On shopping and the cloned high streets

Just before I left for my holidays, the New Economics Foundation launched one of those withering attacks on the big retailers for turning our towns into clones and springing up ‘like weeds’ pushing out the indigenous small shop keepers who give a place its character. Yet the idea that small shop keepers give anywhere character is nonsense, as is the idea that anyone would take seriously a town centre bereft of major retailers. Places bereft of major retailers are generally in decline and it’s independents and charity shops that move in like weeds rather than chain stores.

It’s a bizarre argument that says a town with an independent butcher, baker and toy shop has more character than one with a supermarket. You’re invited to download the NEF survey and award your town points for the diversity of its facilities. It gets points for each type of shop it has and each independently owned local shop gets ten times as many points as those belonging to chains, even if it’s expensive, offers poor customer service and has rude staff (that’s character, I guess).

In truth independently owned shops are also clones because communities tend to place similar demands on their retailers. So an independent butcher in Manchester looks just like an independent butcher in London. I’ve just come back from holiday on the Algarve, where the tourist shops and bars were all the same as the tourist shops and bars I’ve encountered in Greece, Majorca and Turkey, despite their diverse ownership. They’re all responding to similar demands.

Character and diversity come not from shopping (from which we all want the same things). Shops (like transport, schools and hospitals) are part of the essential infrastructure upon which an interesting place can be built. Character and diversity come from a town’s architecture, public art, open spaces, sports teams, places of entertainment and unique attractions that people have to travel to the town for. Little shops add very little to the mix, which is why people have stopped using them.

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