We live in a large village, on the edge of moorland in the north of England. It’s large enough to maintain a post office and spaces designated as “brown field post-industrial sites”, ripe for development as clusters of treeless estates. As everywhere, the village is a no-go area for local older people on Friday and Saturday night. We love being here, but it’s not perfect, you know.
There are great advantages to living away from cities. The scenery is nicer, for a start. The pace of life is slower, and it is easier to think because it’s less noisy and polluted.
However, just as there are urban myths, so there are rural myths. Living in the country isn’t, and never was, a rural idyll.
One of today’s orthodoxies is that large, out-of-town supermarkets are killing local shops and communities.
Is this true? What could be done about it, should it be done, and who should do it?
My mother shopped for food every day in local shops. So did everyone else. If she wanted something special, or something the local shops didn’t have, she would look for it on a special shopping trip in the city. If it wasn’t available in the city, she didn’t have it.
Those days are gone. The past is a different country. Don’t waste personal energy in wishing them back, because it was all part of a package that people have rejected. A package that included polio, blandness, zebra crossings and bus conductors.
To change a community’s shopping habits, and thus revitalise the High Street or village centre, you’ve got to make the new experience an improvement on the supermarkets, not a nostalgic return to something worse.
I could be accused of being a hypocrite here. Do I use the local shops? No, I don’t. I shop online with a big supermarket that has pretty much everything I want and delivers it right to my kitchen.
To my deep political shame, I don’t know how much the loaf of bread costs. That is not the main issue for me, though, of course, I know it is for many other people.
So, if price isn’t the main issue for me, why don’t I shop in the village? I know I should, but I don’t. I know that if people don’t shop locally, local shops will disappear. It’s obvious.
These, then, are the reasons I shop online.
I can get everything I want in one trip. Some people like shopping, but I don’t, so the least time I spend doing it the better. This argument doesn’t apply if I drive to the supermarket, of course, because I would have to factor in driving time and, as Ivan Illich, the radical thinker of the seventies, pointed out, in his 1974 book, Energy and Equity, I would have to spend time working in order to be able to buy and run the car that I would have to use to get to the supermarket in the first place.
The second reason I shop online is that they deliver it to my house, so I don’t have to walk around the shop and I don’t have to drive there and back with arms full of heavy bags. I know a van brings it to me, so there is still a financial and environmental cost, but the van delivers to many houses in the one trip, and, because they use a centralised distribution point, there is a lower cost in terms of deliveries to individual supermarkets.
Finally, there is the human contact. The drivers are all, without exception, really friendly and chatty. They are far friendlier than the people in the village shops.
Now, my needs are not the same as most. I am naturally attracted to shopping systems that reduce or eliminate the need to drive or walk, and the need to operate successfully and reliably in a sight-dominated world of shops, product recognition, advertising, and so on.
However, all old and sick people have the same problems, or similar, so I am not on my own.
If we sum up the advantages of online shopping for food and similar, common or non-specialist products, we end up with a list that appeals to most people and most ages. It is less wasteful of the customer’s time, it involves no extra expenditure, like travel costs, the range of products is vast, and the whole thing is done by friendly people who seem prepared to remember you (ask any Greek taverna owner about the importance of this in retaining customers) and who are prepared to put themselves out a bit.
If this level of service could be guaranteed in the village, I would shop in the village.
I don’t think it’s impossible to set this up if shop owners stopped worrying about car parking and business rates, and instead thought creatively about the problem.
Here are my suggestions.
- Stop thinking about the High Street or the village as a collection of separate shops. See it all as one big shop, like the departments of a supermarket. In our village, as an example, the distance you have to walk between shops is no more than the distance you cover going up and down the aisles in a big supermarket.
- Provide pleasant areas in or near every shop, so the place can be used to rest, meet and talk to people, watch your children play, shelter from the weather, have a picnic. You can’t easily do any of these things in a busy supermarket.
- Keep cars out, so children and older people are less likely to be maimed or killed. No extra car parks, please.
- Create an online presence for the village that includes every shop, with a complete and up-to-date catalogue and a way of ordering online from any shop. This would not be difficult to do if all the shops contributed to the cost of hiring the necessary expertise.
- Employ a number of personal shoppers, who would do shopping for those who order online, just as they do in supermarkets. These shoppers would then deliver to local addresses, thus creating a human contact with vulnerable members of the community.
- Learn to smile and greet people in your shop. Make them feel welcome. Learn their names and where they live. Have conversations and make small talk. If you don’t like being a shop keeper, go and work in a call centre. If customers like you they won’t mind giving you their money, and if you can provide a positive experience that they can’t get in the supermarkets, they will stop shopping there.