The Town with No Supermarket

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Haydnseek
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The Town with No Supermarket

Post by Haydnseek » Tue May 09, 2006 10:26 pm

The town with no Tesco
By Richard Tomkins
Published: May 6 2006 03:00 | Last updated: May 6 2006 03:00

Apart from its charm, the north Norfolk fishing port of Wells-next-the-Sea has arguably two small claims to fame. One is the Wells Lifeboat Disaster of 1880, in which most of the crew of the local lifeboat died, leaving the town with 10 widows, 27 fatherless children and a memorial that stands near the quayside to this day. More prosaically, the modern-day town is notable for being one of the few left in Britain that does not have a Tesco or, for that matter, any other supermarket belonging to one of the big chains.

To walk up Staithe Street, the narrow shopping thoroughfare that stretches away from the harbour wall, is to be reminded of what towns must have looked like before the supermarkets arrived. Apart from the usual seaside gift shops, there is a pet shop, an electrical shop and even a rare surviving example of an ironmonger's. More to the point, there is a butcher's, a baker's, a greengrocer's and a fishmonger's; just the sort of small, independent food shops that people say are being driven out of business by the supermarkets.

This picture postcard high street is an idyllic example of what Tesco and the other chains have seemingly destroyed in their relentless quest to dominate the retail landscape. You might think the locals would be fiercely protective of their unspoiled town and detest the supermarkets for the threat they represent. Yet it turns out their attitudes are a little more, shall we say, nuanced.

Many talk only reluctantly of their shopping habits for fear of appearing disloyal to local traders but it quickly becomes clear that most of them - even people working in the shops - already use supermarkets in neighbouring towns and many would welcome a supermarket in Wells for the greater choice and convenience it would bring.

Shelley Hewitt, a student, says she shops online at Tesco and has her shopping delivered. "I should think most of the people in Wells do a weekly shop at the supermarket. It's just easier," she says. And if a supermarket opened in Wells: "It'd be brilliant. I think a lot of people would be pleased."

Jo Rogers, a retired antiques dealer, says: "Everywhere you go there is competition, yet in Wells it seems we're not allowed to have any. Why should we be stuck in the 19th century?"

In fact, Wells nearly did have a supermarket, if not a very large one. Just along the street from Rogers' home is the site of an old garage that until recently was earmarked for a Budgens store with a petrol station. "A lot of people would have liked it," Rogers says. "I would have liked it, I really would." But Budgens pulled out and now a developer is building homes on the site.

Bob Smith, the harbourmaster, says that with no petrol station in Wells, car owners have to drive 10 miles to Fakenham to fill up and typically take the opportunity to do their shopping at the big Morrisons supermarket there. "I do use the butcher's here but, otherwise, I do all my shopping in Fakenham," he says. "I'd like to buy everything locally but it's all economics nowadays, isn't it?"

Sometimes, it would seem everybody hates the big supermarket chains - especially Tesco, the biggest, which last month reported record annual profits of £2.2bn. The New Economics Foundation, a think-tank, has called Tesco a "suffocating retail super-clone" and a website called Tescopoly has been set up by an alliance of pressure groups to campaign against the company's growth.

Amid widespread criticisms of the supermarket chains by MPs, small shopkeepers, campaigners and the media, the Office of Fair Trading is next week expected to refer Britain's entire grocery market to the Competition Commission for yet another investigation, the third since 1999.

Yet Wells serves as a reminder that there is a very good reason why Tesco and the other chains have grown so large. Apart from a vociferous minority of food snobs who think everyone has the time and money to do their shopping at independent, specialist stores, most Britons think supermarkets are wonderful - so wonderful, in fact, that even when presented with an excellent selection of traditional shops right on their doorstep, they will travel long distances to seek out a Tesco, Sainsbury's, Morrisons or Asda and use it for most of their purchases.

Anita Beck, a cleaner with two children, says she likes to use the local shops in Wells but, even though she cannot drive and relies on getting a lift, she does most of her shopping at Morrisons in Fakenham. "I use a lot of their own brands. I think they're just as good and they're much better value."

In the Staithe Street bakery, two young shop assistants say they would both be happy to see a supermarket in Wells. "Here, you can't always get what you want. There's not enough choice," says Katy Jones. The other assistant, Annika Williamson, says: "I prefer supermarket shopping because you get a bigger range and more bargains. And if it's open late in the evening, that helps, too."

Much as people like to romanticise over the past, it is as well to remember what shopping was like in Britain before the supermarkets came. In her anti-supermarket tirade, Shopped: The Shocking Power of British Supermarkets, author Joanna Blythman laments the passing of small independent food shops selling fresh, wholesome produce, evoking nostalgic memories of "the traditional British grocer with home-cooked ham, giant rounds of butter and wheels of Cheddar". Perhaps such shops did exist but you would count yourself fortunate if you lived within easy reach of one.

The reality is, between the end of wartime rationing and the beginning of supermarket dominance, most people in Britain had an appalling diet. They consumed enormous amounts of fat and sugar, only avoiding obesity because they exerted themselves much more than we do today.

They were also heavily reliant on processed food. After all, shopping for fresh produce meant a trip into town and many homes had no refrigerator, so people filled their food cupboards with tins, packets and jars - tinned steak and kidney pies, packets of dried peas, jars of fish paste and the like.

As for those small, independent food shops, not all of them were owned by cheery, ruddy-faced epicures in striped aprons and straw boaters eagerly serving their customers with mouth-watering, fresh food. Just as likely, the proprietor was a sallow, mean, chiselling skinflint stocking a poor selection of low-quality produce and always looking for an opportunity to rip off his customers by overcharging them or serving them short measures. Remember: before the supermarkets came, many butchers, bakers and grocers had little or no competition, so the shopkeeper had the customer at his mercy.

When the supermarkets came, the great service they did for their customers was to put them in charge. People no longer had to ingratiate themselves with the shopkeeper and take what they were given: they could pick and choose their own foods. They no longer had to worry about being sold stale or rotten produce because everything had a sell-by date. Overcharging became a thing of the past because prices were clearly marked. At last, they had a retailer they could trust.

And supermarkets immeasurably improved the diet of their customers. It was the supermarkets that enabled ordinary Britons to switch from a greasy fry-up and a cup of heavily sugared tea for breakfast to a bowl of muesli with a glass of orange juice. It was the supermarkets that lured people away from their tins of Heinz spaghetti in tomato sauce and introduced them to real pasta, olive oil, balsamic vinegar and fresh basil. It was the supermarkets that gave people wholemeal bread, low-fat yoghurt, sunflower oil, semi-skimmed milk and a tantalising abundance of fresh, healthy produce at low prices.

Let us not forget, either, that supermarkets liberated women. Before the supermarkets came, a housewife with a family to feed would typically go shopping three or four times a week. The supermarket, combined with the car and the refrigerator, made it possible for women, or even men when issued with a shopping list, to do nearly all the week's shopping in a single weekly trip, freeing them from some of the household drudgery and ­giving them more opportunities to enter the workforce.

So now, let us visit Staithe Street, Wells, and get a taste of shopping in a supermarket-free zone.

The baker's, called The Bread Basket, is a splendid example of a specialist food shop. It sells a gorgeous array of freshly baked fancy cakes and a good selection of breads including wholemeal, organic, rye and sourdough loaves. A supermarket could certainly beat it on price - the baker's price of 99p for a large white loaf compares with Tesco's price of 28p for sliced "plastic" bread to 85p for a Finest farmhouse loaf - but not much else.

It is a similar story at Arthur Howell, the butcher's. The shop has a heavy emphasis on local sourcing and the meat in the window looks deliciously different from the bright red, plastic-wrapped lumps from who-knows-where that you see in supermarket refrigerators. Apart from beef, pork, lamb and poultry, the shop sells cooked meats, free-range eggs and a huge selection of freshly baked pies, plus chutneys, pickles, honey sauces and other meat accompaniments.

Mind you, there is not much competition since the only other butcher's shop in town is also Arthur Howell's. And you certainly pay for that quality. Arthur Howell's beef mince, at £4.10 per kg, is more than twice as expensive as Tesco's mid-range mince, priced at £2 per kg, and the mince in Tesco's Value range is even cheaper.

At the fishmonger's on Staithe Street, there seems no doubting the quality of the fish on the slab. But 17 miles down the road at Tesco in Hunstanton, the wet fish look fresh and bright-eyed too - and, once again, some of the price differences are staggering. At the fishmonger's, whole mackerel costs £5.85 a kg against £2.87 at Tesco, herring costs £4.69 a kg compared with £2.77 and smoked haddock costs £10.15 a kg against £7.48.

Perhaps the Staithe Street fish really are fresher than Tesco's. But at the greengrocer's, it would be hard to argue that proprietor Allan Rands has the upper hand against the supermarkets. He cannot trump them by offering "fresh, local, seasonal" produce, as the foodies perpetually demand, for the obvious reason that nothing much is harvested in Britain at this time of year. Just now, 90 per cent of the produce in his shop is imported, he says. He has no organic produce because it all has to come from abroad and he is unsure whether it is truly as organic as is claimed.

As Rands acknowledges, the greater buying power of the supermarkets means they can usually beat him on price. In the shop, most, though not all, of his produce is a lot more expensive than Tesco's: leeks at £1.50 a kg against £1.18, cauliflowers at 89p each against 68p and oranges at 24p each against 19p. And Tesco has a wider selection, including plenty of the organic produce that consumers now demand. "If Tesco opened up here, I'd close down within weeks," says Rands. "There's no way you can compete with them."

And then, right at the top of Staithe Street, is a reminder of what grocery shopping really meant for a lot of people in the pre-supermarket age. It comes in the form of a family owned convenience store operating under the Costcutter banner, much as many others operated under the Spar and Londis names before (and after) the supermarkets came. Because, even though people might buy their bread, meat and fresh produce from the baker, the butcher and the grocer, they still needed somewhere to buy all of life's other essentials: milk, tea, butter, sugar, toothpaste, toilet paper and soap.

Like others of its kind, the Costcutter store seems faded and a little down-at-heel. Near the entrance there is a small selection of limp fresh produce that looks well past its prime. In the refrigerator are unappetising vacuum packs of factory-processed cheese and cooked meats alongside assorted pies and pasties sealed in plastic wrappers. Elsewhere, the food shelves carry the tins, packets and jars that once formed the backbone of the British diet: soup, baked beans, spaghetti, Spam, pilchards, processed peas and prunes.

Belying the store's name, most of the goods are extraordinarily expensive by supermarket standards. Bananas are £1.29 a kg against 64p at Tesco in Hunstanton, "value" potatoes are 99p a kg against 27p, milk is £1.16 for two pints against 53p, a box of 80 PG Tips pyramid teabags is £1.89 against 98p, the cheapest white sliced bread is 79p against 28p, Tropicana smooth orange juice is £2.19 a litre against £1.62, Finish lemon dishwasher powder is £3.19 a kg against £2.58, and so on through the store.

What do we conclude from all of this? It is startlingly simple, really. Just as there are two kinds of eating, there are two kinds of shopping: one is done out of necessity and the other, for pleasure. In less prosperous times, shopping for food in Britain never was undertaken very much for pleasure (nor, for that matter, was eating). The great triumph of the supermarkets was to make that kind of shopping as easy and cheap as possible. Shops that could not compete on that level were wiped out.

In these more prosperous times, however, new opportunities have opened up for small, specialist stores: they can offer that other kind of shopping - for pleasure. If they can differentiate themselves from the supermarkets by offering delicious and interesting food accompanied by friendly, knowledgeable service - in other words, by masquerading as the shops we imagine once existed but probably never did - they can do very well.

We know this because in high streets across Britain, bakers' shops such as The Bread Basket and butchers' shops such as Arthur Howell's are thriving in spite of the competition from supermarkets. And delicatessens, never previously known in Britain, are opening all over the place - including Wells, where there is one facing the quay.

Joyce Trett, chairman of North Norfolk district council and a Wells resident all her life, says people in Wells are "desperate" for the choice a supermarket would have brought. But, beyond that, the shops in Staithe Street could have benefited too - at least, those with something interesting to offer.

As we have already seen, many or even most people in Wells go to other towns to use their supermarkets. "Like that, you're taking the trade out of Wells because while you're going down the street to the supermarket, you're just as likely to nip into one of the other shops to make a purchase," Trett says. "So the more you can hold within your town to keep it alive, the better."

Who would have thought? Not just for shoppers but for a lot of shopkeepers too: if there is one thing worse than having a Tesco in town, it is not having one.

Find this article at:
http://news.ft.com/cms/s/0c42a02e-dc11- ... s01=1.html
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Post by Ralph » Tue May 09, 2006 10:41 pm

I want a TESCO here!
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Post by Gary » Tue May 09, 2006 10:49 pm

Tesco is like Britain's version of Wal-Mart.
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Post by jack stowaway » Tue May 09, 2006 11:03 pm

The odd thing is that I've visited Wells-next-the-Sea.

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Post by Lark Ascending » Wed May 10, 2006 3:10 pm

So have I, around 30 years ago. I remember sitting on the beach with my parents but nothing of Wells itself. I'm surprised to learn the town is a Tesco free zone, much unlike the rest of Britain, it has to be said. I shop at Tescos every other day as it's five minutes walk from my workplace. I usually end up buying the same things - very boring, but inexpensive.
"Look here, I have given up my time, my work, my friends and my career to come here and learn from you, and I am not going to write a petit menuet dans le style de Mozart." - Ralph Vaughan Williams to Maurice Ravel

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Post by Corlyss_D » Wed May 10, 2006 7:52 pm

Lark Ascending wrote: I usually end up buying the same things - very boring, but inexpensive.
The essence of Wal-Mart shopping too. You probably haven't heard much about the Democrats' war on Wal-Mart, another of their brilliant campaign strategems.
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Post by Ralph » Wed May 10, 2006 9:20 pm

Corlyss_D wrote:
Lark Ascending wrote: I usually end up buying the same things - very boring, but inexpensive.
The essence of Wal-Mart shopping too. You probably haven't heard much about the Democrats' war on Wal-Mart, another of their brilliant campaign strategems.
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Dermocrats are waging "war" on Wal-Mart? Now THAT is news.
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Post by Lark Ascending » Thu May 11, 2006 2:36 pm

Wal-Mart own Asda, another big British supermarket chain. My mother used to work for them, and didn't enjoy it at all. Anyway when trundling around Tesco and adding to their ever increasing profits today, I actually bought some different foodstuffs for a change, rice and a sauce which I'll cook with chicken for tea tomorrow.
"Look here, I have given up my time, my work, my friends and my career to come here and learn from you, and I am not going to write a petit menuet dans le style de Mozart." - Ralph Vaughan Williams to Maurice Ravel

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Post by Ralph » Thu May 11, 2006 3:38 pm

Lark Ascending wrote:Wal-Mart own Asda, another big British supermarket chain. My mother used to work for them, and didn't enjoy it at all. Anyway when trundling around Tesco and adding to their ever increasing profits today, I actually bought some different foodstuffs for a change, rice and a sauce which I'll cook with chicken for tea tomorrow.
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"Chicken for tea?"
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Post by Corlyss_D » Thu May 11, 2006 7:40 pm

Ralph wrote:
Lark Ascending wrote:Wal-Mart own Asda, another big British supermarket chain. My mother used to work for them, and didn't enjoy it at all. Anyway when trundling around Tesco and adding to their ever increasing profits today, I actually bought some different foodstuffs for a change, rice and a sauce which I'll cook with chicken for tea tomorrow.
*****

"Chicken for tea?"
Must be high tea. Meat is served at high tea.
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Post by Ralph » Thu May 11, 2006 9:06 pm

Corlyss_D wrote:
Ralph wrote:
Lark Ascending wrote:Wal-Mart own Asda, another big British supermarket chain. My mother used to work for them, and didn't enjoy it at all. Anyway when trundling around Tesco and adding to their ever increasing profits today, I actually bought some different foodstuffs for a change, rice and a sauce which I'll cook with chicken for tea tomorrow.
*****

"Chicken for tea?"
Must be high tea. Meat is served at high tea.
*****

I don't remember that.
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"Only two things are infinite, the universe and human stupidity, and I'm not sure about the former."

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Post by Richard » Thu May 11, 2006 9:59 pm

I would not bemoan the fact of a Wal-Mart coming to town. But I really have mixed feelings regarding the displacement of the small, privately-owned stores and businesses and "mom & pop" shops with the big chain outlets and franchises. From a cultural standpoint, I think we have really lost something precious from the past..something future generations will never expierence.

I feel very fortunate, growing up in a small town of about 4,000 in Northern Calif. to have had the "small town" experience, where almost every store-owner and shop-keeper was a friend, or acquaintance, or neighbor. Growing up in the late 1940's and 1950's, the memories are still in tact. Our only franchchise store, in town, was a Safeway supermarket.

I remember the shoe-store proprietor, living a few houses down the street, who probably had a very meager income but lived in a house, which today, I could not dream of affording. Or, the railroad tracks down the main streets of town just wailting for a coin to be placed on them.

The barber shop, where as an 8 or 9 year old boy, I could look at 25 cent "Field and Stream" magazines (the barber was an avid fisherman) that were at least 1/2 inch thick. The great jokes overheard, waiting for the haircut, where I increase my cuss-word vocabulary exponentially.

Or, the local grocery store, where I would stop by for a coke after school. The store had wooden floors and a large, walk-in freezer with windows on the outside. Getting a free sausage or piece of bologna from the owner, as I drank my coca-cola.

My uncle had one of two drug stores in town. I worked as a delivery boy, for a while. I can still remember him having to leave, at a moment's notice, to go to a fire, as he was a member of the voluntary fire dept. Or, the time I ventured into his competition, the other drug store, which caused immediate distress by my parents ("what if someone were to actually see you walk in there").

We had one movie theater in town, again owned by a friend of ours. The theater would usually employee a local high-school girl to be usher. I can still remember one of them. With her uniform and flashlight, she had the demeanor of a doberman pinscher. She would constantly affront younger movie patrons (such as us) if we did anything naughty such as lite up a cigarette or sneak back to the loge seats, without having paid for them. She would have made a good Reichsfuhrer security guard.

The best place, for a young lad, was the local ice cream parlor. It had 3 attractions.They made the best ice cream on earth. Better yet, the parlor had a couple of pin-ball machines not open to anyoone under the age of 18. The shop owner, howewver, would usually give us a waiver and let us play. Then there was the magazine rack, which always had a substantial supply of "girlie" magazines. Here, the parlor clerk was more strict. She would always come over and remove the magazines from our hands..."you boys should not be reading these things". I thought, who wants to read.

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