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Bye-bye High Street - The destruction of communities and jobs

"Supermarkets are a dagger in the guts of civilisation…Shoplifting is a badly needed re-allocation of resources. I don't regard it as stealing."
Controversial views of John Papworth, priest, 1997

Supermarkets have become all powerful by putting smaller retailers out of business.

In their Ghost Town Britain reports (2003), the New Economics Foundation (NEF) revealed that between 1995 and 2000 we lost roughly one fifth of our local shops and services including post-offices, banks, butchers and grocers. Furthermore, over the five yeats to 2002, around 50 specialist stores closed every week.[41]

In 1960, small independent retailers had a 60% share of the food retail market. By 2000, their share was reduced to 6% while the multiples share increased to 88%.[42]

With our high streets disappearing and our town centres shrinking, we are losing a focal point for community life and a place for meaningful interaction between people of different classes, cultures, ages and lifestyles. According to Caroline Lucas MEP,[43] half the nation now shops in 1000 giant superstores.

Most obviously independent food stores close because the 'under-one-roof' format of the superstore seems to offer more choice and makes shopping 'more convenient', as does free car-parking or free buses. Many have also mimicked the idea of independent deli-style food counters with expert salespeople. This, however, can no way replicate the sense of community created by the high street, nor the level, range and quality of employment. Supermarkets have a totally different atmosphere to your local store. People push their trolleys up the endless anonymous aisles in a trance, and then queue impatiently at the checkout: its hardly a conducive environment to make a meaningful connection with your neighbours or the harried checkout operator.

Beep Beep Beep

A job in an independent store is qualitatively different to one in a supermarket. At the major supermarkets you may be a 'colleague' or an 'associate' but you have to conform to the corporate 'house-style' - dress and behaviour codes as dictated from HQ. Despite 'employee of the month' schemes etc, the corporation is not interested in you as an individual but as a money making machine.

Superstores are designed so that the individual employee can shift the maximum number of products per customer visit. Asda has the highest level of sales per employee, at £104,490pa. This is compared to Tesco - £91,591, Sainsbury - £85,986 and Safeway - £94,897.[44]

There are a number of reports published illustrating the effect of supermarkets on local jobs. These are discussed in the Competition Commission report (2000). Whilst some claim that the number of jobs increases, the British Retail Planning Forum (1998), embarrassingly financed by the supermarkets themselves, discovered that every time a large supermarket opens, on average, 276 jobs are lost. It found that there is 'strong evidence that new out-of-centre superstores have a negative net impact on retail employment up to 15km away'.[45]

Money spent in a supermarket is spirited away to shareholders and management staff, rather than staying in the community where it has been spent, supporting local businesses and their suppliers.

A study of the job dividend through localized food was conducted by the New Economics Foundation. This found that £10 spent on a local organic box scheme in Cornwall generates £25 for the local economy (a radius of 24 km from the farm), compared with £14 if spent in a supermarket. The research suggested that if every person, tourist and business switched only 1% of their current spending to local goods and services, an additional £52 million would be put into the local economy annually.[46]

With no strong attachment to place, the supermarkets can easily use job cuts as a safety net for ensuring profits - unskilled labour is fairly dispensable. Whilst both Sainsbury and Asda have claimed that they will create 10,000 jobs each during 2002, supermarkets also close unprofitable stores to protect profits. [47]

Can you walk to your local grocery store?

The siting of supermarkets 'out-of-town', has led to a massive dependence on car use for shopping: the distance travelled to shops increased by 60% between 1975 and 1990. Today three quarters of supermarket customers travel by car[48] and food shopping accounts for 5% of all car use.[49]

It also causes 'food deserts': areas where, without a car, there is very little choice of reasonably priced or healthy food.`

'Off Our Trolleys' (see Further Reading) shows that a typical out-of-town superstore causes £25,000-worth of congestion, pollution and associated damage to the local community every week.

Below cost selling on the High Street

Supermarkets have overseen the near eradication of small-scale retailing entrepreneurs. Those who survive live in fear of supermarket special offers promoting goods cheaper than an independent retailer can buy from a wholesaler.

Only serious measures to clamp down on persistent below-cost selling or 'loss leaders' can halt this. France, Germany, Ireland and Spain already have legislation to prohibit the selling of goods below the price paid by the retailer to the farmer.

In 2000, Wal-Mart was found guilty of breaking German law by selling a range of grocery items at below their cost price. The world's largest retailer was ordered to halt the practice immediately, or face a fine of up to DM1 million (£308,000).

Retail analysts believe introducing such measures into the UK may well help to slow down the decline of the High Street. It would particularly affect Tesco and Asda who rely on loss leaders and aggressive pricing policies to draw consumers in. One anonymous chief executive of a leading UK retailer has admitted that the legislation could cause them 'immense harm'.


[41] Ghost Town Britain & Ghost Town Britain II . Andrew Simms et al. New Economics Foundation. 2002/2003

[42] Grocery Retailing 2002: The Market report. IGD

[43] Figures quoted by Caroline Lucas MEP at 'Good Food on the Public Plate' cojnference. Oxford Brookes University 24 March 2004

[44] Keynote report Supermarkets & Superstores 2001

[45] Porter, Sam, and Raistrick, Paul: The Impact of Out-of-Centre Food Superstores on Local Retail Employment, The National Retail Planning Forum, c/o Corporate Analysis, Boots Company Plc., Nottingham.

[46] Plugging the Leaks: A briefing (2001) by the Centre for Participation. NEF: London. Downloadable from www.neweconomics.org

[47] See www.just-food.com and 'Battle in Store?' pg. 5

[48] Hillman, M 'Changing patterns of shopping drawn from National Travel Surveys 1975-91' . Policy Studies Institute 1994. Quoted in 'Off Our Trolleys'.

[49] Ghost Town Britain II (2003)