When French leader Napoleon was asked what he thought of the UK he famously replied: "Britain is nothing more than a nation of shopkeepers." So, who would have thought that in 10 years time - the 200 anniversary of the British victory over Napoleon's troops at the battle of Waterloo - experts predict that there will be only a handful of market traders and independent retailers left in the country. Once the lifeblood of Britain, the butcher, baker, grocer and hardware store were a feature of every town. But today the corner shop is battling to survive. The 'Big Four' supermarkets, Tesco, Asda, Sainsbury and Morrisons, control 75 per cent of the £80bn grocery sector, providing the backdrop for a story showing a massive fall from grace for many of the nation's best loved high streets retailers.
Prime Minister Tony Blair has been asked by the Federation of Small Businesses to get the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) to do an urgent Competition Commission inquiry into the monopoly position of the 'Big Four' in the grocery sector.
Until now, an official probe has been resisted because the supermarkets are not seen as having a monopoly. However, this is only because the supermarket and convenience store sectors are examined separately. If they are combined, Tesco alone would be close to 40 per cent of the market, which would automatically trigger an inquiry. Combined the two sectors are worth £143.7 billion a year. This is without considering petrol stations and their attached convenience stores.
Between 2000 and 2004, 7,337 independent retailers shut. For example, Lambeth Walk was once a vibrant street in south London, lined with shops and home to one of the capital's most diverse local markets. Now, that is all but a distant memory of how the place proudly stood in its heyday. Half of it has been made into 'convenient' modern flats, and the other consists of shop fronts that are permanently boarded up. High financial overheads and urban planners have marked the end for the street as a commercial and social centre. Now it is a far cry from what inspired the nationally popular music hall song of the same name in the 1930s.
According to George Wilkins, 72, who has run a photography shop there since 1965: "The walk will never be the same again. Big businesses and property developers have wiped out the small trader and neither our local council nor the Government has done anything to stop it.' Mr Wilkins, now the street's longest-serving shopkeeper, has had to move four times in 15 years because his premises kept getting demolished.
Over the past century, especially decade, fears have steadily grown about the future of Britain as a trading nation. In 1945, there were 500,000 independent retailers. Today the number is down to 30,000 with a further 2,000 going out of business last year. A Government forecast set out in the High Street Britain 2015 report, paints a bleak picture for independent retailers, with predictions that there will be just a handful left in 10 years time.
The increasing dominance of large supermarkets will lead to the demise of shopkeepers, say British member of parliament. The high street of the future is in danger of becoming dominated by one big name, with little individuality and community. The report said: "Their loss will damage the UK socially, economically and environmentally."
Philip Hollobone, Conservative MP for Kettering and a member of the all-parliamentary Small Shops Group, says: "If nothing is done, British high streets face a catastrophe for independent retailers within 10 years. What the Department for Trade and Industry (DTI) needs to decide is whether that is acceptable. The dominance of the supermarkets and the big retail chains is so overpowering that the independent wholesale operators are close to collapse. Property prices, business rates and expensive town centre parking are all factors that makes like life very difficult for independent retailers."
Supermarkets, however, dismiss MPs, small shops representatives, campaigners and farmers for failing to understand that their businesses give the consumer what they want. If moves were taken to tax supermarkets for car parks, they argue, it would ultimately hurt consumers. The apparent demise of local shops, supermarket chiefs say, has been overplayed. Small businesses may be going under, but medium-sized chains like Budgens, Londis and Spa have largely replaced them.
Tesco's director of public affairs Lucy Neville-Rolfe says: "We feel that the consumer would be the loser if the Government regulated supermarkets. There have been two investigations in recent years, and they found supermarkets acted in the consumers interests."
This apparent domination of the high street will have knock on effects for the whole community. The most vulnerable groups, like the elderly, the poor and others without transport, will be the hardest hit. Women, who make up the majority of small shop workers, will also suffer when their jobs disappear.
Moreover, minority communities are also in danger of losing out. Members of the population who are of the Jewish or Muslim faith rely on small shops, to purchase Kosher and Halal meet, which is an essential part of their religious observance. A survey by the New Economics Foundation (NEF) found that specialist stores are closing at a rate of 50 a week.
For them to stay afloat local shops have been forced to conform to peer pressure and transform into convenience stores open at all hours to remain competitive. According to NEF there has been a 59 per cent drop in the number of greengrocers between 1992 and 2001, a 40 per cent drop in butchers and the number of wholesalers are closing at a rate of approximately six a week. But with the advent of high street 'hyper-markets' the majors have sought to expand their convenience outlets, like Tesco Express, again at the expense of the small shopkeeper.
If one is imaginative, it is possible that independent retailers and shopkeepers can be saved. The Polish Government recently castigated hypermarket businesses - Tesco in particular - for doing nothing to stimulate the country's economy. They pointed out that by opening more stores firms like Tesco did not necessarily increase public spending. All that happened was that they just increased company profits. This month India refused to open up its markets to overseas supermarket businesses, preferring, instead, to protect its own shopkeepers.
But, with the US-owned supermarket group Asda set to open at least 25 new stores in Britain this year, the prospects for small retailers does not look good in the short term. The supermarkets are unsympathetic. They argue that it is a competitive market place and customers vote with their wallets. But the British parliamentary report points out that: "Strong concerns have been raised over whether consumers genuinely are the ultimate power in the retail sector. Accessibility limits all consumers in terms of the shops they can use. Immobile customers and those on low incomes are the most restricted in terms of choice."
Perhaps nothing can realistically be done to halt the terminal decline of the British corner shop. With the cost of living rising and the ever-increasing expansion of supermarkets, it appears, that unless the Government steps in, they will become a thing of the past. To recall the words of Britain's best-loved shopkeeper Arkwright from the sit-com Open All Hours "Sometimes I sit awake at night and I swear I can hear the sound of small businesses collapsing."
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