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Protecting our independents

Social distancing has eased; we no longer have to stay at home; shops, cafés and pubs are reopening, but have our shopping habits changed? Can we pick up where we left off? Emma Clegg says if you want a warm community that matters, one that provides local jobs and attracts people to the city, we have to value our independent outlets as a priority

I’m old enough to remember Green Shield Stamps. Popular in the 1960s and 1970s, stamps were given away at filling stations, corner shops and supermarkets. One stamp was typically issued for each 6d (2½ new pence) spent on goods, so large numbers of stamps had to be stuck into the books. That was my job in our family, sticking them all, using a wet sponge and a pad of newspaper beneath, into the collectors’ books provided. I took great pride in the neatness of the sticking, and in the completion of a booklet. I have no recollection of the benefits of these efforts, but apparently my mother would have claimed merchandise from a catalogue or a Green Stamps shop.

This is a snapshot of a more leisurely era in high street shopping, a time where it was a social experience, where shops were run and staffed by local people who knew you and your family. I don’t remember visiting a supermarket as a child – we went up the steep hill in Underhill, Portland to The Spar, asked for grocery items over the counter and my mother chatted to the lady who worked there. We got bread from the local bakery including on special occasions Portland Dough Cake (a butter-rich yeast-raised cake with spices and dried fruit, glazed with syrup that probably wouldn’t stand up to any nutritional scrutiny now, but was loved by all then) and visited Kerslakes for newspapers, sweets and if I had enough money a Wade Whimsie animal, my childhood favourite. My mother bought meat from the butchers, fabric from the drapers, hardware from Combens and shoes from Stone’s Shoe Shop.

This warm vision of community shopping is long gone and the high streets have changed beyond all recognition in the intermediary years – with the rise of convenience shopping at big supermarkets, the dominance of global brands which have chipped away at the character of our towns and cities, and finally the rise of online shopping. Then came Coronavirus and lockdown.

This warm vision of community shopping is long gone and the high streets have changed beyond all recognition in the intermediary years

Lockdown saw all non-essential shops and businesses offering face-to-face services closed for at least three months. While certain retailers and businesses benefited – the grocery trade, bicycle shops, and those offering or introducing delivery services – the grand majority had to close their doors and wait. Their income disappeared as their costs continued, and while the furlough scheme and the business rate holiday have helped many, there have been notable cracks in these offerings leaving some with no
support at all.

Unlike other sectors, our non-food high street retailers were vulnerable way before the virus struck. Christmas sales have been declining for years and shop owners have been dealing with rising rents, business rates and minimum wage rates, as well as losing much of their regular trade over the years to online retailers, who have much lower property costs and are therefore much more resilient. Spring stock was ready, but didn’t make it into stores, but the costs were still there. Online retailers on the other hand have benefited significantly, and the shifts in shopping habits driven by a population based at home are likely to reshape consumer habits in the long term way more quickly than economists predicted.

Unlike other sectors, our non-food high street retailers were vulnerable way before the virus struck

We have always championed our city’s independent retailers and food outlets and the variety of products and services that they offer, and Bath has been luckier than other urban centres in having a large proportion of independent traders, which is something that our visitors have always loved, and draws them to our shopping streets. Independent shops are our lifeblood. Local businesses are the backbone of our economy. Spending £10 at a local independent store means that up to an additional £50 goes back into the local economy. That’s amazing! That’s because the money you spend goes to the shop owners and this goes back into the local community as they use their money locally – including in restaurants, pubs, public transport and other shops – thereby keeping the money circulating and investing in our local resources.

Supporting local businesses also means that you can boost local employment – small businesses are the largest employer of jobs nationally, and they are more likely to pay a higher average wage then the commercial chains. So more jobs locally mean more prosperity and a healthier economy.

Small businesses are the largest employer of jobs nationally, and they are more likely to pay a higher average wage then the commercial chains

Many believe that online retailers offer better deals, but prices are invariably very competitive in our local shops and businesses. So shop around, not just online, but on your high street, and if the high street is more expensive, evaluate the local benefits that investing your money here brings.

And you can see what you are buying in a shop! How many of us have purchased items online that look glamorous and full of character only to discover that the parcel arriving at your front door is a laughably pale shadow of the image you saw on the site? Buying local also brings personality and character – many of our high street retailers use local companies rather than sourcing stock in bulk from far afield.

We are fortunate to also have creatives making their own products for their business – think of Waller and Wood (which has now relocated to Box) with Carole Waller’s mesmerising hand-painted and handmade garments and Gary Wood’s statement pots; goldsmith Tina Engell’s glowing precious jewellery, and Nick Cudworth’s colourful paintings of local scenes.

So don’t search ‘gifts for the home’ on Google – visit Rossiters, Homefront Interiors, Bath Aqua Glass, Woodhouse and Law, TR Hayes, Beau Nash, The Bath Framer and The Framing Workshop. Don’t go straight to Boohoo and Amazon as a default – browse the shelves of The Dressing Room, OSKA, Flock, Jolly’s, Kimberly, Chanii B and Clandar. Don’t go to the big chains for your eye requirements, go to our local specialists Ellis and Killpartrick and Kathryn Anthony Optometry where you will be remembered and valued as a customer every time you visit. Don’t automatically buy domestic appliances online, visit Coopers Home Appliances in Bath.

Don’t always buy your alcohol at the big name supermarkets – consider Independent Spirit of Bath and The Great Wine Co. (formerly Great Western Wine) who can talk to you knowledgeably about their liquid goods. Don’t buy generic mass-produced jewellery, but visit our local experts such as Nicholas Wylde, Mallory, Jody Cory, Nigel Dando, Tina Engell, Icarus and Alexandra May. Buy your books locally at Topping and Co. and Mr B’s Emporium and explore the eclectic and inspiring range of magazines at Magalleria and talk to their staff who can help you find what’s right for you.

We’re not forgetting the Bath food retailers who have adapted so adroitly during lockdown, many offering delivery services to bridge the ‘stay home’ gap. For many of us, local businesses such as Thoughtful Bakery, Larkhall Butchers, Avellino’s Deli, Darling Deli and the Kingsmead Square fruit and veg stall were a lifeline during lockdown – and now more than ever before, we need to remember that we’re a lifeline to them, too.

And at long last we can let somebody else do the cooking for us again. The Peking – Bath’s longest-established Chinese restaurant – recently reopened to offer a takeaway service, with full restaurant service on the very near horizon. Schwartz Bros are back where they belong, at the top of the burger’n’chips charts. The pubs are open for business again; where The Marlborough Tavern, The Hare and Hounds and The Locksbrook Inn led, others swiftly followed, many thanking Bath Pub Co. MD Joe Cussens for his enlightening and informative short video detailing exactly how his pubs’ reopening plans would work and offering a textbook blueprint of the ‘new normal’ code of conduct for businesses owners and customers alike. Yum Yum Thai, Clayton’s Kitchen, the Dower House at the Royal Crescent Hotel, Chez Dominique, Corkage, Dan Moon at the Gainsborough Bath Spa, the Green Park Brasserie, food traders within Green Park Station and – by the time we go to press – many more all serve to re-remind us that Bath is a food lovers’ paradise, offering myriad all-tastes, all-budgets, pan-global cuisine opportunities from Michelin flagship restaurants and cutting-edge, contemporary media darlings to the perfect post-pub bag of hot chips. Please, don’t keep your distance from any of them; just follow the new rules, sit back, and relax.

…at long last we can let somebody else do the cooking for us again

There’s no doubt that Covid-19 will play a big part in reshaping our high streets – and they will look different. Not every one of our local shops will survive – nationally we have already seen the demise of fashion retailers Oasis and Warehouse and Cath Kidston, and Debenhams is restructuring in an insolvency process. And with cafés and bars under pressure with social distancing measures, it’s not yet clear how sturdy they can be. Central government has massive challenges ahead, not only finding ways of dealing with the eye-watering level of their lockdown subsidy, but in rethinking the unfairness in the retailing system such as the long-overdue reassessment of business rates, finding methods of taxing online retailers fairly, and changing the relationship between property owners and retailers.

Go back to our valued local shops and our businesses and our food venues, because if we don’t they won’t survive

What we can all do, in the face of this, is clear. Keep it local. Support our independent retailers and food providers. Take advantage of their quality customer service. Go back to our valued local shops and our businesses and our food venues, because if we don’t they won’t survive.

Don’t automatically buy online; it feels convenient but it’s impersonal and it’s doesn’t invest in the place where you live, or make our community the best place it can be. We need to recognise our local talents and support them. It’s always been a strong message, but it’s never had more power than right now. Corona is not forever, so let’s all help protect the character and charisma of our city. ­­