Saturday, 7 December 2013

The High Street Debate aka The New Class War

The #local hashtag is everywhere at the moment and is rapidly becoming the flag of convenience for the chattering classes who have decided that Tesco aren't de rigeur any more, conveniently forgetting that it was them pouring into the stores from the mid-1990s that made them the most successful retailer the UK has ever, and I'd say will ever, produce.

Numbers are being batted around and money staying in the local economy, warm memories of gran feeding everyone by shopping in the local High Street are being bandied around and everything that is big is surely bad.

Personally, I'm an advocate of a healthy mix of stores and sensibly-sized High Streets. But in an increasingly polarized and bitter debate, common sense is being left a long way behind, as is the idea of community that includes everyone.

The attitude of many pro-Indie/Local lobbyists is that everything needs to be local and small-scale in order to keep money in the local community. A widely varying stat is that 50-125% of every £1 spent stays in the local community compared to 1-43% spent with a mult (extremes taken from Twitter posts of pro-local lobbyists and MPs). Irrespective of the fact few can settle on a figure and even 
fewer are willingly to point to any data that can be checks, I have no doubt that shopping locally can keep money local. My problem is that so did the feudal system in medieval times.

Like it or not, multiple retailers provide one of the most consistent, meritocratic and transparent methods of social mobility in the UK. Working in a local shop won't give you the chance to better yourself, to learn skills, become a manager, change your life. That's what Tesco gave me and I owe my current comfortable lifestyle to them taking a chance on a council estate kid with a rubbish degree from a third rate university. 

But, of course, this whole debate isn't about people, it's about greed. It's about local businessmen not having to bother with building a good business through graft, rather more about easy profits in nice, pleasant middle class places. It's organic and worthy nonsense and you'll never see these lobbyists worrying about the access of poor people to hand-made Lincolnshire sausages sold from a farmer who travels over 100 miles each weekend to a "local" farmers' market to protect a healthy profit margin. Harsh? Maybe, but this one sided debate needs a more transparent view of the ethics behind it all. As it stands, the indie lobby attitude to the working class estates is "let them shop at B&M"

Retailing is a business. It is not a charity, but when done well it does benefit communities. That can be a sensibly sized mult employing and developing local people and using a corporate community budget or a successful indie getting stuck in with local events. Size means nothing, the quality of the business means everything. I wish the same effort of the lobbyists was spent on finding ways to incentivise retailers to take better shops into poor areas, the places that really do need them, rather than harping on about business rates for boutique stores with huge mark-ups.

Of course, mults are no saints and have become excessive themselves, but they are not in the same league as banking and, as I have pointed out many times, they never shut down a good business.

So, as we await a January of doom and gloom, once again I open this challenge out - will someone with genuine sway in the world please start preaching peace and harmony to get everyone in retail working together for the benefit of everyone? 

Yep, I'm a dreamer!

Merry Christmas everyone - hope your tills ring and we all have a prosperous 2014!

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