Is the corner shop dead?
It’s all Napoleon’s fault!
Allegedly he called England a nation of shopkeepers. (‘L’Angleterre est une nation de boutiquiers’). Since then, the corner shop has been under siege.
Whether Napoleon would have use the same words to describe the English today is uncertain. Perhaps he would have reserved his comments for India. India has 11 retail shops for every 1000 people, rising to 45 shops per 1000 in some cities. By contrast, Napoleons ‘nation of shopkeepers’, has only 4 shops per thousand of its population.
Mrs Thatcher was proud of her shopkeeper heritage.
This shopkeeper image represented a cornerstone of British no-nonsense conservatism.
How does this British institution fare today? Is it the Indian Deli that has now become the face of independent corner shopkeeping in this country? Many of the traditional independent stores have succumbed to the corporate take-over of our free market economy. In addition, lock down will have delivered a further blow for many independents.
Nevertheless, during lock down, we very likely became more acquainted with our local store. This renewed acquaintance, depending on where you live, could be of the ‘express’ supermarket variety, the Indian Deli or the independent grocer variety.
In addition, our experiences will have been conditioned by where we were living during this bizarre time. You possibly had the option to walk the 5 or 10 minute journey to the local store if you live in an active community with a centre. Alternatively a short drive would get you there if you were stocking up for the week.
By contrast if you live in suburbia or the countryside, you would be more dependent on your car. If you owned a car, you would have been heading to the out of town shopping malls. In addition, all of us have increased our ordering online.
But its not just the corner shop.
A third of shopping malls in the United States of America will close next year. This was predicted only this week. To knock it on the head, Internet retailing.com say that 60% of us have been buying more online in lockdown. Nearly 80% say that they expect to continue purchasing online after lockdown.
It may seem that the response to coronavirus has managed to close down many independent shops. But no one is off the hook. Larger chain stores have mopped up most of the business, but only for the moment it seems. Could a growing preference for local produce start to reverse this?
So, has localism taken on a new meaning since Covid?
For instance, the appreciation of fresh vegetables, herbs and sourdough have all helped us experience home and the hidden delights of our own neighbourhood in new ways. Reduced air and sound pollution has added to the qualitative aspects of this experience. But in contrast, now that we return to work, time becomes scarce again for this kind of enriching activity. This is likely to be the case, whether you go back to the ‘office’ or stick with the delights of your newly founded home work space.
On the Gower peninsular here in Swansea, Cae Tan has established a Community Supported Agricultural (CSA) movement that now provides for 150 families in the area. The basic concept is that producers and consumers take shared responsibility for how their food is produced. With this system, Cae Tan CSA helps to create a thriving local economy, abundant local ecology and the healthiest possible food. There are many ways to become involved and support this new way of working. You can be a volunteer, a subscriber, where you get a regular delivery of the produce or you can learn the techniques and do it yourself.
Is this the beginning of the second agrarian revolution?
As this movement gains momentum, it will reduce dependency on the global food distribution system. This system is broken according to many scientists. Collapse of this global infrastructure system could well produce the next version of a pandemic.
This offers the opportunity for many from all walks of life to become entrepreneurs and engage in an emerging industry that really brings it all back home. You could be more active in you neighbourhood, creating a new and more localised economy. But for the big shed retailers, whose business thrives on the ease with which your car finds its way to their stores on virtual autopilot, it may well be the start of the end. The dogs in our cartoon of the month don’t seem to be enjoying their big box retail experience too much.
Is it still considered ok to rack up carbon emissions in this way?
This is what happens when customers continue to travel out of town by car to buy processed food. A waste trail is left behind, all the way to the Pacific Ocean. Volunteer organisations like City Harvest in London now supply recycled food waste from the supermarkets to the tune of 30 tonnes a week to redistribute it to where it is most needed.
Only last week I discovered that my local neighbourhood formally had up to 30 shops. Now, only one or two remain in the area. Take for example, a residential terraced property in the road I live in. It has an old shop sign embossed into it’s front facade. This business had been a dairy and until quite recently, delivered milk to the front door.
Is there a future for the corner shop?
It is unlikely to disappear from view as new waves of immigrants take over from where the previous ones left off. The children of the previous generations now aspire to higher things. But the corner shop could experience green shoots once again. This cornerstone of community life for centuries, could now be recharged by something new. It could become the growth of the community shop with support from the growing army of local independent food producers.
A new set of shopkeepers is now emerging from India’s huge middle-class community. Smart, very educated and unafraid global citizens. Consequently, according to The Marketing Society, these entrepreneurs, are following their dreams and ‘setting up shop’ in new ways. Setting up costs can be quite low and premises quite mobile as illustrated by Flynns surf coffee set up during covid.
Planning for the Future.
What is disappointing today is to see that the UK governments August 2020 white paper “Planning for the Future”, makes no real mention of how mixed uses should be incorporated into new developments. If we want walkable neighbourhoods, we need somewhere to walk to. If we want to encourage natural and local produce and the entrepreneurial spirit to rise again, we need the corner shop. We need the cafes. We need community gardens, work hubs, pubs. Offices, communal facilities, sports facilities and faith centres, all need to be embedded into the heart of each new development.
To take a successful example, Poundbury, the urban extension to Dorchester integrated these kinds of uses from the beginning. The result is, that Poundbury still out-performs all other new UK residential development in its delivery of mixed uses. This is still the case after over its 20 years in the making. In this case the developers have achieved the creation of approximately one job per dwelling. In addition, new development at Nanselden in Cornwall by the same developers, is currently aiming for 1 job per dwelling created.
Some of our clients are buying into this vision. Most importantly, this is not only because they can see the benefits for the well being of future residents. But also because they see the commercial wisdom in taking the long term view.
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