When I left school, just before my sixteenth birthday, I wandered down my local high street looking for a job. One local shop displayed a tiny, hand-written piece of paper sticky-taped to the inside of its window, advertising a vacancy. I inquired within, had a short, informal chat with the manager and lo-and-behold, a career in retail, which was to last quite a few years, opened before me.
My brother-in-law recently retired, having sold the site of his long-established hardware emporium to a well-known fast food business. I still have nightmare memories of helping him to stocktake in this tiny store. Every inch was crammed with useful or necessary items for the household and he could lay his hand on any customer’s requirement almost instantly. Many of his patrons were regulars for decades, enjoying the craic with the staff as much as the bargains to be had and the advice proffered freely.
To be honest, I have never been a keen shopper, probably due to having worked in sales for so long. I am of the William Morris mindset, believing items coming home with me should be useful or beautiful (or edible!). However, the current state of many High Streets is one that concerns me as the mighty global giants squeeze the life out of our nation of shopkeepers. This is not an inevitable end to our High Streets. It is in our hands to preserve our independent option.
In a 2014 American Express survey, Britain’s number one dream job was to be a shopkeeper, with one in 20 people surveyed planning to open their own shop in the near future. I think many would agree with me that to find an independent trader, with a unique range of goods or services, friendly, knowledgeable staff and a desire to assist the clientele coming through its doors, is a rare but very satisfying experience. Yet, as we walk the average High Street, in any part of the country, we are assaulted with the sight of the same old national brands to be found in every other town or city.
So why, and how, should we help the smaller business?
- The local shop generally supports the local economy, with money spent there mostly staying in the area. Some display the work of local artisans, providing an outlet or gallery for talent otherwise unknown. Shop locally, save time and petrol and pick up something unique to your region.
- It is ethical, and often environmentally-friendly, option. Fresh goods are more likely to have travelled shorter distances, come from nearby farms and be seasonal. All of this makes it a healthier, and less stressful, option for the customer too.
- Regular customers get to know local traders and their suppliers, and can sometimes get a better deal – the phrase “Baker’s Dozen” didn’t come from a global supermarket chain! It can be a real pleasure to shop where the staff recognise you.
- A local entrepreneur generally knows his wares inside out and can advise on the best thing for your need. They have the flexibility to react to local demand and can often help with your supply requests or delivery.
- These shops are often a community hub. Think of the village post office that sells essential items, provides a place to post advertisement cards and posters for nearby events, goods or services in the area, and is a place for friends and neighbours to bump into each other, swap news and dispel the isolation so many suffer from in our modern world.
Use them or lose them. Small Business Saturday comes around every year, shortly before Christmas, when traders hope for a large percentage of their annual takings. Sadly, for some, this season will not come soon enough and their doors will be shut long before then. This is one instance when your individual action CAN make a difference. So, next time you click on the website at the top of page one of your web search, or head for the weekend’s shopping at the biggest retail park you can reach, think what a difference you could make by supporting a business that really needs YOU. Go local!