Thursday, 7 February 2013

# 23 (2013) Here's To The Medieval High Street

I am a Tesco shopper. The reason? It's cheap. It's the one place I can find all the things I need for the price I can afford. I'm not especially proud of this confession but it's the way it is. I am equally aware that had they not been there, I would have found other ways to manage my monthly budget.

The former boss of Tesco, Sir Terry Leahy, recently aired on Radio 4's Desert Island Discs. He described 'the rise of supermarkets and closure of small shops as part of progress'. He also 'called some High Streets "medieval", saying the way people lived their lives had changed'.

You could argue his statements on several points. My first comment would be that if it wasn't for the arrival and general take over of stores like Tesco, people's lives wouldn't have changed that much. It is my feeling that the UK shopper has been groomed into accepting stores like these over local independent shops by seducing them with cheap bulk offers, unhealthy time saving foods and a glutenous attitude towards eating.

You could also say that the only reason the High Street has changed is because of these ruthless multi-million pound companies moving in, not only into large industrial areas with their huge superstores but by infiltrating the high street with its smaller express outlets.

Invading the high street - Tesco took over a prime position at a key junction (source)
Lincoln itself is now riddled with them and they are clearly snatching business from other local independent stores by undercutting the competition thus starving them out of the high street and turning it into a cold and faceless shopping centre. 

On the other hand you could look at Tesco's humble beginnings and argue that here was an independent trader who had a head for business. The store began in 1919 and like many of our well known brands it started as a market stall in London's East End. 

This is the man we have to blame for Tesco. Enterpreneur WWI war veteran Jack Cohen (source)
You can also look at Tim Leahy's humble beginnings and think the same thing. The third of four sons, he grew up in a prefab on an estate in Liverpool. His father was a greyhound trainer and his mother was a nurse. His first job was at Tesco in Wandsworth, London when, as a 17 year old, so had to pay his own way through sixth form college.

Any one of the shops you see on the High Street could have become the next Tesco but it was the supermarket that showed the entrepreneurial skill to make it big. Because it changes with its customers, it gives the customer what it ultimately wants and it doesn't care how that affects the competition or its environment. Like all good businessmen, it is ruthless to the last and it can offer what it does because it has grown and is able to survive recessions and other economic disasters. The recent horse meat burger scare may have dented its profits, but Tesco won't have had to close any branches in its wake.

Tesco opened it's first store in 1929. It looks like a local independent business right (source)
Of course, if things continue as they are our high street is faced with a very bleak future. In the remaining years of our recession more small shops are going to fail. Of that there is no doubt. 

But imagine if the unthinkable happened and Tesco died out. Suddenly. In the wake of a huge economic crash. It could happen. What would be left? A High Street with very little to offer its populatiopn.  And then the enterpreneurs would be back. And so it begins again.

I miss the high street and the way it used to be. Friendly staff you recognised every time you went in to the shops. That personal service, that social experience. But for all its social past, mankind has distinctly lost its touch.

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