This is a rant which is always close to my heart.
The other day, I read on the website of a local town that they are up in arms about a supermarket chain’s plans to build a store in the town, which they feel will be disastrous for their high street and economy.
The website cites Royston, a medium-sized town in Hertfordshire and my local town, as an area that has experienced decline as a result of a supermarket.
I investigated the story further and discovered a couple of different websites set up solely to try to block large supermarkets from opening further stores in a bid to ‘protect our high streets’.
The thing is, I bet those behind these websites and protests all secretly shop there sometimes or order on the internet from them by the dead of night.
Forces at work…
I believe in market forces.
If local businesses aren’t up to scratch, then why shouldn’t a better shop like a good supermarket come and clean up?
If supermarkets didn’t do better than the local small businesses and offer people more of what they want, then people wouldn’t shop there. But people do shop there… that is the only reason they are doing so well.
On the website in question, there is mention of Royston as an example of a town that has been ruined because of a supermarket. And it is, indeed, rather limp at the moment with loads of empty units.
But in my opinion this isn’t due to the new Tesco store but is down to the fact that most of the businesses that have now closed were a bit, well, rubbish.
These failed businesses weren’t good even before the supermarket came, believe me. The good businesses are still struggling on and I am actually noticing that the atmosphere there is slowly getting better.
I shop at supermarkets (online) about once a month and have all of the larger items delivered. But l do buy from smaller independent shops for everything else during the rest of the month.
I don’t do this because of some moral goodness about buying locally but because I actually hate shopping in supermarkets. It takes so long just to walk round them.
So if I just want five or six things it can take ages and is really inconvenient for that kind of shopping.
You have to negotiate your way on foot across a busy car park with small children (there are never enough child parking spaces) and face the wrath of the trolley-moving-man to get to the door.
Once inside, I find the marketing an assault on my senses with displays cleverly positioned to make my son whinge for sweets instead of the educational trinkets I would like to buy him.
I always have to fight my way round with a wonky-wheeled trolley and then queue for ages and I rarely see a nicely made thing that I want to buy in addition to my usual shopping.
There is hardly ever a friendly member of staff there to fuss over my son and make him feel like the whole thing isn’t so boring.
So there really are lots of reasons not to shop in supermarkets.
Small businesses take note, you need to really think about these sorts of things and do them better!
Differentiation is key
What businesses shouldn’t do when a supermarket comes to town is try to compete on price.
You will never win against their power to price lower on staple essentials. You need to compete on different and more inventive grounds to retain your customers and win new ones.
Living in a rural area means that I have to get into a car every time I need something from a shop which means I can decide to go to one of many places, all of which are roughly the same distance away.
When it is time for my extra non-supermarket shopping I don’t go to Royston. Not because l am going to Tesco but for two different reasons.
Firstly, you have to pay to park in Royston which is a pain with small children and no change.
Secondly because the grocery shops there are not all good enough.
I go, instead, to a local village called Ashwell for my extra fresh bits and pieces. I go there because I can park right outside the shops I want, they have a great butcher, baker, chemist and greengrocer/florist all within an easy walk of one another.
Really easy and quick. All four businesses are excellent and give me exactly what I want much better and faster than a trip to the supermarket.
They provide more than just the goods too – always taking the time to chat with my young son for a minute which means that he wants to go there again. If they weren’t better than Tesco, I would just go to the supermarket.
Believe me – I will just go where they will give me what I want, like most consumers l’m sure.
Specialise to survive
I do still go to Royston from time to time as there are a few good businesses there hanging on and a couple of them, for example the hardware shop, do still provide me with what I need.
They are surviving because they are good and they specialise.
Like the local village shops, they offer products that are better and more specialist than the DIY superstores can. But their hands are tied by the council who are charging people for parking (why -do they want to kill Royston completely?).
And I also heard that one of their suggestions to help the town is to raise the price of parking. Are they mad?
One thing that is not helping smaller businesses in town centres is their council’s inability to realise that towns need to change to respond to big supermarkets coming into their areas.
So smaller businesses do need support such as easy and free parking for their customers. Actually, I think that parking should be free in all towns except perhaps large ones which house shopping centres and can therefore justify a charge.
It seems to me to be so short-sighted for councils to charge for parking and then wonder why the expense and inconvenience of it leads people to shop elsewhere.
Not necessarily a bad thing
I believe that when a large supermarket sets up in a town they simply flush out all of the businesses who were only surviving because people needed things from them but not because they were really any good – businesses that were stuck and weren’t changing with their customers’ needs.
But when these supermarkets come in, good businesses and those who specialise rather than try to compete will still survive because they will be strong enough to pull people to them.
Many businesses will also improve as a reaction to the arrival of the supermarkets and this means that effectively supermarkets can even improve businesses in an area.
The thing is, retail is much harder than it used to be. You don’t only have the supermarkets to compete against, but you also need to be better than businesses that people may find on the internet.
You can’t just put a few cans of beans on a shelf and expect to make a living and it isn’t just about who is selling them more cheaply.
It is much harder than that and you have to be better to compete and really find your market or your specialisation and drive at it. So really, I think that supermarkets have pushed up the standard and upped the average.
Conversely, it surely shouldn’t be that councils step in to stop supermarkets entering a town which, effectively, would allow an area to remain mediocre and artificially allow some rather borderline businesses to keep going on being just about OK.
People just want it to be e
asy to get lovely things from nice shops. It isn’t that hard really. The councils play a part in making it easy too but businesses have to do better and better and not expect to remain the same.
Change happens in any industry and any successful business has to learn to adapt to change – small local retail businesses aren’t any different.
I know people like to have a big company to blame when things get tough but just think about this fully before you cast blame at the door of the supermarkets.
Smaller businesses just need to stop whingeing, up their game and specialise to survive and flourish.