27 January 2012

Save the High Street

This is totally not what I was planning to write about this week. In fact, I began a completely different post some time ago, which was meant for this week, and which has been cast aside due to the sudden surge of importance that I felt for this subject.

I was sad to see yet another local independent shop disappear from our High Street this week, and it
just makes me want to stand there with a megaphone urging people - the community - to help our own.
So here I am, writing about this at the last minute - minus the megaphone, but hoping that this sparks more discussion and gets people thinking.

The Community - A Place to Gather

It has been widely publicised lately - the seemingly dying High Street, following major changes in the
way that we shop. I was really interested by one lady's comment on the news the other day, who suggested that we would 'lose touch with our community' if the High Street was lost. What a thought,
and one that I have mulled over a lot since….she is absolutely right.

Where do we go as a community, to mingle with each other and share a common interest in the place that we live? Christmas time sees the switch on of the High Street lights and the festive Christmas market, while summer time sees the traditional Worcester Festival engulf the city centre, and there
really is a buzz about town. All of these things centre around our High Street, and really often involve
the participation of local business situated there. And it is not just in Worcester - most towns and
cities enjoy similar events.

I have only lived in Worcester for the last 5 years, and what struck me the most about the city when
I first came here, was it's sense of community - it is something that still strikes me now. The festivals,
the family events - there is always something going on in Worcester. I had never experienced this
before - at this level - and it really enabled me to slip into life here much more easily. 5 years on, and here I am, with Leaff, and I really enjoy a walk around town every now and then to visit fellow local businesses. I enjoy knowing them, supporting them, and watching them grow. I feel part of it - both
as a fellow business, and as a citizen of Worcester. I think that local businesses encourage community,
and so I ask myself, what will be left of this if these businesses go?

Ledbury is a shining example of a small town that, so far, has resisted the chains taking over. On my recent visits, with this subject in mind, I only found 2 chain shops in the whole town, and believe me, they didn't look half as confident. The beautiful boutiques sit proudly along the road side, and tucked down the alleyways. It is famous for it's number of independent shops and cafes, and when you talk to shop owners, they really are all batting on the same side. They stick together - recommend each other; they are a team; a community. I think that Ledbury is a mark of how things should be done, and just
how much we have to lose.

Lost Identity - What Makes it Unique

I find it soul destroying to see our local, independent businesses fall to the side of the big, boisterous chains. I say big and boisterous because we all know that generally speaking, money brings power, which is often used in a very negative way. Now I'm not saying that I think the chain shops should go, because I really do love places like Cath Kidston and White Stuff, but If all we have left at the end of
the day is chain shops, then what is there for our towns and cities that is unique? They would all be filled with exactly the same shops, so why would people bother to visit different places? What would happen
to tourism?

Of course you have the history of places like Worcester - the beautiful architecture, the museums and galleries - but is that enough? Aren't the skills of local people important too? I think they are, and I think that they breath life into a place, and shape it.

Don't you want to be greeted by local people when your feet start to ache and you decide it's about
time to grab a coffee? To perhaps purchase something unique, that you might not get anywhere else?
To experience the intimate atmosphere that independent cafes and shops bring - to buy into the local
area. Instead, you would be forced to sit in some (sometimes) grimy, chaotic chain cafe, or be subjected to no alternative but the typical chain shops that you have in your own town or city.

It is easy to forget that local businesses aren't just businesses for themselves. A lot of local cafes and food places source local food and drink for their menus, helping to sustain an array of other local businesses. In the same way, boutiques house art and crafts by a variety of local artists and creatives
- from jewellery and prints to soft furnishings and homeware - so they also support a number of local businesses. In this way, everyone is important, as it forms one big chain, and this is exactly the kind
of chain that gives a place an identity. It is local food, local drink, local craftsmanship.

In this way, there is no sense of identity in a town or city, when all you are experiencing is cold, corporate shops and cafes that you could experience anywhere in the country - and in some cases,
in the world. So in this way, I strongly feel that it would take the life out of a place.

Shopping Experience - Independent v Chain

Independent businesses in general care more - they work harder (perhaps because they have to,
but none the less) so you will always see them being extra careful about presentation and customer satisfaction. The owners themselves are most often the people who serve you, and of course they
are passionate about their business.

You would've noticed my lively language above, where I referred to 'some (sometimes) grimy, 
chaotic chain cafe', and this is down to the fact that I have had a number of bad experiences here
(this is perhaps another story altogether). I got dragged into a chain cafe by a friend about a year
ago - it had been a while since I had set foot in a non-independent - and I was absolutely disgusted. Every surface was caked with stale milk and chocolate powder from the busy day's trade, and when
I sat down with my slapdash coffee, it was merely warm. I was furious that I had given them any
money at all and swore that I would need to be a lot firmer with such friends. It is worth another post altogether, to discuss how some big corporate brands rest on their laurels when they have become
so big and popular. We don't seem to notice the care and effort slip away with our money - but I did,
that day more than ever before. My eyes were open, and yours should be too.

Local Growth - Where the Money Goes

Worcester has always been great for it's buy local motto. This isn't just because of the above reasons,
or that - as essentially one big family - we as a community should support it's own people, but of course, because it keeps the money within the city.

Why on earth would you choose to give your money to a chain, owned by some rich guy who has probably never even visited Worcester, over a local business person - a fellow community member
- who cares about their and your city? What good is that doing the places that we live in?
This is the question that we all need to be mindful of. Everything affects everything.

A New Dawn - Shopping Centres

So talking about the alternative to the High Street now - Shopping Centres, or Malls if you will.
Gigantic hubs of chain shops, dotted around the country. Once inside, you could be anywhere, right?
And where does that leave local communities to mix?

I don't know about you, but when I have been to a Shopping Centre, it has just felt like such a soul-less place. There is no identity at all. They all look the same, they all feel the same, and there is a distinct feeling that the people that surround you could be from anywhere at all. There is no community, no local trade, no local pride.

Of course on the flip side, I can see why people like Shopping Centres. A lot of shops in one place, under one roof, but really, aren't you bored? The same old, same old. I live for something different
- new things, new experiences - I don't necessarily like knowing what I am going to find before I walk
into a shop. Do you know what I mean?

Bottom line, I think that we, as communities, should be worried about the repercussions of the changing high street, and I also think that people should stop being so lazy. It is easy to fall into shops where you rely on the popularity of the brand to help you make your purchasing decisions, but I challenge you to think outside that box, and I urge you to support your community - to keep it alive.


  1. WONDERFUL post Kaitie.

    So much sense in this, and lots of thought provoking stuff.

    You are right about Ledbury - what a wonderful town, so full of vibrant independent businesses (which reminds me - have you been to / visited the website of The Apothecary Shop? One of my favourites, some lovely things for body and mind).

    It is up to US though, all of us, to use these shops as you say - and to use them regularly. I remember when I had my shop in Pershore, and after six years decided to close it to go online only because it just wasn't financially viable, so many people said what a shame it was and felt the loss that another shop was leaving the high street, but the thing is most of them didn't actually shop with me.

    I am guilty of this myself... the electricians in Ledbury closed before Christmas and I felt really sad about it. But the truth is I had never bought anything there.

    The trouble is it takes time and effort sometimes to shop on the high street. I can't tell you how many evenings I end up in Tesco buying dinner because I wasn't organised enough earlier in the day to sort it out when the high street shops were still open - and I hate myself for it. Just last week I was in Tesco - a miserable experience, everyone looking fed up and banging into one another with trolleys, I 'self served' at check out, then left. I hadn't had any interaction with anyone, didn't say a word - apart from to curse under my breath because they had run out of carrier bags. What a horrible way to spend my money!

    I am constantly determined to do better - to do my food shopping locally, never to use the supermarkets. I keep failing, but I will also keep trying...


  2. Charlotte - thank you so much for your fantastic comment. I am so pleased that you enjoyed this post and I think that you have added so much to it with your comment.

    I hadn't heard of that shop, no, so thank you for the recommendation! I can completely relate to what you are saying about finding the time to visit our independents to do our shopping, and that is really interesting about your own little shop that you used to have.

    I was really struck by what you said about your experience in Tesco - one which I think is comparable to what a shopping centre experience might be like...no interaction at all. I think it is really important for us all to be as determined as you are to do better with our shopping habits - even if you struggle sometimes - the important thing is you don't give up trying.

    I wonder, if we all did this, if our high street could be saved...


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