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March 15, 2006

The High Street invasion: Richard D. North celebrates the supermarket and welcomes their entry into the High Street

Posted by Richard D. North

It is fashionable to denounce the supermarket - and especially to moan about how the supermarkets are destroying small shops. This opposition is often couched in terms of "unfair competition". But the real objection to supermarkets is not about economics or competition issues. It is a culture war over conflicting images of Britain. Richard D. North - author of Rich is Beautiful: A Very Personal Defence of Mass Affluence and himself a fan of greasy spoons and second-hand bookshops - welcomes the supermarkets' entry into the High Street.

The Office of Fair Trading has said that the Competition Commission probably ought to look at the stride of the supermarket giants into the High Street. This is a change of mind for the regulator: last August they said that they couldn't see the need. But there has been a good deal of protest ever since from the independents, the foodies and greens, some new allegations of supermarket skull-duggery, and a jumpy report from the All-Party Parliamentary Group on Small Shops. The tide ran against the shamelessly laissez-faire.

Good. The free market never really is free: it needs defence from the monopolistic instincts of business people, as Adam Smith was amongst the first to recognise. If Tesco and Sainsbury's or anyone else is using bullying tactics, they should be exposed. The trouble is that the take-over by the majors is not likely to be much restrained by their being made to behave better.

It even seems desirable that the supermarket chains, famous for putting large sheds on the edges of towns where fields used to be, should be eyeing the High Street. They've been told often enough that their out-of-town activities are killing the town centres, and they are now responding by investing in the very urban areas that they were supposed to be crippling. Indeed, the planning system is pushing them in that direction. They are muscling in on a game which has excited the interest of other big players, especially the thriving "symbol" chains such as Spar.

It's probable that the regulator can outlaw whatever unfair habits the supermarkets have been getting up to, and they will still hang their shingles out in more places. Even the argument that supermarkets treat their suppliers badly is irrelevant to their high street ambitions. The up-market slow-food delicatessen and the "farmers' market" in the Saturday car park are hardly likely to be threatened by a Tesco Express or Metro arriving - and if they are it must be because they hadn't really defined a niche after all.

The All-Party Group (it's really a fancy lobbying device for the small shopkeepers) worries that minorities will lose out as the majors get into the convenience store business. They are concerned - for example - with the halt, the lame, and the Halal. Isn't it rather likely that the new micro-supermarkets will either be new (ie, additional) or the re-badging of older medium-sized independents? The only shops which will lose out will be those that depend on there being nothing better nearby.

Actually, of course, this is a culture war. The New Economics Foundation, which coined the idea of Clone Town, isn't really about economics at all. It's about a certain view of the character of Britain. I am often tempted by it – until I think about things.

Are you the kind of person who hunts out greasy-spoon cafes because they're grotty and authentic? Through the steamed-up windows of such places, one peers out at the Starbucks or Costa across the road, vaguely irritated that those mass-produced, samey outposts of capitalism at least quite often have loos. So you cross your legs, drum your fingers on the stained Formica table-top and wait for the chipped plate and the fatty bacon sarnie. And you remember that all those clean young people downing branded lattes and danishes across the road are university-educated and loath globalisation. Half of them are shopping online with their Dell.

Greasy-spoon lovers have their own website now (, and it can't be long before there's a guide to corner shops. They're similar institutions, united in apparent decline. In his (very silly) new TV play, Friends and Crocodiles, Stephen Poliakoff used the idea of people reading books in a café at the end of the bus route as a symbol of an illicit decency. He might well have had in mind Orwell's Chestnut Tree Café in 1984. Soon perhaps there will be a Chestnut Tree Corner Shop, where the last bohemians will queue to buy mousetrap cheese and broken biscuits, and hide their brown paper bag purchases from the CCTV.

But hang on. Small shops weren't good at stocking food, or being open when you wanted to buy it. They were bastions of the poujadiste, narrow-minded, "never a borrower nor a lender be", curtain-twitching, lower-middle class Britain which we have thank goodness seen the back of. Its defeat, by the way, is one of the unintended consequences of Mrs Thatcher's reign – she destroyed the world she had been born into.

I like buying clothes at Oxfam, which is another global brand which has invited criticism for its High Street presence, and on the grounds of unfair competition too. I'm forever browsing for beaten-up thrillers in bookshops owned by bibliophiles who listen to Radio 3 on a steam-driven Roberts. I thrill to the cannibalising prospects in the back yard of a bike repair shop.

But it would be awful to think such firms can only thrive if the neighbourhood's gone to the dogs. That is: if it can't support an East, a Waterstones or at least a Sainsbury's Local. In good areas, it's natural to see big name stores. In bad ones, their appearance would be a sign of progress, much to be desired.

I've nothing against corner shops, or Londis, but I don't see that they're morally superior to Asda. They're all welcome employers and wealth-creators. They're all capable of enhancing our lives. The point is that popping out for a pinta is not really a cultural, economic, moral, artistic or any other kind of statement. It really is just a matter of convenience. And those that offer the most of it, will rightly prosper.

Richard D. North is the author of Rich is Beautiful: A Very Personal Defence of Mass Affluence and of Mr Blair's Messiah Politics: Or what happened when Bambi tried to save the world.

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