Save Our Small Shops!
by Russell White

Since the dawn of the "Thatcher" era and through to the present day, the trend in retailing has been to combine ever greater ranges of products under one roof. The seeds were sown In the post war period when Britain Imported the concept of the 'supermarket" from across the Atlantic. Previously, the only stores to provide such a wide range of goods In this way were department stores such as Harrods or Selfridges. These great Victorian department stores Included carpets, Lifts, restaurants and roof gardens. Some even had hairdressing salons.

They were the exception rather than the norm. Most shoppers at the turn of the century chose from a vast selection of small shops offering a smaller range of goods. They were spaced along a high street and one could find 'Bakers, Fishmongers, Grocers, Chemists etc. - each was separate to the other and acted as a focus for community life, especially In smaller towns and villages.

They employed staff who actually served one with the required goods and measured flour using scales and packed tea In the shop. Self service was rare then and Interaction between housewives and shopkeepers was Intrinsic to the social fabric of the times.

Other types of shop existed :

  • Co-operatives: The co-ops ploughed back profits to customers In the form of a dividend or 'divi" and the first one was opened by a group of Rochdale mill workers In 1844.

  • Chain Stores: originally these were shops selling goods to ordinary folk. Marks and Spencer began as Michael Marks 'haberdashery In Leeds market

The supermarkets continued this trend In the 1950s by combining the functions of the small food shops under one roof and they became the main retailers.


Firstly, the convenience of the supermarkets meant that it was no longer necessary to visit a large number of shops along the Local High St. This meant that greater time could be spent upon other activities.

Secondly, the owner could afford to bulk buy, having a larger range of goods from which to choose.

Thirdly, the supermarket can afford other customer perks in order to entice the customer. Discount offers enable the customer to bulk buy at even cheaper prices. Trolleys make buying In bulk physically possible and the associated car parking spaces allow further convenience.

So It would seem that the supermarket is indeed the way of the future, but is it right?

The case for small shops

Why do we support the small shops when it would seem that the supermarkets have everything to offer and have such support from the population.?

Well, we have examined the advantages of supermarkets but not the drawbacks. They are often the things which one cannot value In pounds and pence.

The supermarkets and hypermarkets often contribute nothing to community life. The conveyor-belt speed service leaves little space for chat a personal interaction, after all "time Is money", and the assistants appear to resent the customers. This is not entirety surprising -- every one shopping or employed in a superstore become inevitably de-personalised when there is an absence of familiarity and where everyone is a stranger.

A hierarchy builds up and customers with a complaint about products/service have to phone or write to faceless customer enquiry departments ... which are often miles away.

Power is concentrated in the hands of an ever-decreasing number and the trend gathers momentum with glossy advertising campaigns in the media -- the small shop is powerless against such monolithic monopoly capitatism at its worst. It has little resemblance to enterprise. It is closer to the corporate structure of the former empires, in that wealth and ownership is concentrated there is little accountability.

There is a Lifeline for the small trader....

A mechanism has to be devised to enable them to sell a small selective range of goods without being undercut.

I would suggest either a special "bulk-buy tax" upon retailers who bulk buy over a certain amount of goods or maybe a surcharge for shops which sell a larger range of goods (what constitutes a range? - that would have to be set by an independent panel)

A multiple product surcharge could worked as follows :

A large hypermarket which sold Newspapers in one section and Pharmaceuticals/Fresh Bread/potatoes etc in other sections would be treated as if it were a combination of a Newsagents. Chemists, Bakers and Green Grocers shops and pay 4 lots of tax whereas a shop which was simply a Green Grocers would be liable for only one tax rate.

This would immediately reverse the decline of the small shop, I believe, and make their goods far more affordable to the consumer.

Other measures could be taken whilst this was phased in :

  • A discount voucher scheme involving all of the small shops in a designated area for regular shoppers, supported by local councils to encourage them to buy a growing percentage of their goods at local shops.

  • Road Tax exemptions for retailers using a vehicle to deliver fresh produce to small grocers etc.

  • Local grants for installing CCTV in crime hit small shops and part funding for a security guard to protect the small shops in precincts where the big chain stores already have one.

  • Better public transport and more desirable surroundings on high street sites.

  • A ban on Sunday trading.

These are a few suggestions -- ultimately if small shops are to survive, let alone prosper, it is the consumer who must realise how important they are to our national life and what society stands to loose if they no longer exist.

Editorial Comment

Russell has raised some important questions. There are many reasons to support small shops. From an environmentalist viewpoint out-of-town centres which are reliant on car use can be bad news. In addition to the suggestions Russell has made, we would like to see a move away from an emphasis on planning regulation to positive planning. We wish to see local authorities identifying sites for development within population centres.

We wish to see planning for start-up size shops to encourage those starting a trading enterprise. If one looks at Camden Market or Kensington Market in London we can see how Centres providing small areas to a number of shops can thrive.

We wish to see the provision of business advice and technology centres to back-up small businessmen.

We are unsure about Russell's proposals on tax. Perhaps different rates of Corporation Tax might be simpler. What do other readers think?