Monday, 27 February 2012

The People's Supermarket Seek A Bailout

My local butchers is a fantastic shop. It's been there for generations and is a true local hub - local society notices are on the walls and everyone in there knows each other so well, it feels quite daunting the first time you visit. Not that you should worry, the staff make you feel at home and even if they didn't, the food is of such high quality you wouldn't mind. Their commitment to local suppliers is second to none - they've joked with me in the past that they could even tell you the name of the chicken. Now, they've achieved this through hard graft and with nothing more than a brief mention on Terry Wogan's old radio show a few years back. They didn't have a "celebrity" chef and a Channel 4 programme to promote them and furthermore, they've never asked for handouts from the local council.

For those of you who don't know about The People's Supermarket, it was a project started by Arthur Potts Dawson two years ago. It's aims are very noble and centre around a self-sustaining community-driven supermarket. The nation's attention was drawn to the project through a prime-time Channel 4 series during which we saw Arthur and his team try to get a grip on basic retailing while meeting potential suppliers. It fell into a typical "Islington Left" hairshirt programme showing us just how "nasty" big retail is to farmers. It even wheeled up the Tyrrell's Crisps founder as someone so hurt by evil capitalism that he'd sold his business to private equity. We saw Arthur growing herbs behind his London restaurant, telling us it was eco-friendly. This is true of course, but it also helps the profit margins of his business.

Now, if pushed I'd come out as a left-leaning person politically and because of that I'm actually a supporter of what they're trying to achieve. It's good to see a retailer reaching out to local community projects (like Asda do) and investing heavily in training to help people better themselves (as the large number of Tesco managers who started as trolley boys are testament to). I also love their ideas about reducing food waste - especially creating in-store "ready meals" with fresh food nearing it's code life end.

But I also believe in fairness and their campaign against paying due rates is something I can not agree with. When challenged on Twitter, they seem to believe that "bad" businesses like Tesco should pay more rates than "good" businesses like local bakeries and, of course, themselves. This is the type of nonsense that you'd expect to read in the Dave Spart column in Private Eye. Like it or not, Tesco and the other big mults are an integral part of a healthy local retail community. They are just as relevant to communities as a small bakery because the community decides where they hang out, where they use, who wins and who loses. The old arguments about keeping the profits in the community is also being rolled out. I never quite get this old chestnut - all it ever does is bring one level of supply chain closer. Unless of course, all the flour and ingredients for the local bakery are grown, milled and processed within 5 miles. My local greengrocer is owned by someone who lives over 20 miles away. In years gone by, the wealthiest Walthamstow market traders moved away to the leafy affluent climes of Chingford. In retail, there's always someone somewhere making a profit and quite often, they don't want to live where they're making their money.

If I was still living in London, I would be offering my support to TPS and hopefully using my retailing knowledge to make them a success. They need to approach things with more pragmatism - focus on the concept of community-owned aspects rather than the dogma-driven ones. Rates are a reality and they should have been working on ensuring this didn't come and bite them. Furthermore, putting themselves up for martyrdom won't help anybody, especially when they could have been highlighting just how much retail rates have become for EVERYBODY.

So, I hope TPS do survive but through people rallying round to pay the rates bill rather than a bailout from Camden Council. I urge all my readers to do as I've done this morning and donate to them - use this link or visit their website.

They are worth saving, but not on their terms.

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