I’ve just called my mum and found out a very interesting story,” relates BBC business editor Robert Peston, who is fronting a three-part BBC2 documentary on Britain’s retail industry — Robert Peston Goes Shopping — which begins next week.
The brief conversation between mother and son sheds light on the Peston family’s own connection to British retail. His Eastern European ancestors worked in the shmutter trade after moving to London’s East End in the 19th century.
Peston’s maternal great-great uncle Willy Kalb and his grandmother, Stoke Newington-born Rose Cohen, co-established the K&C Modes ladies’ fashion shop in The Cut in Waterloo. Grandma Rose had trained from the age of 13 with the family of Beatles manager Brian Epstein as a buyer for their retail business and helped them to develop a successful chain of fashion stores in the capital. His uncle Willy also established Kays in Stoke Newington, where his grandma — who married “an accomplished tailor” — had first worked as a manageress. “She was the brains and he was the capital behind the business,” Peston explains.
“Jewish people came from all over London to buy their suits from the shop. My uncle Willy was a dapper little man and the most successful member of the family — he had a flat in Kensington. I was close to him.”
Reflecting on his family’s involvement in the rag trade, Peston adds: “Of course, it was a very Jewish thing to do. I’ve always sentimentally wondered what would have happened if they would have become as big as M&S.”
The 53-year-old will lead viewers on a journey through British retail from 1945. He says his research largely confirmed “what I already knew. British retail is full of great characters and there are a lot of big Jewish figures in it. I’m astonished by how many Jewish émigrés have helped build up our great retail empire. Jews have had an amazing influence on British retail.”
He goes on to assert that the Marks, Sieffs and Sachers behind Marks &Spencer, the Wolfsons of Universal Stores, the Cohens and Tesco, Charles Clore of Sears Holdings, plus a Sainsbury’s involvement through marriage are evidence of the immense Jewish background to our high street shopping centres.
What did he discover about retail in the post-war period? “In the late 40s and early 50s, there were big price controls and very little choice,” he says. “You had to be very entrepreneurial and we see big businesses like Dixons trying to get around the price controls.”
In more recent times came “the shopping boom in the 90s” and “the excess and people borrowing too much to fund a lifestyle. We’re now tightening our belts.”
He adds that boom and bust has been accompanied by “amazing change and turmoil. We’ve seen a rise of giants like Tesco and a revolution in the way we buy things through the internet and smartphones”.
What would Peston say to those who predict the demise of the high street? “The British high street will change in 10 years,” he accepts. “Look at the way we’re buying online with our iPhones and Amazon.
“The mediocre high street can’t compete with that. But you can’t get a haircut or a coffee online and you can’t get the personal experience of shopping online. A website or a phone app will never have the personal touch of a brilliant salesperson who talks to his consumers. If you’re good, you’ll continue to do well.”
Now living in Muswell Hill, the self-professed “secular Jew” has spent over 30 years in financial journalism. Having studied politics, philosophy and economics at Oxford, he gave up a career in stockbrocking to pursue journalism.
And when it came to investigating the retail market, he feels his background gave him an insight into traders “because I’ve grown up with them. I’m very proud of my family’s background. It wasn’t my reason for making the programme but it is one of the reasons I’m interested in retail.”
Robert Peston Goes Shopping airs on Monday at 9pm