Dropping the Shopping June 17, 2009Posted by markswill in Uncategorized.
I’ve been doing a lot of shopping lately. Not ‘shopping’ as in searching for a darling little outfit to wear at one of the numerous swanky soirees I habitually attend, but dashing into a wide variety of convenience stores, butchers, charity shops – especially charity shops – around the Welsh Marches, badgering them to take posters and flyers for the upcoming Sheep Music Festival (see previous blog, Fool For a Festival). And the experience has inclined me to clamber aboard yet another hobby horse.
A few friends have long if gently ridiculed me for patronising only the emporia of our hometown for all my food and drink shopping, a policy that whilst hopefully well-intentioned, is increasingly hard to sustain. A few years ago Presteigne had two butchers, two greengrocers and three mini-supermarkets, a chemist, a baker, two ironmongers, and two newsagents. Both ironmongers, a butcher and a greengrocer are gone, one of the newsagents and the smallest of the mini-marts are for sale, their places taken by what with brutal flippancy, I will call knick-knackeries. Oh, and a sandwich shop, a third hairdressers, a second charity shop and an outlet for a very good organic baker in Way-on-High that keeps not-very-working-mum-friendly opening hours.
In the meantime a healthfood shop briefly came and went (its high prices victimised by the credit crunch) and several premises remain empty. To those who briefly visit the town or indeed live in bigger burghs, our ‘retail environment’ – as current parlance must have it – still harks back to gentler times before high streets became interchangeable parades of national brands, sucking money out of the local economy and into city portfolios. But my efforts to keep it local are being sorely tested these days, and as I flit around the Marches with my posters the signs of locally-owned retail fragility are becoming commonplace.
On reason is of course that when it comes the weekly shop, the recession or at least the cold, pervasive fear it engenders have forced folk to shop downmarket, even if it means a 45 mile return journey to the nearest Lidl. This has denuded the biggest mini-mart of the choice it once offered (a changed of management hasn’t helped here), the shelving for which has now been stocked with fruit, veg and periodicals which in turn has hurt the newsagents and remaining greengrocer. The latter has rather cannily turned to pet-foods for its salvation, the result being a gradual creep away from human comestibles and a consequent reduction in their range and quality… to say nothing of the acrid, off-putting odour of Bonio. Plus of course those that can still afford better quality are also traveling further afield where there’s a better class of butchery, greengrocery and indeed, fish.
Prone to similar phenomenon, bigger towns such as Leominster, Llandrindod Wells, Knighton and even Ludlow – the Hampstead of the Marches – have already or are in danger of becoming havens for Tesco, Somerfield and Aldi, overwhelming a dwindling smidgen of specialist and charity shops. There are many who’d argue that none of this is important, that the advance of mega-retailers who offer cheaper everything from sun-loungers to CD-players as well as food’n’drink, are what matters to cash-strapped customers. And if you listen to the regular radio bulletins celebrating or bemoaning the latest results from Tesco or M&S as crucial economic barometers you might think that this is all that matters.
But whereas I occasionally if shamefully slope into Aldi on my way home from London in search of cheaper olive oil (or more likely, vodka), I think the homogeneity and ubiquity of a few big retailers is to be deeply regretted, even feared. Regretted, because it does take money and entrepreneurial opportunity out of the local economy, and if you happen to live in a smaller town or village your food mileage and thus the cost to the planet inexorably rises. There is also the social cost: every time I wander up the street for a pint of milk, I meet someone who I can pass the time of day with, a small daub of social glue that nevertheless enhances the local culture. That doesn’t happen if you’re shopping 15 or 25 miles away in a giant shed.
More ominously – and this is where I admittedly risk falling foul of conspiracy theorising – as wafer-thin margins, bankruptcies, mergers and takeovers result in fewer and fewer but bigger and bigger retail consortia, there is an Orwellian danger that we’ll be forced to buy everything from faceless, soulless corporations whose economic might will be greater than the governments whose planning and tax laws they can shape if not skirt. And choice and price will then inevitably fall and rise accordingly.
But try telling that to the pensioner shuffling painfully round our local Costcutter who can avoid crossing the street to buy her veg or Daily Mail and you’d get a blank or contemptuous response. And I doubt she’ll be taking much notice of my Sheep Music posters, either. Same goes for some of the shopkeepers.
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