McColl’s made headlines in May 2022 when it entered voluntary administration, seemingly the latest retail casualty of the Covid pandemic. It was swiftly rescued, however, by Morrisons and its 1100 shops continue to trade.
R. S. McColl’s was founded in Albert Drive, Pollokshields, Glasgow, in 1901, by Robert Smyth McColl (1876-1959), a professional football star, with his brother Thomas. Robert managed to score 13 goals in 13 internationals and, in his day, played for Queen’s Park, Newcastle United and Rangers. He retired from football in 1910.
McColl’s was converted into a private limited company in 1912. A factory opened in 1916, and the shops thenceforth sold the company’s own products – including its popular toffee – for cash. The chain expanded from 30 branches in 1916 to 70 in 1924.
By the time a new public company was formed in 1925, McColl’s had 75 shops. These seem to have been rather splendid. When a confectioner’s shop was taken over and remodelled in St Andrews in 1926 it was reported that: ‘The interior has been remodelled in the latest style with mahogany and glass cases, while the exterior is resplendent with shining brass’.
McColl’s shopfronts were made by the prolific shopfitter A. McEwan of Glasgow and resembled those of other Glasgow-based confectioners, such as Birrell’s and Templeton’s, with garlands decorating the transom lights. In the 1930s more modern, geometric designs were preferred and the garlands were discarded in favour of pretty pelmets. McColl’s grew to over 200 branches, many located close to cinemas, by 1936.
The McColl brothers were affected by the Wall Street Crash and sold out to Cadbury’s in 1933. They continued to run the company as salaried employees until their retirement in 1946, opening branches in England and diversifying into newspapers and tobacco.
After 1970 McColl’s was passed from pillar to post. It was sold by Cadbury Schweppes in 1970 to the merchant bank Keyser Ullman Holdings, which already owned Birrell’s. Keyser Ullman then sold both chains to James Goldsmith’s Cavenham Foods Ltd. At that point McColl’s and Birrell’s had 420 shops in Scotland and the North of England but ‘rationalisation’ followed, and within five months 150 unprofitable shops and a warehouse had been sold off.
McColl’s – the name Birrell’s having vanished – was sold to the Southlands Corporation of Dallas and then, in 1985, to Guinness, where it became part of the Martin Retail Group. In 1987 Guinness sold this 880-shop subsidiary to an Australian consortium. Despite corporate change, R. S. McColl grew to 770 branches by 1995 and three years later was acquired by the TM Group. In 2005 the shops were rebranded as McColl’s for convenience stores and Martin’s or (in Scotland) R. S. McColl’s for newsagents.
Having stocked Morrisons’ products for a few years, in 2021 McColl’s began to rebrand their stores as Morrisons Daily. When the business entered administration in 2022 it had 1149 outlets: 755 trading as McColls, 270 as Morrisons Daily, 116 as Martin’s and just eight as R. S. McColl. Now under Morrisons’ ownership, it continues to trade, with most of McColl’s shops adopting a blue and white livery with lime green highlights.
With thanks to Glasgow City Archives for allowing me to include images from the Mitchell Library.