The supermarkets are coming

I live in the suburbs of London, served by a tube station. It’s mainly a residential area, and reasonably affluent, but tinged with both extremes of wealth: there are houses that go for millions nearby, but there are also blocks of council flats that look in deseprate need of a facelift. It has a small high street, as it were, near the tube station. There are two local supermarkets, one petrol station with a small supermarket, a few newsagents, chemists, and bakeries, as well as a fishmonger, a fruit-and-veg place and a butcher. There used to be two pubs, but one is shut now. There are a couple of Italian restaurants, a Starbucks, a couple of delis, a chippy and a fried-chicken place. There used to be two wine shops, but one of them closed down a while back. There are the obligatory charity shops, and there are those that plague every high street, i.e. estate agents.

It has been free of big, national supermarkets. In other words: no Tesco, no Sainsbury’s, no Asda, no Morrisons, no M&S, no Waitrose. This is going to change, and very soon. There will be a branch of Sainsbury’s and also a branch of Tesco. They are not going to be large shops, but relatively compact, one occupying a couple of adjoining retail units, and the other using a former pub building. The retail landscape is going to change, and quite profoundly so. It may well mean the end for some independent shops in the high street, and the place will become a clone town dominated by the supermarkets, chains and charity shops. I have a feeling that not all independent shops or the existing small supermarkets will survive against the big supermarkets. The fishmonger, the fruit-and-veg shop, and the butcher may be particularly vulnerable and struggle against the newcomers.

There were some protests and objections against the supermarkets coming to town, but they were to no avail. It may be argued that the supermarkets will offer more choice, and more people will shop locally than go elsewhere for their shopping, and that will benefit other traders, in a kind of retail trickle-down theory. These new branches are not out-of-town large superstores accessible only for those with car, that deprive any chance of custom to other shops, because the supermarket tries to keep customers under its own roof and meet all their needs. That may well be true, and the pie may become larger, but if I had to guess, it will not grow sufficiently large to sustain all the existing shops and the new supermarkets.

I’m a hypocrite about this issue: I don’t like the local high street morphing into a clone town, but at the same time, I welcome the opening of new supermarkets, which will mean lower shopping bills and more choice. As it is, I don’t usually go to the local supermarkets, but I tend to go to larger towns nearby with larger supermarkets. When I need something like a pint of milk, or a loaf of bread, then I pop down to the local supermarket or the bakery, but that’s about it. If I had a lot of money, then I would go to the butcher and the fishmonger, but larger supermarkets are simply cheaper, even after paying for the bus ride.

If the place were much more affluent, then independent and specialist shops would have a better chance of survival, as people can afford and are willing to pay premium prices for (what are perceived to be) better-quality products. However, when the place is reasonably affluent, but many people have to look carefully at what they spend, then prices are an extremely important factor. It’s demographically mixed, so there are many consumers who are sensitive to prices, such as pensioners.

It is difficult to predict what’s going to happen, after the new supermarkets open, but it seems that my local high street is going to be an example of how large supermarkets can change the retail landscape locally.