20 Jun 2012

Are Supermarkets killing St Helens?

Is St Helens under threat?

Local Shops in St Helens
According to statistics the number of local specialist shops such as bakeries, florists, greengrocers, butchers and so on has fallen over 90% since the late 1950s. A whopping 40% of that is over the last ten years. 

St Helens now has countless supermarkets and as land is getting more and more scarce the large players have taken to building smaller "community supermarkets" on whatever land they can get their hands on. 

If you're honest you'll perhaps admit to using the supermarkets and also thinking it fantastic that under one roof not only can you buy your groceries, you can even buy an iPad and some holiday clothes, insure your car and even have a spot of lunch whilst you're there. Why wouldn't we want supermarkets, they make our life easier surely? Think again.

You may think that you're unaffected by this mass invasion of retail giants, you're not a baker or a fishmonger so why should you care? The reality is that as more and more smaller independent businesses shut up shop unable to compete with the big players this in turn has many knock on effects. Let's take a look at some and use St Helens as an example. 

First of all we have seen the decline in local butchers and bakers, gone are the joys of picking a nice piece of steak up for dinner, some haddock maybe and a fresh granary loaf in our local area. Then we've watched in horror as the names that we have known since childhood started to vanish one by one from our town centres.

The inability to compete with the supermarkets on price and product range, coupled with crippling borrowing costs during the recent credit crisis such names as Woolworths became part of history not just in St Helens but all across the country.  Also, why would we park on a multi storey that costs money when we could park for free outside a hyper-mega-supermarket in the suburbs?

What we have failed to see is that despite us all not owning local shops we are slowly but surely being affected. These local businesses that have been starved out of the market all needed accountants, banks, solicitors, printers, vehicles, signage, websites, uniforms, the list is endless, as each one closed it meant that all the support businesses lost another customer and so one by one the cancer spreads to all areas of the town pushing up unemployment figures as it took hold.

A large percentage of the money spent in independent local shops stays local, not only to pay local staff, it is also used to pay other local support companies such as we mentioned earlier, local accountants, mechanics, printers and so on. In contrast, only a small percentage of the money spent in a chain store stays local. It's only the cost of the local wage bill, the rest is channeled through to head office and then distributed to shareholders often after some very clever tax planning by offshore accountants. None of the money goes back into the tills of the local community that the supermarket serves.

So maybe you're a farmer, maybe you were rubbing your hands when the supermarkets said that they wanted to support their local communities? The reality is however that if you speak to any farmer who is supplying the big supermarkets they'll tell you terrible tales of a years worth of fruit being refused or being sold at a price less than what it cost to package and then sold on a buy one get one free. 

So what can be done really? Ideally, we'd all make an effort to buy local, you'd be surprised at how much better the surviving local shops are to the main players. Take Fosters DIY in Fingerpost (Fosters haven't paid me or even asked me to mention them in this article, I just think that they are a good example). Fosters have been there since as long as I can remember (and i'm in my 40s) and I bet most of you have not been in there in years have you? The next time you want something DIY related, screws, timber, silicone sealant etc then please do yourselves a favour. Go to the large outlets (we all know who I mean) and price up what you want then go to Fosters and see not only how much you can save but also experience the warm friendly community atmosphere that still exists in the shop. 

Now you may think that this contradicts what I've said about low prices and locals being unable to compete. Let me explain, If we're looking for a new central heating boiler then the large players are perhaps very competitive, they will gladly sell something for £600 and make just £20 on it. They'll get you back when you're buying your pipe brackets and screws however. Have you seen the price of screws in the big DIY stores? Compare the prices with Fosters and you'll have a shock!

Supermarkets operate in a similar way. Fishfingers might be "buy one get one free" but then go down the air freshener aisle and prepare to be shocked. They will sell everyday items at knock down prices but have your trousers down when you put something less price sensitive in your trolley.

If you're fortunate enough to live close by to a local speciality shop or if you still happen to work in the town centre then please make an effort to stop by and purchase something, even if it's only once each week. You'll feel good in the knowledge that you're helping a local St Helens business and you'll probably be pleasantly surprised with the quality and service and heaven forbid even the price!

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