Shop local? Definitely! There’s a lot of twitter traffic these days about ‘shop local’. There have been a few comments on this site too. It’s a good thing, right? Probably. Mostly.
Of course what most of the shop local brigade mean is ‘shop at independent local stores’. Tesco, bad. Independent local grocer, good. It’s a laudable sentiment. Or rather, most people think it’s a great idea until it gets to 7.00pm and you need a crisp lettuce, a loaf of bread that’s still within its sell-by date or something easy to stick in the oven. And then the convenience, the opening hours and range of products at the UK’s ‘favourite’ grocer comes into its own. And of course it’s not just Tesco versus the people. Twickenham now has a local version of Sainsbury’s, will soon have a Morrisons and, if the rumours are true, an Aldi. Why are these ‘locals’ here? Money, obviously. The internet has put paid to the rise and rise of the edge of town hypermarket. Why wander round an aircraft hangar of a supermarket enduring an experience that’s about as entertaining as a domestic argument in Ikea (and yes, we do mean the Croydon one not the Wembley one) when you could have your weekly shop delivered right to your door? Why go to Big Tesco to buy a television or a microwave when you can get it cheaper from Luxembourg’s very own internet giant, Amazon?
The internet is adversely affecting out of town shopping as much as it’s damaging the high street. The result? The mega-grocers are encroaching into the local environment to try to clean up by selling us the things we forget to buy, or can’t buy, online. These big boys recognise that there’s still money to be made from selling locally which perhaps says something positive about their appearance in our midst. Let’s assume that we all want convenience, choice, good service and competitive prices. The Tesco locals can provide convenience and choice. Do they provide good service? It depends on whether you like to be told that you’ve an ‘unidentified item in the bagging area’. To be honest, we thought that was what embarrassed middle-aged men went to their GPs about. And what about price? A rule of thumb is that any ‘special offer’ price is about the ‘right’ price and that many other items are overpriced. As of last weekend, Sandy’s fishmonger was selling six free range eggs for £1.30. Poor old Tesco Express can only manage to sell theirs at £2.10. Those eggs must sure as hell carry a hefty overhead! In fact, more than 2 years ago we featured a guest post on price of eggs (yes, really). At the time free range eggs were a snip at £1.76 for six in Tesco Express…. but £1.39 in the convenience store nearby. Need another example? South west London based wine writer Jamie Goode tweeted last week that he’d spotted his Sainsbury’s Local selling a particular bottle at £15.99 before pointing out, “this is regularly on sale at £7.49”. “Rip off” he said. He’s not wrong. It may be a way to make money but this kind of price manipulation is surely no way to build a trusted brand. Be warned.
But let’s get back to lettuce for a moment. National ‘locals’ have the infrastructure to enable them to sell (mostly) good quality fresh produce all year round. Most independents can’t compete and in many cases it’s probably not worth the effort trying to do so. If you want a lettuce at 8.00pm then who’s to say you shouldn’t go to Tesco to get one? Where the independents can compete is on price, service or by providing the things you can’t buy online or in your Tesco Express. Add to that some local knowledge, customer service or innovation and there’s hope yet. Want some proper wine advice when you need a nice bottle? Why not go to somewhere like Last Try Wines who also run a range of local wine and beer tasting events? Need some decent bread? You’ll be off to Ruben’s Bakehouse then, of course. In fact, the high street is full of places that offer what Tesco or Sainsbury’s can’t. Coffee, cake, curry, beauty treatments, hair cuts, quirky gifts, pet food, prescriptions, dry cleaning to name but nine. We need to be careful about totally demonising the role of the chains on our high streets. Most people expect to see a Boots in a place like Twickenham (it’s almost a reassuring badge of suburban honour) and yet despite the presence of that national chain we do still have a few independent pharmacists. It’s not clear cut, but if having a little Sainsbury’s means more time spent shopping locally rather than getting in your car or sitting in front of your PC then other retailers could benefit too.
And for those who harrumphed at the coffee reference above, you have a point. We knew where we stood with Starbucks and Caffe Nero versus the rest. Now we have Harris & Hoole too. It’s an offshoot of a small family run chain… but with big expansion plans funded by Tesco. So is H+H a friendly community based specialist coffee shop or is it a way for Tesco to get their hands on more of your hard earned dosh? Or is it both? What a dilemma! Perhaps we just should just get back to the days of Lyons Tea Shops. Hey, hang on, weren’t they a national chain too?
So what now? There can’t be many who want to return to days of local stores shutting at 5.00pm, half day closing on a Wednesday, and a pint of milk and a newspaper being the limit of your Sunday purchases. The way we live and shop has changed. It’s made life a lot harder for many independents despite our love of shopping. The recession and high business rates haven’t helped either. But those independents that can compete on price, convenience, community focus, the provision of quality products or innovative customer service can still have a future and play a key role in defining the shape of our high streets. So look around, shop wisely and maybe there’s hope for our town centres yet. Lettuce hope so.