The managerial revolution in British and American retailing

The managerial revolution in British and American retailing


Britain has long been known as a ‘nation of shopkeepers’. However, the UK has a poor reputation for the quality of its management and the efficiency of its corporate sector compared to the United States, typified in the popular mind by the comic figure of David Brent. Such a view is supported by a substantial volume of historical literature. Moreover, some influential recent accounts paint Britain as unable or unwilling to adopt the ‘managerial revolution’ or new innovative retail technologies emanating from the USA, owing to ‘barriers to retail industrialization’.

 This large-scale project has brought together corporate archival resources from some of Britain and America’s leading current and former retailers to examine Anglo-American differences in the `retail management revolution’. In a series of works we examine relative productivity and managerial innovation in various sub-sectors of large-scale retailing and find that British retailers were at least as competitive as their American counterparts. Moreover,  rather than being unwilling, or unable, to adopt the managerial revolution, they enthusiastically embraced it.   We examine a set of household names that resonate in UK retailing including large scale department stores (for more details please see here), variety stores such as Marks and Spencer (for more details please see here) and Woolworths (for more details please see here), and the British pharmacy sector (including leading firms such as Boots), in relation to U.S. `drug stores’.

 We also contribute to the retail literature by providing explanations for success of these household names, though, for example, their development of capabilities in own branded products and supply chain innovations, such as Boots (link to working paper), Marks and Spencer; promotional and pricing strategies, (for more details please see and click here); and heavy investments in new managerial and accounting systems (for more details please see and click here). 

Published research outputs

By Professor Peter Scott and Professor James Walker

  1. Scott, P. and Walker, J. (2016a) Barriers to “industrialisation” for interwar British retailing? The case of Marks & Spencer Ltd.Business History. ISSN 1743-7938 doi: 10.1080/00076791.2016.1156088
  2. Scott, P. and Walker, J. (2016b) The only way is up: retail format saturation and the demise of the American five and dime store, 1914-1941. Business History Review. ISSN 2044-768X (In Press)
  3. Scott, Peter and James T. Walker (2016c), ‘Large-scale retailing, mass-market strategies and the blurring of class demarcations in inter-war Britain’, Book chapter, forthcoming
  4. Scott, Peter and James T. Walker (2012), The British ‘Failure’ that Never was? Anglo-American Productivity Differences in Large-scale Retailing between the Wars – Evidence from the Department Store Sector, Economic History Review, 65 (1), 277-303.****
  5. Scott, Peter and James T. Walker (2011), ‘Returns to Advertising Expenditure for Interwar American Department Stores,’ Journal of Economic History, 71(1), 33-59.***
  6. Scott, Peter and James T. Walker (2010), ‘Advertising, Promotion, and the Competitive Advantage of Interwar UK Department Stores’, Economic History Review, 63(4), 1105-1128.****