What does your local high street look like? Do you still have a local butchers, bakers, fish mongers, cafe and family run restaurant nearby or have they been replaced with numerous ‘local’ versions of big name supermarkets and chains? I’m presuming that for the majority of us it’s the latter case or at least is likely to be heading that way. High streets across Britain have seen momentous change over the last decade as independent smaller stores, cafes and restaurants fail to compete with powerful conglomerates, enormous out of town supermarkets and shopping malls. In modern times convenience has become key and consumer habits have changed as a result of fast paced lifestyles, shorter attention spans and heightened expectations in regards to pricing and choice. But as the consumer have you ever stopped to wonder; is this modern day obsession with mass consumerism, flagship stores and restaurant chains progress and does it reflect changes in British society as a whole?
It has been reported that we could see high streets disappear in the near future. This issue has been highlighted by famous faces like Mary Portas who’s currently fronting a media campaign to regenerate shopping areas across the country. Recent news has reported the closure of many independent stores and co-operatives such as The People’s Supermarket in London. In the current market it is hard to get people spending and this is especially challenging if you’re a small business competing against powerful brands and conglomerates. The catalyst for this change falls down to economic demands and the branding market leading to a shift in attitudes as the modern consumer demands choice and convenience.
There has been a recent call by councils, backed by Mary Portas, asking supermarkets to build stores in town centres rather than on the outskirts to bring more business to the highstreet. Large superstores and shopping malls take businesses from town centres because they offer a wide selection of products under one roof and ample free parking. Add to this the appeal of ordering groceries online and the idea of making a regular shopping trip to town seems like a very long winded idea indeed. Large chains also have the monopoly as they can afford the higher rents, outmaneuver the small independents and also increase the prices in the area as local authorities can increase the rent due to heightened demand. This renders smaller independents helpless to compete and their futures now lie in the consumers’ hands.
In today’s society time is precious and competition is high. Supermarket and restaurant chains use clever marketing techniques and technology to attract customers, tweeting consumers with offers, emailing new ranges or vouchers and offering attractive loyalty schemes. Small businesses do not have big Marketing teams and large budgets so getting people through the door boils down to routine and familiarity. Sadly, the routine of strolling to local stores early before stock sells out, perhaps stopping to chat to shopkeepers, has become an alien concept to new generations who have become accustomed to consumer trends and routines dominated by the culmination of superstores, shopping malls and online buying.
Supermarkets can feel like cold and soulless places so why the popularity? Firstly, they’ve become familiar. The routine of meandering through countless aisles with a shopping trolley is practically pre-programmed. This is no fuss shopping that takes little thought or effort (unless it’s really busy). Secondly, these megastores offer anonymity and choice for people tired after having been bombarded with communication on laptops, phones, ipads at work and socially throughout the day. After all, by using self-serve checkouts you can ensure shopping is void of any social implications, plus with longer opening times you can visit at your convenience at a time that suits your schedule. This is the fast, practical and functional shopping.
So what does this mean for smaller shops? How, with more limited stock and opening hours, can they possibly compete with the level of choice and convenience offered at supermarkets? They simply can’t, but they do compete on the novelty of experience as an alternative to trawling endless aisles with a shopping trolley. A friendlier and more personal experience is offered on the highstreet and markets with a sense of nostalgia and familiarity. The rise in popularity of farmer’s markets and Vintage fairs show that Britons will always enjoy indulging in nostalgia. We’ve just witnessed the expensive return of the routemaster, last year we celebrated a Royal Wedding with street parties and high tea and have seen a re-surged interest in crafts with WI numbers on the increase up and down the country. There is still a desire for tradition but this tradition often appears to have been adapted for the 21stcentury and focussed on areas with larger markets such as urban areas where there is more space for competition in the market. There still seems to be a glimmer of hope for the independents but is this fickle and fashion lead.
It’s certain that convenience and economic need drive consumer habits – but shifts in tastes and consumer fashion are also making an impact, most evident in the food and hospitality business. Immigration has brought Britain a great range of cuisine and variety and choice is what modern Britain is all about as we live in a multicultural society where you can find an array of foods to suit any culinary taste or whim. But, at the same time, large chains of restaurants are dominating the market by offering food that is familiar and consistent. Why take a risk on that little restaurant when you already know what to order, and what the bill will look like at a popular chain restaurant? The coffee in that independent café won’t be as familiar as Starbucks and you already know how the service works. I recently saw a chain coffee shop pop up right next door to a small Italian coffee place around the corner from where I live and sadly it seems to get far more bums on seats because people know the name. This is the power of branding.
So independent restaurants, in general, take a battering from chains. But what about less-exotic, traditional independent British food establishments? Pub grub, Pie&Mash and Fish&Chips. British food and traditions have become more in vogue over the last ten years but often this has been moulded to suit modern fashions. The unglamorous great British menu has been rebranded gastro style and we’ve seen an increase in popularity for upmarket British restaurants like Hix and Balans in London. For every successful tea shop we are seeing a generation’s old pie and mash shop close. They may be cheaper but are they stylish enough for modern taste?. When money’s tight a meal’s a treat and although modern consumers seem to have a current taste for comforting authentic food it is the glossy finish of a restaurant setting that is attracting hard earned cash.
There is still niche following for old institutions with the Pie & Mash Club meeting at cafes across London, various Fish and Chips appreciation societies and the National Fryers Association still in full swing since its commencement in 1925, but this type of food has its opponents. It’s obviously not too good for the waistline or ticker and not an advisable everyday meal whilst penny sweets and sweet deserts like jam rolly polly damage children’s teeth. Therefore it can be argued that the decline in these cafes popularity is not just as a result of changes in economic situations and spending habits but also stems from society’s increasing preoccupation with health. The fact that gym memberships are up and pie and mash shops are closing shouts volumes about modern Briton’s priorities. However, there is always a counter argument; this type of food is a treat and an inexpensive treat at that. When visiting London, David Beckham always takes his children for pie and mash and you don’t need a tenth of his bank balance to scrape together £2.50 for a hearty portion. Can David Beckham make Pie and Mash fashionable again? Whether you think this is hearty British recession proof grub or a heart attack waiting to happen you cannot deny it’s a tasty guilty pleasure sometimes.
So back to the question in hand: is this progress? Well, the answer seems to be yes and no. We have increasingly convenient shopping where retailers compete and offer an ever growing choice of products and services. We have shoppers who are more conscious about their health and what they’re buying, leading to a healthier society. But with progress there are always losses. In Great Britain lots of old gems are being pushed out and forgotten. People no longer have time for eloquent language favouring faster text talk, lolly pop men are few and far between and not many of us have a milk man. Speaking to your postman is very different to ringing a huge call centre. The fast pace and large scale of conglomerates often affects service and losing familiar names and faces on the high street is damaging communities. Is this obsession with time and health affecting our enjoyment of life? – after all stress is one of Britain’s biggest killers. There’s nothing more relaxing than strolling around a busy, friendly market or taking time out to enjoy fish and chips on the beach. Whether society will ever be able to compromise on convenience and choice and take time to appreciate its heritage remains to be seen.
Has pie and mash, fish and chips, full breakfast had their day? Will we ever hear the whirr of a milk cart at 4am or know the name of our local grocer again? Will the rise in petrol prices see people staying closer to home or will impressive new shopping malls like the recent Westfield in Stratford be too big a lure for spenders? Only time will tell but your choices today may well make a difference.