Monday, February 27, 2006

High Street Britain

click photo to enlarge
There is a widespread belief ... that many small shops across the UK will have ceased trading by 2015 with few independent businesses taking their place."
"High Street Britain 2015", All-Party Parliamentary Group for Small Shops, 2006

There's a shopping war going on in Britain today between the retail giants and small businesses. There are losers in this war, including the small independent retailers. But the clear winners are Tesco (with 30% of the £76 billion pound UK grocery market), Asda/Walmart, Morrison's and Sainsbury's. However, the real problem is that while the small businesses know that they're losing (50 high street shops close every week), many of the the shopping public think that the superstores are delivering choice, convenience and low prices, and so they too are on the winning side!

The price we all pay for superstore shopping is well documented: it is damaging to the environment, to farming, and to the transport poor. But it is the destruction of our town centres that I want to focus on. Superstores are causing many to become less viable, run-down, less desirable places to be. Every shop that disappears from the high street lessens the viability of those that remain. Town centres thrive when local businesses thrive. And the best local businesses offer good value, good prices, choice, specialism, expertise and committment to their community.

But the market is king I hear you say - people wouldn't use the big four grocers if they didn't give them what they want. There is some truth in this. However, the market dominance of the big four is now such that choice for many no longer exists. And if their growth continues the low prices today will be high prices tomorrow because competition will have gone. Hence the concern expressed in the Parliamentary report quoted above.

And hence too, my photograph of this shop in Church Stretton, Shropshire. I know nothing of H. Salt & Co., except that I bought a lunch box there the other day. It specialises in selling kitchen wares, has a range that beats any superstore, and has competitive prices. As I came out of the shop I looked at the building and noticed the name in mosaic tiles by the door. Curious, I looked up, and saw "HS" and the date 1901 under the pediment at the very top of the building. The shop must have been in these premises since that date, and the owners must have contributed this building to the growth of the town. The flexibility of the design has meant that other companies can use part of the premises now that, presumably, the needs of the shop are less. It is not great architecture, but it is ornate, visually interesting, and adds distinction to the street. But not for much longer if the superstores continue their onward march. And that would be a great loss to the town, and to the shopper.

I hope my photograph documents a shop that will continue for many years to come.
photograph & text (c) T. Boughen