A SHOPOWNER I know very well has just got back to work after breaking his ankle on holiday. What would be an inconvenience for somebody employed by a large company was for him a major worry.
No sick pay, no alternative but to shut the shop while he organised cover behind the counter – with the consequent loss of takings and the cost of employing that person to be found from already tight margins.
But he had another worry. Would his customers desert him while the shop was closed for a week, and pick up what they needed on the supermarket run instead? Happily, they didn’t. Along with all his other regulars, I went in, bought my usual things and said how good it was to see him back and on the mend.
And that’s the thing about supporting smaller, independent businesses – it takes a bit of effort, a bit of loyalty, a bit of commitment. It’s about seeing a shop not just as a place to buy what we need, but as much a part of the community as a school, a pub or a church.
I was genuinely glad to see him back. He’s a good bloke who values his customers, and puts something back into the community, endlessly fund-raising for the local hospice. That’s a business worth supporting, and we’re all the poorer if somebody like him can no longer make the sums add up and calls it a day.
Every time the shutters go down for the last time on a shop and it stands empty, it’s a gap not just on a parade of businesses, but a loss to the community it once served. Bit by bit, the closures undermine areas, whether town and city centres, or villages and suburbs.
That’s why more of us need to get into the habit of supporting the independents. Doing so is easy, because it’s just an extension of the commitments most of us already make to the communities we live in almost without thinking about it.
It’s there in watching out for the homes of neighbours when they are on holiday, keeping an eye on the elderly, supporting charities or the local school, or belonging to a sports club.
It isn’t a long step from that participation to making the same commitment to its shops. This newspaper’s Love Your High Street campaign aims to give them a boost, and as consumers we all have a part to play in doing that.
I grew up in an era when supermarkets had not yet secured a stranglehold on retailing, and independents had a larger slice of the market than now. Meat came from the local butcher, fruit and vegetables from the greengrocer next door and bread from the bakery over the road.
Everyday shopping brought communities together and forged bonds of friendship with people locally, because they bumped into each other at the shops and got talking. It made for busy local parades, each with their own sense of identity and where the shopkeepers knew their customers.
It spread neighbourliness more widely than just the few houses around our own. We all got to know people who lived in the surrounding streets as well. Now, when I walk to the local shops on a Saturday morning, I might say hello to maybe half a dozen people. Then, it was double that.
If we could recapture more of that spirit, it wouldn’t just be good for the independent shops, it would benefit us all. I like meeting people at the shops and stopping for a chat. It’s sociable, it’s fun, I find out what’s happening locally and for everybody involved it fosters a sense of belonging.
We’re all winners if we make a commitment to our high streets. The people who own the shops, and the staff they employ, stay in business and in work. As consumers, we get quality goods – often in the case of food, from artisan producers – and a level of customer service that can’t be taught but develops naturally.
Nobody wants to live in an environment where once-thriving shopping streets have gaps in them, premises shut and gathering dust. It produces an air of dereliction and decline that can be contagious and leads to other shops closing because fewer customers come.
And make no mistake, that atmosphere of decline can spread to residential areas close by.
There is a whole series of measures that the Government can and should take to support and boost independent retailers, including action on business rates and making parking easier. They wouldn’t cost a fortune, and the benefits would be tremendous both economically and socially.
But our high streets need us to commit to them too, to make the effort and use independent shops. By doing so, we’re not just getting the shopping we need, but investing in the health and future of the places we like living in.