When I was younger I used to love to go shopping. I would have discussions with friends about where we wanted to go based on what we were shopping for and I would class it as a day out. I am not talking about shopping being a pastime, as spending money nowadays seem to be, but an outing, an adventure and a chance to experience something different. This was, of course, in the days when towns and cities had something different to offer. Some had a large proportion of junk shops, some designer boutiques, some had great tea shops and others had that one particular shop that did just the things you like. Am I alone in thinking that today all town centres are the same? Admittedly the shops may be arranged differently, but every town has the same few to offer. The day of the small independent retailer is gone. Those who dare to try and offer something different are to be found on the internet but cannot afford the rent and rates of town centres that the multiples can. Even the bars, cafes and restaurants are the same from place to place.
Not only are all the shops the same from town to town but now they seem to have the same offerings. When I left school I became a management trainee for that great British Institution Marks and Spencer. In those days it sold only British made goods. It wasn’t cheap but it prided itself on quality and it supported British industry. To be a Marks and Spencer supplier meant something and many of their manufacturers supplied only them. Now I pop into Marks hoping to find a high quality basic item to be faced with rows and rows of the cheap imported clothing. I cannot help but doubt that their ethics of treating workers fairly and supporting British Industry have been sold out to compete.. or is that ‘just be like all the others on the high street’. I know they cannot survive unless they can maintain the same margins as the other retailers… and so they have become the same as them. The quality has become the same, the offering has become the same and even the stores themselves feel the same.
Of course the only way to ensure that there is diversity on the high street is to support the small independent shops. That doesn’t mean just waving a flag and muttering about how lovely the shop is… it means actually going in there and buying something. Yes, it is going to be more expensive. They cannot import millions of tons of goods from the Far East and flog them cheap because the costs of running the shop, heating it, lighting it, paying staff to serve you dictate that it just cannot be so. I used to run the small shop in my village. It was on the doorstep, convenient and I tried hard to stock the little luxuries that weren’t in the supermarkets. I had pick and mix sweets for the kids to spend their treasured coppers on and the kettle always on for people to stop and chat… but people preferred to get in their car and drive miles for the couple of items they had forgotten on their shopping list rather than spend an extra 10p on them in the village shop.
Old habits die hard too. The new village shop keeper has done wonders to massively increase the range of goods and get the prices down. When he first took over everyone spoke highly of the ‘new shop’ and how they would support it, just as they had when I took over. And just as when I took over, after a few months they are back at the supermarkets and the shop is worryingly quiet.
So the big question is…. do we want to PAY for individuality and diversity or just pay lip service to the death of the high street? Are we happy to look the same as everyone else and let the same few big names dictate the way we shop?