Christmas Shopping survey updated

Christmas Reindeer in store

A quick thank you

This is to say thank you to everyone who completed the Christmas Shopping questionnaire for me.

A pub bauble display Thank you for Christ or for the Christmas revenue?
A pub bauble display Thank you for Christ or for the Christmas revenue? Image: John New

The current, and likely final, total is 64 respondents. As the figures were part of a Uni project (and the marks have yet to be published) I have not updated or changed those.  The final response summary is below-

Too early?

To the question “Does Christmas get into the shops too early?” the responses were-

No = 14 , Yes = 50  – an overwhelming majority of 78% although the final total is very slightly down on the earlier reported figure of 80%.

However one interesting quote received suggests this is not a new trend and differs little from the 1970s.

Not really I worked in a department store in the 70’s and xmas stock was being put on the shelves in September.  Respondent No 63.

My own experience of living in York in the 1970s supports this; there was the annual game of guessing which would arrive first – Santa at the Co-op Department Store or Bonfire Night.

Christmas Reindeer in store
Christmas ornaments in store. Image: John New
The New Year sales impact?

To the question “Did you delay a purchase by planning ahead to buy in the New Year sales?” the response were:-

No = 48 and Yes = 16.  As 75% of respondents did not delay a purchase until the sales, as with my earlier observation, other than the original purpose of shifting seasonal stock that is no longer relevant is there really any point to the sales?

Impact of on-line retailing

The question asked was “Did you buy any Christmas gifts on-line?” with a split for the yes answers between Vouchers only or a mix of gifts and vouchers.

This figure confirms the shifting pattern of giving in the twenty-first century.  In the final total only 6 from 64 had not bought at least a gift voucher on-line as a Christmas present.  That 9.3% in the final total was very slightly higher than in the interim analysis posted but confirms the overwhelming impact of on-line retailing.

In fact only 1 respondent from the total had only bought a gift voucher as their on-line purchase with the vast majority buying both an actual gift and a voucher.








Research facts – story spoilers

Primary research I have carried out suggests that journalistic staples in the Christmas build up differ from reality. Recently on Storify I published two posts, the first outlining how journalists predicted Christmas rail misery, and the second describing how shopper behaviour impacts on retailers.  In the background, I also posted two research questionnaires  surrounding those same topics.  The feedback from those is now available and suggests that citizens are in fact street-savvy, and old preconceptions require modification.  The old quote, often attributed to Mark Twain, “never let the truth get in the way of a good story”, is, in this instance, perhaps being proven correct.

Rail engineering – predicted travel chaos
Research shows track maintenance accepted - photo of equipment.
Track maintenance equipment Image: John New

As identified in my earlier Storify post, chaos has in the past occurred when works have overrun, therefore some elements of the journalists predictions have validity.  This post, however, challenge to the regularly promoted expectation that travellers resent the large scale rail closures over holiday periods.  Primary research in fact suggests that travellers think holiday closures are, perhaps, the least troublesome option.

[infogram id=”rail_closure_survey”]

Those responding to the question “No they were not aware there were likely to be closures” were asked to select from five options as to the reason for their lack of awareness. However, the no response was so low that the individual answers to that question are statistically of little value. The major surprise from the survey, given that there had been considerable mainstream news coverage (in particular regarding temporary replacement of the services to Heathrow and Gatwick airports), was that there were still 10% who responded that they were unaware of such closures.

A deserted London Waterloo. Image: John New
A deserted London Waterloo. Image: John New
What shoppers think of Christmas retailing

As an independent blogger, a survey will never match the accuracy of nationwide sampling by specialists such as  IPSOS-MORI, but that does not negate its use.  My own survey was to ascertain consumer attitudes to the early arrival of Christmas in retail outlets, and whether that conflicts with the standard journalistic coverage of retailers’ announcements regarding Christmas.

What the survey showed is that, whilst shoppers feel it is OK to be able to buy Christmas goods in store at an early date, there is resentment at the modern trend for getting the rest of the Christmas trappings into stores at such early dates.

[infogram id=”christmasnew_year_retail_survery_20156″]

The fact that consumers are buying early to spread the Christmas spend over a longer period also makes a mockery of articles published quoting from retailers’ press releases regarding their poor Christmas build up.  If customers previously spent £x in December, but now spread that £x budget over September to December, the spend is the same, merely to a new pattern.  The reality may well be that by spreading the purchase time the actual spend by consumers is now £x+n. There is perhaps a situation where not only have retailers had their cake and eaten most of it, they are also anticipating delivery of a second cake!

What also emerges from the survey is that the New Year sales are perhaps no longer the big draw for consumers that retailers previously expected, as only 24.4% of respondents had deliberately withheld making a purchase until the post-Christmas sales period.  Perhaps therefore the mainstream media outlets are missing the deeper story.  When retailers release their New Year comments on the sales, journalists should perhaps be asking why are you bothering with a sale?  The January sales were, after all, originally primarily to shift winter stock to make room for the new spring ranges, not as the profit centres retailers now expect them to be.

The survey, however, does confirm that where consumers have access to the internet they are highly likely to purchase gifts on-line, including vouchers, so that the recipient will also spend on-line.

About the research

Both surveys  remain live via Google Forms, although it is unlikely that either will receive significant additional input.  The rail survey received a reasonable response rate at the original survey date, the retailing questionnaire required a further request for completion.  The retailing question regarding on-line shopping is skewed in favour of a yes answer as it was conducted on-line.  For this reason therefore, perhaps the most significant aspect is that around 9% of the respondents did not buy a gift on-line despite being IT users with internet access.

What this small research element identified is that when the 2016-17 Christmas build up occurs, the real news stories should be around changing shopping habits, not the retailers spin on short-term sales figures.


Micro-blogging – Twitter

Screengrab - Twitter

Micro-blogging with Twitter

Two years ago I didn’t tweet; now through micro-blogging, I do so on an almost daily basis, therefore a reflection is appropriate.  This definition of a microblog from PCMag’s encyclopedia of terms  undoubtedly describes how I use Twitter;

“A blog that contains brief entries about the daily activities of an individual or company. Created to keep friends, colleagues and customers up-to-date, small images may be included as well as brief audio and video clips. The most popular microblogs are Twitter and Tumblr.”

Pre-conceptions -v- reality

Before I began to use Twitter my preconception was that a lot of the content was shallow froth regarding show-business celebrities and/or pointless announcements regarding people’s mood or whereabouts.  Since becoming a tweeter, I have found that there is far more serious content circulating than I anticipated. However, especially with the more conversational element, that pre-expectation was also confirmed.

Micro-blogging – the way I use Twitter

I have three accounts, the first in my own name, a second on behalf of the Stephenson Locomotive Society and a third (the alias Graham Crosse) created in 2015 to write about the election, and currently only used infrequently. The style varies between the three, with the posts undertaken for the SLS the most formal.

Screengrab - Twitter
Screengrab – Twitter

Open debate versus secrecy

The fact that I am able to have a Twitter alias, however, is one of the areas within social media open for debate. I created my alias because I was working as a Presiding Officer during the 2015 election and therefore I had to be seen publicly as neutral, whilst at the same time working on a 2nd year University project requiring publication of comments on election related politics.  As I have accepted the offer to work on the local elections this year, the same scenario will again arise around election time; the alias will therefore get a further, short-term, revival.

There are many more serious reasons for individuals to create aliases than mine. However, the ability to post without the user openly revealing a true identity can be seen as both a positive and negative aspect.  It can protect individuals and allow them to openly enter debates on issues where fear and security concerns would otherwise preclude their participation. The converse scenario, of course, is that this anonymity allows bullying and inappropriate comment, for example on race or sexuality, to be aired by individuals hiding anonymously behind an on-line alias.

In a journalism-related reflection, this issue needs to be debated. On balance the freedom of speech enabled by allowing use of alias user names is undoubtedly beneficial, but the level of censorship levied by host providers and/or governments is a concern in many areas, notably North Korea and China.

In the opening paragraph, I mentioned my preconception of the twittersphere as being filled with shallow froth; whilst that may be a harsh condemnation, experience confirms that there is a percentage of conversational traffic which is only relevant for the very short-term.  If you enter those conversations, anything more substantial within your twitter feed soon drops away and disappears.  In my own case, when posting for the SLS, this knocks meeting announcements etc., off our displayed Twitter feed, even though joining in conversations and making retweets would otherwise be appropriate.

Aliases of course offer the option of running two feeds, one for casual matters, one for tweets you may want to display, for example on a website news page, but that complicates matters.  The complication arises for both content creators, and also recipients wishing to return to a viewed message.  Twitter is a useful tool, but a management nightmare, even with the assistance of options such as lists and tools such as Tweetdeck to aid managing the content.

Tweetdeck screengrab image
Tweetdeck screen grab


Twitter as a tool is an enigma.  Whether as merely a citizen wishing to know what is going on, for example “is my train going to be delayed”, or as a journalist/reporter wanting to keep abreast of breaking events, it is extremely useful.

It is also invaluable for following the latest information on a topic of interest to you.  The lists option, especially if a list  management tool is used, aids grouping of content feeds but equally Twitter is a frustrating option for managing the dissemination of information. For the Society I find it has a greater reach than Facebook and, despite the problems of managing it for the SLS, I have come to rely on it over the last eighteen months as a source of information. I will not be reducing, or abandoning, my use of it in the foreseeable future.







Using Storify

Using Storify - grab of my profile page

Using Storify

This reflection is about using Storify from the position of an absolute beginner for the creation of a Storify based mini-blogsite.

Using Storify - grab of my profile page
My Storify profile page: John New

Ease of use?

The obvious first question to be answered therefore is “how easy is it to sign up and use?”  The signing up process was easy; to use perhaps less so, as it has quirks discovered through use, all to be learned and worked around.  It also appeared at initial sign-up to be easier to use than it actually has proven to be in practice, especially with regard to adding Twitter sourced content.  As an older internet user, I also found that, although there are many sources out there for obtaining linkable content, I do not use them regularly (in fact some not at all) therefore it was not intuitive to seek information from them.  The reality is that, for the stories I was writing, Twitter content could be ignored as the internet news-feeds supplied sufficient links to source material.

News curation issues

The creation of content for any news item requires assessment of the sources for accuracy, currency and bias.  One of the positives to using Storify is the speed with which sources can be traced and dropped into a new item for publication.  That, however, creates the perennial dichotomy, speed of selection versus the balancing time necessary for checking those three issues. With websites, that is generally straightforward, but for tweets and other content, it is far less so with regard to judging bias.

Also, but only a minor irritant, the default image libraries are international, therefore sourcing images with UK relevance requires care in use of search terms.  The use of the  generic term shopping was a typical example.  In preparing the item on the state of retailing, most initially returned images were obviously of non-Uk origin and unusable, as the pricing was showing $s (even where text was English) and also many showed Japanese/Chinese/Korean symbol writing.

As a content generator I found the product useful, but reviewing what I have already produced with Storify for this reflective identified a personal weakness.  As mentioned above, in the stories published to date there has been a lack of Twitter input into the content.  Although clearly retro-editing is not ideal, that lack could now be redressed, and it will definitely be borne in mind for future work.

That is not to say that Twitter was ignored; the posts were shared on Twitter and generated tweets about the items.  In particular the story about rail closures over Christmas and the associated tweet on 30th December generated significant twitter activity and pointed users at the linked questionnaire.

The crucial question – future use?

My initial reaction to Storify was that use beyond the current University assignment was unlikely, since on first introduction to it I didn’t like it. As it has turned out that first impression hasn’t lasted; true I find it quirky, but I have found a work-around already for one of those quirks and now know to avoid others.

I am the PRO and website manager for the Stephenson Locomotive Society and one of the items the current website lacks is any form of blog to accompany our Twitter feed.  The website is scheduled for a rebuild this Autumn, and producing a weekly Storify post on matters related to railways is a logical edition.

It is likely, therefore, that although the output via my personal Storify account will be sporadic, writing in a second account opened in the name of the SLS will become a regular feature.



Public sector pay

Public sector pay

Public sector pay, image of money and the Palace of Westminster. Image John New
Money and the Palace of Westminster. Image John New

Has the government got a clue when it comes to fundamental issues around public sector pay?  I admit I am biased, I am a retired local government officer and have relatives and friends still currently employed in the NHS and local government.  Recent news coverage however makes you wonder about the competence of politicians when it comes to managing their expenses and setting both their own pay and public sector pay generally.

Expenses scandal follow up

The expenses scandal was a story created by the dedication of journalists chasing a perceived scandal.  The Daily Telegraph broke the story and, as this summary of recent output shows, continues to report many aspects surrounding the issue. There was a suggestion raised in December that MPs need an independent regulator to end their regime of self-regulation. I believe most citizens would support that initiative.  Given the reported response to the eminently sensible suggestion that some form of up-market hostel should be provided for those MPs living outside convenient commuting distance, such a watchdog is long overdue.

The worst aspect to come out of that hostel report was the apparent acceptance by our MPs that (1) student accommodation is often sub-standard bordering on slums and (2) that slum housing is acceptable for them, i.e., students, but not for us, we are superior with a right to a better deal!  Where was the journalistic follow up to that?

That a watchdog is not being pressed for regularly as a prominent item in the current political debate perhaps suggests that the national press are actually too lenient with regard to politicians. Loren Ghiglione (then president of the American Society of Newspaper Editors) was suggesting as far back as 1990 that journalists were becoming too much a part of the establishment status-quo.  Twenty six years on, and despite the Leveson Inquiry report, perhaps that relationship remains too cosy for editors to address the inevitable “us and them” issues that would arise from in-depth analysis of what is acceptable in pay and status for politicians.

MPs’ pay versus public sector rises

This issue continues decade on decade, with the MPs never appreciating the impact of their actions on public sector morale.  I recall driving home from work one evening and hearing a radio bulletin giving the value of Quintin Hogg’s pay rise and thinking that as I would be happy earning his pay rise what must his full salary be!  As it was going back to my current house, and he retired in 1987, that would probably have been 30 years ago now, back in 1986. There will always be a distinction between levels of employee pay, the issue is the gap and how one side perceives the other.  When MPs decide economic conditions will restrict their own employees to zero or 1% pay rises, not long after awarding themselves 10%, they appear to fail to see the impact it has further down the line.

Recruitment crisis and strikes

Trade Unionists marching Image: John New
Trade Unionists marching Image: John New

Unsurprisingly, given the long period of declining public sector pay levels, there is a recruitment problem.  Adding in the reduction in public investment over the long-term including the policies of privatization and the recent austerity drive, this crisis was inevitable, and surely the politicians should have foreseen it. Alternatively, they did and didn’t care, regarding it as acceptable collateral damage in pursuit of other objectives.  That collateral damage of threatened strikes (doctors), actual strikes (train drivers), nursing shortages, workplace stress, low morale etc., etc., could fill pages with an almost endless list.

Journalists ignoring obvious links!

The links are there, of course, but always seem to be overlooked.  When most journalists cover the consequences, as with this recent Dorset Echo article on the cost of workplace stress, almost every reason bar the impact of government economic policies is quoted. Articles stating the case against austerity do emerge from time to time, as with this one in the Guardian during 2010, however, generally the consensus appears to either contain support for the government line, or like the Echo piece, fail to objectively review and challenge it.

If there is a shortage of school places with parents not getting their local choice, and at the same time the government is forcing more public spending cutbacks, might that just perhaps be a link worth reporting as a major issue?  We see and read of real people suffering real day to day problems but the nation can spend umpteen billions on warheads which, hopefully, we will never fire, but no cause and effect link is ever reported.

Somewhere the priorities have got lost, with the big picture swamped in a morass of short-term reporting. I may be a left wing pacifist, my views may be a minority, but I do expect the journalists working nationally to stand back occasionally and take a look at the stories their own media outlets are running concurrently, and just perhaps notice and report objectively on these causes and effects.

There is a big issue about how much our public sector staff should be paid, irrespective of whether they are government direct labour employees or working for contractors like G4S, CAPITA or BIFFA. This debate is entirely separate from the ongoing left/right issue over the ethics of privatisation versus public operation; whatever the organisation running the service it will have to hire staff.

The discourse rarely, if ever, debates either the true worth of employees in these services relative to other jobs, or why they should be treated differently to those in more esteemed roles. The issue always seems  to revolve around why they should be paid less and expected to do more in a more flexible manner, never about why the economy is so badly structured we can’t pay them fairly.

Unfortunately, for whatever reason, the journalistic debate about how much these valuable employees who sweep streets, empty bins, drive trains, guard prisoners, staff hospitals etc., should be paid always seems to miss the point – they need to be treated fairly and not as stigmatised, political pawns.


Transient internet – a problem?

Cash and cards

Transient internet – a problem?

The transient internet, is it a concern or just one of those things that mildly irritates?  What happens when the internet becomes transient, failing at critical moments in aspects of our lives?

In the modern world we are all encouraged to use the internet.  It is touted as the panacea for everything from home banking, scholarly research and entertainment via live media streams to controlling the equipment in your home with smart apps.

Transient internt - tablet screen Image: John New
Example tablet screen Image: John New

Banking and trading – two recent failures

The first failure (due to flooding of a City’s telephone exchange) has already been mentioned in an earlier Storify post.  The result was a return to cash-only trading, and because the cash for giving change ran out in some (most?) shops, they lost further revenue even where potential customers had notes with them.

The second failure is being blamed on a system error which led to customers of a major bank (HSBC) becoming unable to access their accounts where those are on-line and enabled for home banking.

When the transient internt fails we need cash not cards
Cash, bank card and Oyster travel card. Image: John New

Systems should be reliable but from time to time they fail; what is crucial is that there should be options available to work around these foreseeable issues. In the York scenario, where loss of the internet seriously reduced shops’ ability to trade, this is partly down to what the banking industry sees as progress, namely ending the paper cheque system. Many modern bank accounts do not offer a cheque book.  This seems foolhardy – discourage their use by all means, but ending the tried and tested back-up system for electronic trading does seem to be short-sighted in the light of these recent issues, all of which can be expected to recur.

Free travel in London as Oyster system fails

Underground train, Waterloo Station
Underground train, Waterloo Station. Image: John New

Another recent costly glitch in London may not have been directly due to problems with the internet but was similar in outcome.  It related to networked systems and because the modern expectation is that the majority of users will pay by card, a temporary cash only system was not practical.  The glitch on the morning of 2nd January 2016 is estimated to have cost £250K in lost fares.

Loss of web-sites and the historical archive.

The type of issue covered above arises from short-term problems, with expectations of  resolution in hours, or at the worst a few days.  The long-term transitory nature of the internet runs deeper, however, with pages and links disappearing on a permanent basis. There is an assumption that content referenced via hyperlinks will be there when next wanted, but this is an illusory hope. In preparing this blog, the first iteration of the site was accidentally deleted, the first posts (luckily mostly tests and drafts) were lost; it was the trigger for writing this post.

There are many examples of disappearing web-content and reasons for that.  As a Bournemouth University student, along with roughly 80 others on my course, we created a series of blog posts surrounding aspects of the Uk’s 2015 election.  Those blogs are not now  publicly accessible.  In attempting recently to re-access one of my own posts it appears either they were not up long enough to be fully archived by the Internet Archive Wayback Machine, or their format was not fully compatible with that system.

As technology changes so do websites.  As can be seen from the Island-Publishing main site, I also maintain a website for the York Model Railway Show (Current link).  That outgrew the original website hosted on a free site with dial-up modem access back in 2009, and was relocated.  That old site was expected to disappear after 6-months of upload inactivity but is, surprisingly, still there gamely auto-forwarding any unlikely visitors to the new version. Many other sites disappear without trace.

The content from my own first website hosted on Demon was transferred to a totally different URL when I changed service provider but, as expected, the old version went dead immediately because the space was no longer being paid for.  The content all remains live but, if anyone had created a link to that Demon version anywhere out there, those links will now be long-dead.  The new site has a web-address, it is therefore future proofed for ISP portability provided fees are paid.  However many, many instances are found when searching and following old links brings up examples of links where the destination content appears to be lost forever.  The author Ben Aaronovitch, as an example, had a website ( which currently returns in search engines but is no longer live although his blog is live.

Screen grab re Ben Aaronovitch 8 Jan 2016
Screen grab of Google Search re Ben Aaronovitch 8 Jan 2016

Does this matter – should there be more to these stories?

What was noticeable with regard to the reporting of these issues was that reliance on the modern technology without provision of quick and easy alternatives was accepted in the reporting as a fait accompli.

Perhaps it does not matter, but personally I think it does.  As historians we need a preserved archive, print media appears to have a much higher percentage survival rate in comparison to modern technology and the transient internet.

Equally importantly, I am a retired Emergency Planning Officer, and one of the crucial lessons learnt, and repeated in public inquiry after  public inquiry following major incidents, is the value of communications.  The more our society abandons the back-up of low tech solutions like cash and cheques in favour of networked web-based activity the more vulnerable society becomes.  That reporting ignores this is a worry for the future.


Legal constraints on blogging

34067 Tangmere at Weymouth 9 September 2015

Legal constraints on railway bloggers

Legal constraints do not often come to mind when writing about railway matters. I am a transport historian with an interest also in modern railways.  The law rarely impacts on that interest.  Although transport photographers have occasionally had issues over interpretation of photography rights by heavy handed security officers, and there is an obvious need to follow access and trespass guidelines, generally the law is unobtrusive.  This year that has changed.

34067 Tangmere – Wootton Bassett and legal constraints

34067 Tangmere at Weymouth 9 September 2015
34067 Tangmere at Weymouth 9 September 2015 Image John New

It remains possible to talk about this locomotive in general terms and to share photographs like the one above.  It also remains possible to mention that it is operated by the West Coast Railway Company (WCRC).  However during 2013 and 2015 the combination were involved in incidents one of which is now subject to a pending court case.  The debate on the Wootton Bassett incident of 7 March 2015 is therefore now sub judice.  This court case means there are now legal constraints on what can be debated and blogged about regarding WCRC.  As a result of that I am only including the link to the public Rail Accident Investigation Branch (RAIB) page with regard to background on the matter.  The incident was heavily debated on national rail forums previously and also covered by BBC News until the related court cases were announced; however, nothing can now be added.

34067 Tangmere – Winchfield and Weymouth

Whether open debate on two other incidents involving the locomotive and WCRC is possible may now also be questionable, hence my mentioning only facts and reports.

The first was in November 2013 when a maintenance issue led to a very serious incident of equipment failure at Winchfield.  The RAIB report has now been published, and no prosecutions have been announced.

The second was at Weymouth when some internet forum reports suggest Tangmere was apparently allowed to hit the buffers on 5th September 2015.  That something did hit the buffers and move them is undeniable, as identified by the scrape mark visible in the photograph below taken four days later. The RAIB website has been checked and this incident is not on the currently under investigation list.  It appears therefore that there are no legal constraints arising due to possible court action on either of these specific incidents. Despite that, there must still be a grey area for bloggers. Can we currently debate the competence of WCRC?  This arises as an assessment of their competence will arguably form a key part of the forthcoming court cases arising from the 7th March incident.  I have chosen not to take the risk, only adding links to previously published facts and showing my own photograph of the publicly visible trace evidence.

Photo of the buffers at Weymouth showing the scrape mark from impact. Image: John New.
The buffers at Weymouth showing the scrape mark from impact. Image: John New.

Reports of disappearing society funds.

As I was preparing this post another grey area case came to light via an internet forum post.  A name was mentioned for an individual leaving a society, together with reports of a police investigation into a substantial shortfall in the funds.  In the absence of information regarding whether any arrests have been made etc., not something to debate further as it would be too easy to accidentally mention issues that have subsequently become sub judice.

As bloggers we know that fraud has happened before, for example in this 2010 case in Wimborne, but we also know that honest individuals do resign when money is found to have gone missing on their watch.  The clear difference between the current and the former scenario is that the Wimborne situation is now closed and can be debated openly, the contemporary one, arguably, should not.