Can we still keep trade local?

19 August 2009

On my walk home from the tube station I now pass five empty shop fronts and a closed down pub. The remaining open businesses on the high street are a mix of chain restaurants, one locally–run pub and a handful of independent retailers, restaurants, solicitors and estate agents.

It’s good to see that there are still some local businesses managing to hold their own but for how long? The large red ‘Sale!’ signs are near–permanent fixtures in some shop windows and the danger red and exclamation marks suggest an unhealthy cash register to me.  If these signs could talk, I would imagine that they’d say something like ‘Please buy something, please!?’ and the tone would be suitably frenzied and pleading. I’m keeping my eye on the current sales signs in the hope that they eventually come down or at least aren’t replaced with the kick–in–the–teeth equivalent of ‘Everything must go!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!’ banners – read ‘I’m closing down just buy something, anything you swines’.

Joking aside, I actually find the situation pretty sad and it’s even more depressing to see that while the local businesses are struggling, the string of chain restaurants, cafes and shops march on unharmed. Yes they run special promotions and at the moment have to work harder to keep the customer coming back but they have the luxury of financial backup and support of a global or at least national company.

Herein lies the biggest problem for local businesses trying to keep up with the big boys –  they simply don’t have the time or resources to match the chain gang – when the landlords put up their rent, for example, a sole trader might struggle where the chains are happy to pay inflated prices. That’s why the independent bookshop that has been in my high street for years and years gave way to a Starbucks; the old village bakery became a Pizza Express and a popular pub morphed into a generic Prezzo (more pizza?).

It’s sad to see the variety and individuality being sucked out of British high streets but despite my supposed dislike of chains I can’t pretend that I haven’t been to all three of the above; the Pizza Express is in a lovely building; Prezzo ditto but the food not so good; and Starbucks is open later than the local coffee shops. If I want to meet a friend at home for coffee after work all the local cafes close at 5.30 – 6pm, whereas Starbucks and Nero round the corner close at 7pm. They are also open for longer at the weekends and on Sundays, when others aren’t. So even though I would rather go to Nova Era, my local Portuguese café, (a generous mug of tea for under a quid and great custard tarts,) it frequently isn’t open when I’m free.

Of course Pinner, where I live, isn’t alone in this plight, UK high streets are all susceptible to the onslaught and 2,000 local shops are closing a year (– and that’s discounting restaurants and cafes and larger shops –) and around 27 pubs a week – roughly four pubs a day, according to statistics from the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB).

In it’s ‘Keep Trade Local’ manifesto the FSB highlights the difficult task local businesses face: firstly planning rules seemingly favour out of town developments, which takes trade out of the town and city centres, where smaller businesses are located; and secondly expensive car parking deters shoppers. Why pay £1 at a parking meter when you can park for free at the supermarket? Last year local authorities made £1.6 billion from parking charges and fines, up from £628 million in 1997.

Turning the tide is no easy matter and standing outside Starbucks and co with placards, shouting down people for buying their regular tall, skinny, soyabean and pond algae latte, isn’t recommended. However, before we bemoan our local traders’ demise as inevitable and go and order ourselves said latte, we can still do something to show our support. 

Firstly, if you feel strongly about closures in your area write to your local MP and newspaper; sign the ‘Keep Trade Local’ petition  and of course where possible support your local businesses. A friendly hug and ‘I’m there for you champ’ is nice, better still is some cash. Over 50% of turnover from independent retailers goes back into local communities compared to just 5% from supermarkets, according to the FSB – you can’t argue with that.

Nathalie Bonney is staff writer at Moneywise