilities – the king could be in Mayfair and Mecca at the same time!

The Arabian Desert has been fertile in inspiring fictional tales of the bizarre encounter between high-technology capitalism and the ancient tribes of the Gulf, from oil economist Abdulrahman Munif’s classic 1984 novel, Cities of Salt, to Black Gold, a 2011 film funded by Qatar and starring Antonio Banderas.

These works express a narrative of a once-wholesome tribal culture mugged by modernity. There is a similar dichotomy at work in Middle East policy circles: to be modern, the Gulf nations must bury their tribal roots under the steel foundations of buildings such as Dubai’s Burj Khalifa, the world’s tallest.

But in Tribal Modern, Miriam Cooke takes issue with this view. She believes the nations of the Gulf are forging an entirely new modernity, a “national brand that combines the spectacle of tribal and modern cultures and identities”.

“We must see,” she writes, “how the tribal and the modern, the high-rises and the tribal regalia converge.” Why must we see? In Cooke’s view, policy makers and business people cannot afford not to care about the tribal-modern brand – valued at more than $1.6tn, judging by the gross domestic product of the Gulf Co-operation Council countries.

Topically, Cooke, Duke University’s chair of Arab studies, also alerts us to the similar “resilience of tribal structures and affiliations in Libya” – as its nation-builders are discovering. (Libya’s revolution was, as it happens, partly bankrolled by Qatar.)

The Gulf nations betray a genius for tribal-modern convergence. In one of many astute visual anecdotes, Cooke describes a procession in Doha celebrating Qatar’s successful 2022 football World Cup bid: sport utility vehicles and Lamborghinis alongside dromedaries. Indeed, camel racing perfectly illustrates her case. A local festive custom has evolved into a rationalised industry involving tens of thousands of Somali and Pakistani workers, and even robot jockeys.

Cooke is at her best scrutinising how the Gulf projects this tribal modern brand in its heritage industry, noting how the buildings that house “national museums publicise country brands”. Abu Dhabi’s soars like an Emirati falcon, while Qatar’s unfolds like a desert rose, “a modern caravanserai that morphs modernity at the intersection of desert and sea”.

However, as Cooke notes, they were designed, respectively, by the UK’s Lord Foster and France’s Jean Nouvel. The Museum of Islamic Art in Doha was designed by the Chinese-American architect IM Pei and contains not a single object made in the emirate. The Islamic art market on which the Gulf feasts is largely London-based and almost completely defined by western orientalist scholarship. Even Black Gold, which projected Qatar’s tribal pedigree to global cinema audiences, was in the mould of 1950s Hollywood super-productions, “the copy of the copy without an original”.

The tribal-modern brand’s ironic relationship with historical truth is not lost on Cooke, but its real significance might be. Do the Gulf nations really incarnate a new tribal-modern future? Cooke’s vision is analogous to similar anxieties over the future shape of capitalism in the emerging nations of Asia, where western-style prosperity also rubs shoulders with customs strange to westerners.

In truth, what is most telling about the Gulf is not the region’s “affirmation of tribal identity”, which in Cooke’s account appears at times to be limited to neo-Bedouin poetry contests and other leisure activities.

Rather, it is the fact that, in building their brands, the Gulf nations have sought mainly to buy into the west’s own most prized brands, from the $140m Louvre Abu Dhabi to Doha’s Damien Hirst exhibition; from Ivy League colleges setting up shop on artificial island campuses to the World Cup. Even attempts at forging a nativist, tribal identity are, in their choice of “starchitect” or exhibition collection, mediated by western cultural institutions, and deliberately calculated to garner their acclaim.

Tribal Modern attributes to the Gulf a modernity it has invented. In fact, it has largely aped it. The region is behaving as new money always has: trying to impress old money by building lavish libraries and collecting art, all in the vain hope that these will mask their Gatsby-like insecurities of being upstarts, late to the geopolitical party.

The writer is a freelance journalist

‘The Muslims are Coming!’, by Arun Kundnani


This article was published in The Financial Times

Review by Tanjil Rashid

A critique of the west’s counterterrorism policies overlooks the roots of homegrown radicalism

The Muslims are Coming!: Islamophobia, Extremism, and the Domestic War on Terror by Arun Kundnani, Verso RRP£14.99 / $26.95

In Our Man in Havana, Graham Greene tells the story of a vacuum cleaner salesman turned British secret agent. His incompetence results in the absurdity of diagrams for cleaner parts being mistaken on high as a blueprint for a Soviet plot, while official money is ploughed into inventing threats to the UK’s own interests.

In The Muslims are Coming!, a critique of counterterrorism policy by Arun Kundnani, the west’s “domestic war on terror” at times resembles a Greene novel populated by a cast of counterterrorism warriors even unlikelier than a hawker of Hoovers in Havana.
Take, for example, Shahed Hussain, an American petrol pump attendant with a trade in fake drivers’ licences, whom the Federal Bureau of Investigation roped into ensnaring Muslims into terror plots against US targets – planned and financed by the US government itself.

As Judge Colleen McMahon stated in 2011 when sentencing one of Mr Hussain’s catches: “Only the government could have made a terrorist out of [James] Cromitie, a man whose buffoonery is positively Shakespearean in scope.” It is a pity the judgment is not quoted in full, for it succinctly exemplifies Kundnani’s argument. “[The government] created acts of terrorism out of his fantasies of bravado and bigotry,” she said, “and then made those fantasies come true.”

Kundnani, a fellow of the Soros Foundation, believes the wider war on terror at home to be founded on a fantasy. The west, he says, “is dedicating tens of billions of dollars a year to fighting a domestic threat of terror violence that is largely imagined”.

Based on years of research from Dallas to Dewsbury, West Yorkshire, this book is the most rigorous account yet of this familiar argument, which British film-maker Adam Curtis called the “power of nightmares”. Kundnani shares Curtis’s view, too, that Muslims have replaced communists as the “phantasm” of policy makers and conspiracy theorists, “a conceptual scaffolding inherited from the cold war”. But to imply vast chunks of government policy are built on fables itself rings of conspiracy theory.

In truth, counterterrorism policies targeting Muslims are a legitimate response to homegrown extremism, from the murder of Fusilier Lee Rigby to the 366 (by one count) British citizens waging jihad in Syria. Furthermore, the victims of the 2005 London bombings bear witness to the reality of radicalism bred at home.

At best, Kundnani’s argument is compelling in its dissection of governments’ disproportional responses. He estimates the FBI has one counter­terrorism agent per 94 Muslims in the US, which approaches a Stasi-esque ratio of spies to citizens. He shows that authorities keep drawing spurious lists of suspected radicals; one in the UK included almost 300 children under 15.

A commonplace at the core of Kundnani’s critique is that radicalism is mainly the byproduct of western foreign policy. “Religion had nothing to do with this,” according to Kundnani, citing a conspirator in the London bombings. This view is undermined by the existence of two generations of British Muslims predating the war on terror – men who fought in Afghanistan in the 1980s and in Bosnia in the 1990s. The diminution of religion’s role in stoking radicalism is as inaccurate as UK Labour politicians’ denial that wars in Iraq and Afghanistan acted even as recruiting sergeants.

Kundnani scrutinises responses to terrorism better than outlining its causes. He probes the mutations of liberalism in the face of Islam, resulting in “war on terror liberals” for whom liberalism “became an ideology of total war”, from the UK Labour party’s interventionist foreign policy to Martin Amis’s innumerate paranoia about Muslim birth rates.

Liberals hold up the Enlightenment, conservatives “campaign to defend Judeo-Christian identity” – both banners explicitly excluding Muslims; both groups inclined, Kundnani writes, to see “terrorists motivated by fanaticism inherent to Islam”.

History offers correctives to these narratives, demonstrating varieties of Islam being as rooted in rationalism as the Enlightenment; the Enlightenment being as tied to terror as Islam (the word “terrorism” itself was first used during The Terror of the Enlightenment-inspired French revolution). The Muslims are Coming! lacks optimism but there is every reason to believe “Muslim” might one day be suffixed to “Judeo-Christian” when de­scribing the west’s culture and values.

Note how one prominent French intellectual writes about Europe’s growing population of a certain religious minority: “All of them are born with raging fanaticism in their hearts.” The author of these unenlightened remarks? Voltaire. His subject? The Jews.

The writer is a freelance journalist

British Muslims develop appetite for halal turkey

Originally published in The Financial Times

By Tanjil Rashid

Covered in blood and Urdu script, the traditional halal butcher’s shop has catered to generations of Britain’s Muslims – serving up a platter of chicken, lamb and beef to mostly foreign-born customers.

But in a sign of changing consumer habits, they have taken to selling halal turkeys, as growing numbers of practising Muslims gobble up roast turkeys for Christmas dinner on the Christian feast day.

Last December, the Halal Monitoring Council certified 5,500 turkeys slaughtered in UK abattoirs. In 2011, they certified none. Last week alone, the HMC certified 1,500 turkeys.

Demand has taken many suppliers by surprise.

“I was shocked there was a market at all,” said Paul Kelly, managing director of Kelly Bronze Turkeys.

Ben Bayer, an executive at wholesaler DB Food, says there is “huge demand” for halal turkeys, but they are unable to meet it, as the UK’s biggest halal assurance body, the Halal Food Authority, does not yet certify any turkeys as halal.

Muslim butchers instead mostly import halal turkeys from Ireland and Italy. These are now even available at Smithfield Market in London.

A Financial Times survey of 20 halal butchers based in London, Lancashire and Essex found that over half sold halal turkeys in December – some for the first time this year.

JR Butchers in Tooting says it is on track to sell 2,500 turkeys this December – a 4 per cent rise on last year.

It is relatively recently that turkeys have waddled into the UK’s £2.6bn halal meat market, as estimated by the World Halal Forum, which is growing exponentially as the Muslim population grows.

Research by Eblex, the meat industry body, shows that Muslims constitute less than 4 per cent of Britons, yet account for 12-15 per cent of British meat consumption.

Turkeys are representative of the flush nature of an expanding market, which Javed Rashid, a partner at JR Butchers, describes as “the high end of halal”. It encompasses increasing Muslim demand for halal geese and halal free-range products.

“These are home-grown Muslims with a higher disposable income than their parents’ generation and are more at home with British customs – without compromising their faith,” said Noman Khawaja, founder of the Halal Food Festival who uses the term “haloodie” to describe these new halal “foodies”.

Businesses are increasingly catering to this market. Mr Rashid aims to give his customers “an education in meat, which old-fashioned halal butchers are unable to provide – they lack the product knowledge”.

Fast food outlets have long served halal meat in areas with a high Muslim population. Now more upmarket restaurants, from the PizzaExpress chain to China Tang in Mayfair, have halal menus, too.

John Man, senior manager at China Tang, believes that it is important the luxury restaurant “reflects its customer profile”, adding that “the quality of halal meat is always good, when other meat sometimes fails to meet our standards”.

The increasing diversity of the UK’s halal meat market reflects a bigger, worldwide trend. Last week, a Norwegian supplier of Scandinavian game meat unveiled the world’s first halal reindeer – enabling Norway’s Muslims to taste the traditional yuletide meat for the first time.

SuperGroup’s online sales soar in Europe

Originally published in The Financial Times

Ecommerce sales in Europe overtook UK sales for the first time at SuperGroup as the once-volatile fast fashion retailer reported its eighth consecutive quarterly rise in sales.

Julian Dunkerton, chief executive, said British retailers have an advantage over continental European peers, as consumers have switched to online shopping faster in the UK than elsewhere.

“I think we, as international British companies, have a huge advantage – because of the sophistication of our online businesses in the UK – to capitalise on internationally.”

British shoppers spend about twice as much online as the French, and almost three times more than the Germans, according to a report by Ofcom.

But it is difficult to break into an international market without a bricks-and-mortar presence, according to Mr Dunkerton.

“We have an international presence as we are multi-channel,” said the former market stall trader. “It gives us a natural advantage. You can’t just create something in one country and hope it sells in another.” Only about one in 10 online retail transactions is cross-border, according to a report by Accenture.

Profit before tax for the six months to October 27 was about a quarter lower at £9.9m as the group spent heavily on a new 500,000 sq ft distribution centre in Burton upon Trent, Staffordshire.

SuperGroup had a difficult 2011 and 2012, marred by profit warnings, but steady growth since then has won investors round. Shares in the group edged 0.3 per cent lower to £12.50, having more than doubled during the past 12 months.

Elsewhere in the sector, online sales at Moss Bros trebled as the tailor rolled out websites across Scandinavia and Ireland and fleshed out plans to launch a website in Australia.

The formalwear company once doubted whether its customers would buy suits online, “but now we see they very much are”, said Brian Brick, chief executive of the group.

“We were slow to get into e-commerce, but now we’re catching up,” he added.

Moss Bros closed three stores net in the period. Mr Brick was quick to defend these as part of the company’s strategy to get stores with flexible leases. “We certainly expect to see more stores and have plans to open stores across 20 cities and towns,” he said.

Shares in Moss Bros rose 2.1 per cent to close at 71p.

Metro Bank seeks £387m to expand branch network

Originally published in The Financial Times 

Metro Bank is planning to raise £387.5m from investors – an increase of £100m on its original target – as it seeks to finance the opening of dozens more branches across the UK.

In a letter to existing shareholders in October, Metro Bank said it was intending to conduct a private capital raising, to help it grow its lending and expand its high street presence.

Although the bank has said that it wants to have 200 branches by 2020, it has yet to turn a profit. Its total pre-tax losses have exceeded £100m in the three years since its launch, highlighting the difficulties of breaking into the UK’s retail banking sector – even when the government has made it a priority to make high street banking more competitive.

When Metro was founded in July 2010 – becoming Britain’s first new high street lender for at least a century – it pledged to stir up the country’s tarnished banking industry. Its 22 branches in London and the southeast have proven popular with customers for their longer opening hours, drive-through facilities and dog-friendly store policy. Last year, customer deposits grew 279 per cent to £576m.

Metro’s plans for further expansion are intended to help it reverse its losses, which reached £45.7m at a pre-tax level in 2012. Earlier this year, Vernon Hill, chairman, told The Financial Times: “Our primary goal is to expand the business . . . and profit certainly will come.”

UK food industry ‘vulnerable’ to criminal infiltration

Originally published in The Financial Times

In an interim report into the horsemeat scandal, Chris Elliott, director of the Institute for Global Food Security at Queen’s University Belfast, said: “A food supply system which is much more difficult for criminals to operate in is urgently required.”

He called for measures to prevent food crime, including the establishment of a specialist ‘food crime unit’ to prevent fraud through increased intelligence gathering, testing and better co-ordination between government departments.

Professor Elliott said his review had identified “a worrying lack of knowledge regarding the extent to which we are dealing with criminals infiltrating the food industry. I believe criminal networks have begun to see the potential for huge profits and low risks in this area. The food industry and thus consumers are currently vulnerable.” He also criticised instances of “casual dishonesty” in the meat trade.

Tim Lang, professor of food policy at City University, said Prof Elliott “rightly identifies problems such as the evisceration of food law enforcement”, but added that the report “stops short of taking on the ruthless meat and dairy machine controlled by retailers”.

Jeanette Longfield, co-ordinator of Sustain, which campaigns for better food and farming, welcomed the report’s 48 proposals, but said that organisations such as a food crime unit would be “pointless without the financial resources to enforce existing legislation, as inspectors and auditors are stretched to breaking point”.

The government commissioned Prof Elliott to examine the integrity of Britain’s food supply network after the discovery in January that horsemeat was being sold as beef in frozen burgers and lasagnes in the UK and Ireland.

The horsemeat scandal exposed a bewilderingly lengthy and complex food supply chain across Europe, during which horsemeat had been fraudulently mislabelled as beef.

In October, the National Audit Office cited the case of a pizza sold in Ireland made out of 35 ingredients that had passed through 60 countries on five different continents.

It said in its report into food safety that regulators had struggled to keep up with the complexity of the supply chain and called for more tests and food monitoring.

Owen Paterson, environment secretary, said some measures had already been introduced, adding: “We will continue to work closely with the food industry, enforcement agencies and across local and central government to improve intelligence on food fraud and our response to it.”

Prof Elliott’s final report with more detailed recommendations will be published in the spring.