13 Jul 2013

Being Loyal to your Local Shops

There are two active proposals for supermarkets in the Stroud District Council area: one at Ryeford near the motorway bypass; the other at Dudbridge on the site of the Daniels industrial estate. If given permission they would increase traffic congestion and carbon emissions and undercut local businesses. Although some jobs would be created, the profits made from our shopping would be sucked out of the local economy to head offices in the south-east or overseas. There are national targets for the optimum number of supermarkets per person (no doubt heavily influenced by the corporate lobbyists) which mean that a plan for a new supermarket is an offer it is hard for the local planning committee to refuse.

While most of us are nostalgic about the high street and affectionate about the farmers' market, we still tend to use supermarkets for the bulk of our shopping. The reasons given are convenience and price: in other words we do not prefer the experience of shopping in an artificially lit barn but we are short of time and money. However, people also consider that the quality of produce is higher, which suggests to me that they have not visited their local farmers’ market recently. People’s admiration for the supermarket often goes against their desire to support local employment: a survey funded by the supermarkets and conducted by the National Retail Planning Forum found that an average of 276 local jobs are lost every time a large supermarket opens in a local community.

Last year, as an attempt to encourage more local shopping, the district council introduced a loyalty card, which has had some success with more than 100 local businesses now taking the card. Its focus is on keeping people in the district rather than on locally owned businesses, since chains such as McDonalds and Subway have been allowed to join the scheme. Loyalty is important, but comes at a price for local traders, who are supposed to offer discounts or other incentives to entice shoppers back to the high street and away from distant malls. Is there some way we can change the structure of the market, making it possible for local shops to compete with the global giants?
The main complaint from local shops is that there is no level playing-field. Supermarkets free-ride on the road system paid for from taxes and on the global environment. Meanwhile their car parks are free compared with the charges people have to pay when parking in town, a significant reason for the decline in local shopping. Is there anything we can do about this to enable fair competition? Green councillors in Bristol are using the Sustainable Communities Act to introduce a supermarket tax; in Stroud we may look to something similar or to introducing charges for supermarket car parks. The supermarkets could refund the charge to their shoppers but the money raised could support more bus services or improvements to the town centres of the district.
But we can all play our part by choosing to be loyal to our local shops, especially in economically hard times. The argument that supermarkets are cheaper is often a myth, since their pricing strategies are deliberately designed to deceive, with wasteful multi-buy offers and loss leaders. Even if prices are sometimes lower the costs of their business model both locally and globally are too high to be acceptable as part of a sustainable economy.

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