I have always valued small, local shops, and in moving to Luton I have been particularly pleased about the little independent grocer and butcher round the corner from mine. Unfortunately, this kind of choice is the exception rather than the rule. In the last two places I lived in London, Kentish Town and Barnsbury, there were rows of abandoned and boarded up shops – what the New Economics Foundation refers to as ‘ghost town Britain‘.
Between 1995 and 2000, Britain lost 20% of its small shops, no less than 30,000 pubs, cornershops, post offices, local grocers, bakers and butchers. There is a simple reason behind this decline – the rise of chain stores, and in particular, supermarkets. Big, out of town supermarkets draw shoppers into their cars and out of their local areas, creating a consumer drought in high streets and small quadrants of local shops. Revenues sink, and the shops are forced to close.
The consequences are more serious than the immediate loss of jobs and the choice of where to shop. Community is also destroyed. I know my grocer, and his wife, son and daughter. Everyone does. If the shop was to close, my little part of town would lose a wonderful hub of community. It would also lose a source of income. Money spent in locally owned shops stays within the local economy. If the same money is spent in a supermarket or chain store, that money goes straight to a brand headquarters in London.
Unless shoppers deliberately support small shops, the so called convenience of supermarkets will win out. Our towns will be lonelier, more expensive, less personal and distinctive as a result.
Fortunately, there are some innovative solutions. As well as nef’s campaigns, the Wedge card is helping bring local shops to greater attention. Set up by Big Issue founder John Bird, the Wedge Card serves as a loyalty card for independent retailers. “Wedge is the little man” says the website. “The local independent shopkeeper and all the locals who love the fact that their High Street hasn’t fallen prey to the large multinational large chain, turning it well into a faceless, desensitized “brand only” environment.”
The card was launched in 2006 in London, with plans to roll it out nationwide in the near future. Each participating outlet decides what it will offer to customers, whether it is discounts, free products or special offers. Shoppers benefit from the offers, and from discovering small shops that are part of the network that they might not have discovered before. None of these shops would be able to offer a loyalty scheme independently, but they can as a network.
“Wedge is going to help those shops that make the community tick” says John Bird, “by encouraging the public to buy in the local market place. Because it’s in the family owned cafes, butchers and bookshops that people get to know one another, and become part of their community. If you don’t have a community then you’re more likely to be lonely, and you’re more likely to be lost. The supermarkets don’t make up for that kind of alienation.”
I can see how this kind of approach could work well in Luton, which still has a fairly good number of independent shops, especially in the rougher parts of town where the chain stores don’t want to go. Long may it continue, and godspeed the Wedge Card.