Monday, June 06, 2005

Attack of the clones

From the Times today:

EXETER is named today as the worst “clone town” in Britain with its High Street dominated by chains of fashion shops.

The city tops the league of 42 towns now offering identikit shopping with little local character. It has only one independent shop in its main street.

The findings are from a survey of 103 towns, with a population from 5,000 to 50,000, compiled by the New Economics Foundation, an independent think-tank. People were asked to list the first 50 shops they passed along a high street.

The make-up of most town centres appears to include Top Shop, Next, Marks & Spencer, Gap, W H Smith, Boots, Debenhams, Tesco Express or Metro, Sainsbury’s Local, banks, a mobile phone shop, a music shop such as HMV, and Pizza Express, Pizza Hut, McDonald’s, Starbucks and Café Rouge.

Hardly any high streets have a cinema or theatre, pet shop or veterinary surgery, off-licence, hardware store, dry cleaner or launderette…

Andrew Simms, NEF policy director, said that the survey was a warning that other historic towns were under threat from poor planning controls. He said: “The key parts of our towns, which should be the beating heart of a community, have been hollowed out by the big chains.” .

Hebden Bridge, a market town in West Yorkshire, is, however, named the most characterful shopping centre. Other “home towns” with distinctive identity are Peebles, Hadleigh, Great Malvern and Lewes.

John Prescott, the Deputy Prime Minister, is being lobbied to ensure that councils take greater note of local character.

The NEF is calling for a moratorium on all new takeovers of small chains and convenience stores by the supermarkets. It also wants the Competition Commission to force main retailers to limit their assets to an 8 per cent share of the market.

One suggestion is that developers should allocate a percentage of any new retail complex to independent outlets in the same way that councils often force housebuilders to include cheaper housing on estates.

One can almost hear Morrissey composing a lyric as he reads this.

Actually, it reminds me of Bill Bryson’s constant whinge in his rather patronising and tedious tome, Notes from a Small Island.

His complaint, as he hacked around the highways and byways of Britain, was that too many towns were starting to look the same, and he bemoaned the loss of local identity in historic market towns as the chains take over.

While it is rather dull and dispiriting to visit a provincial High Street and be confronted with the same old shops, one can’t help thinking it’s a bit rich of Bryson.

After all, these aren’t museums erected for the pleasure of yankee hikers. Most don’t even advertise themselves as tourist destinations. People actually have to live in them, you know, all the time.

If the locals didn’t want to use Tesco and Next, Tesco and Next wouldn’t come.


martpol said...


I think what you say is true but not necessarily the point. As someone who works (and lived for many years) in Cardiff, I'm often upset by the way dull-as-dishwater chains move in and wreck attractive old buildings by putting in enormous plate-glass windows and garish signage. One of the big problems is that the interesting little independent shops can't survive when councils hike their business rates every couple of years. Only the Nexts and W H Smiths of the world can then keep their foothold.

As regards the Tesco point, such supermarket giants are very adept at (a) not consulting local people about what they want, misusing local planning laws and twisting councillors round their little fingers; and (b) convincing customers about the 'choice' they offer then actually restricting choice. See the fascinating Shopped: The Shocking Power of British Supermarkets by Joanna Blythman for more of this. The funny this, we all conspire with the supermarkets to reduce our own ability to choose.

Brit said...

Yes, I'm aware of the 'Big Brother' fears about the power of, in particular, Tesco with its ruthless expansion and loyalty cards, and as ever I have some sympathy with both points of view on the matter.

But there's definitely a certain romanticism about small local shops - eg. grocery shops - that blinds people to the fact that they are, generally, expensive, crappy and lacking in choice.

I can pop into Sainsbury's on the way home (after work, because unlike small shops it's open when I need it to be) and if I so choose, pick up in ten minutes some Taste the Difference sausages, organic new potatoes, fresh rosemary, the latest White Stripes CD, milk for breakfast, a father's day card, and perhaps two cheeky bottles of Australian plonk for the price of one.

I ain't complaining about the supermarket.

martpol said...

Agreed, and I can't get on my high horse as I've done similar things myself (though I'm trying to cut down...).

But let's also remember why smaller shops are more expensive. It's because they aren't screwing their suppliers into the ground, causing, amongst other things, British agriculture to teeter on the edge of collapse. It all depends on how much as a consumer you're happy to buy into these things.

Brit said...

High-quality independent shops have to fear from the mega-corporations, because they have a niche.

It's called natural selection. Everything in business is ultimately driven by the market and the consumer.

Life's too short to feel guilty about it - enjoy the benefits.

Brit said...

That should have read:

High-quality independent shops don't have to fear the mega-corporations, because they have a niche.

martpol said...

I disagree. Sometimes a little guilt (or at least compassion) can go a long way. Look at the market in Fairtrade products for an example. Bob Geldof is also hoping to harness some of the guilt factor in trying to persuade the G8 leaders to actually do something about global poverty for a change, rather than just pretending to.

Brit said...

From evil corportations to faritrade to Geldof in three short moves...Could you be a bit worthier please? :)

Seriously, I have nothing against worthy purchases. I favour a particular organic fairtrade coffee myself. Trouble is, I can only get it at the big Sainsbury's...