Andrew Vine: Shop chains that break the links binding local life

THE blinds were drawn for the final time, the “To Let” sign went up, and a little more of what gave a Yorkshire community its individual character was lost.

Competition from a new “local” branch of a supermarket chain a few hundred yards away had proved too much, and the greengrocer gave up, to the sadness of customers who had gone to his shop for years. He knew most of us by name, stocked as much Yorkshire produce as he could, and did his best to hide how upset he was at shutting.

He wasn’t the first to go. Not so very long ago, there were three greengrocers within a mile of my home. Now there are none. All were squeezed out by the supermarkets, despite having loyal customers. In the end, there were simply not enough of them.

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A similar story threatens to unfold at the newsagent and corner shop not far away where its owner, now nearer 80 than 70, is still up at 5am every day to sort out the newspapers. I don’t know anybody who can remember when he wasn’t there behind his counter, but the “local” supermarket is hitting trade, and he’s starting to wonder how much of a business will be left when the time finally comes to retire and hand over to his son.

A mile down the road, an independently-owned bakery is hanging on for dear life in the face of competition from another “local” that has opened less than a hundred yards away.

This hollowing-out of suburban streets is a trend too often overlooked in debates surrounding the state of retailing and the changing nature of shopping.

Most discussion has centred on how the big supermarket chains have been affected by the rise of the discounters, Aldi and Lidl, which have undercut them and seen profits shoot up at the expense of once gold-plated brands like Tesco, Sainsbury’s and Morrisons which have seen theirs fall.

The High Street is faring little better as shoppers go online and empty premises are increasingly filled by pound shops. A survey last week revealed that closures of everything from shoe shops to travel agents in the first nine months of 2014 are already two-and-a-half times higher than during the whole of 2013.

It’s the smaller places that are suffering most. A report published by Harrogate Council, also last week, warned that the town’s retail strength threatened to suck trade out of its neighbours, Ripon and Knaresborough.

And the smallest shopping centres of all, the suburban parades at the heart of the communities they have long served, are suffering quietly and unnoticed as their character is eroded by closures.

Where once there were butchers, bakers, greengrocers and perhaps a hardware shop or florist, now there are charity shops and bookmakers. Businesses that had been run for generations by families have gone to the wall, victims of supermarket purchasing power and the lifestyle changes the big chains fostered.

The overwhelming majority of us do, of course, use supermarkets and must bear our share of blame for the decline of independent retailers. The convenience of fitting a one-stop shopping trip into busy schedules has become a way of life, as has the need for so many to count every penny.

Even if the independent greengrocer’s fruit and vegetables were only marginally more expensive, hard-pressed families or older people on fixed incomes understandably opted for the cheaper prices at the supermarket.

Independents cling on most tenaciously in affluent areas, where residents can afford to make lifestyle choices to help keep them alive.

A friend in rural North Yorkshire makes a point of spending at least £15 a week in the village shop on goods she could buy cheaper on the weekly supermarket run, and many of her neighbours do likewise. To them, it is an investment in their community worth making, for the shop is as much a hub of village life as the church or pub.

But then we’re all poorer for the transformation of the local shopping parades. They are more than just places to pick up a loaf of bread or a Sunday roast from traders who know our names and value our custom.

They are places to stop and chat to friends and neighbours, to help forge the relationships and community spirit that makes for civilised neighbourhoods. Independents – whose owners often enough still live over the shop – are part of the fabric of our communities in a way that a scaled-down version of a big supermarket never can be.

It’s more than ever necessary to make a point of using the local butcher or greengrocer wherever possible, even if the bulk of the weekly shop is done at a supermarket. However much the face of retailing is changing, one thing remains constant – the big players continue to squeeze out the independents, and if we let them go, we’ll mourn their passing.