The British ‘failure’ that never was? The Anglo-American ‘productivity gap’ in large-scale interwar retailing—evidence from the department store sector
Scott, P. and Walker, J. (2012) The British ‘failure’ that never was? The Anglo-American ‘productivity gap’ in large-scale interwar retailing—evidence from the department store sector. Economic History Review, 65 (1). pp. 277-303. ISSN 1468-0289
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To link to this article DOI: 10.1111/j.1468-0289.2010.00583.x
Interwar British retailing has been characterized as having lower productivity, less developed managerial hierarchies and methods, and weaker scale economies than its US counterpart. This article examines comparative productivity for one major segment of large-scale retailing in both countries—the department store sector. Drawing on exceptionally detailed contemporary survey data, we show that British department stores in fact achieved superior performance in terms of operating costs, margins, profits, and stock-turn. While smaller British stores had lower labour productivity than US stores of equivalent size, TFP was generally higher for British stores, which also enjoyed stronger scale economies. We also examine the reasons behind Britain's surprisingly strong relative performance, using surviving original returns from the British surveys. Contrary to arguments that British retailers faced major barriers to the development of large-scale enterprises, that could reap economies of scale and scope and invest in machinery and marketing to support the growth of their primary sales functions, we find that British department stores enthusiastically embraced the retail ‘managerial revolution’—and reaped substantial benefits from this investment.