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Joanna Blythman: Go small for a better shopping experience


Joanna investigates how independent specialist businesses such as artisan food shops are challenging the supermarkets and breathing life into our high streets.

Could independent food enterprises be the saviour of our high streets? This isn’t wishful thinking on my part. I’m excited to see that the tide is turning in favour of small shops and market clusters.


It was always a no-brainer that bricks-and-mortar shops on traditional high-street parades would not be able to compete with edge-of-town supermarkets with free parking. And how could they possibly fight back against online companies if they only sold the same sort of food?

Consequently, as the number of small shops dwindled, footfall dropped on once busy parades. Then, the former anchors of our high streets – banks, post offices, household-name retailers – pulled out, leaving the retail landscape top-heavy with charity shops, nail bars, phone and coffee shops.

But while perceived convenience has its appeal, independent enterprises are beginning to flourish because they give people something they can’t get elsewhere: personal service, and interesting, diverse and local food. I prefer to buy cheese where I’m served by a knowledgeable person; someone who talks us through the characteristics of the products. I adore the buzz of a busy traditional butcher’s on a Saturday morning, too, overhearing people stocking up for the weekend, and shopping in markets and independent shops gives me a welcome turnover of fresh, seasonal ideas. Supermarkets try to artificially recreate this ‘retail theatre’ with faux shops in their stores, but unconvincingly.

A recent review of town centres carried out by UK retail analyst, Bill Grimsey, pointed out that ‘specialist’ food shops – artisan bakers, fishmongers, coffee roasters, greengrocers et al – can flourish, especially when they form a mutually protective cluster. He gave the example of Birkdale village in Southport, where some 50 independent businesses have created an appealing retail mix by offering services that need us consumers to be present in person. Grimsey also highlighted Holmes Mill in Clitheroe: a former textiles mill that operates as a beer hall, food hall, hotel, bistro and café.

These food cluster models also deliver another valuable economic benefit. Small producers often can’t afford the rates and rents needed to set up their own shops, but by taking a pitch in these nurturing, less expensive projects, they can make the sums add up. Their customers can be quids-in, too. In my local market, organic cherry tomatoes cost £6.99 a kilo. The supermarket non-organic equivalent was £8.99 and upwards.

So if you’re busting to set up your own food business, wedge yourself into an existing food cluster, or set one up along with other like-minded enterprises. Those of us who believe that there’s more to food shopping than a dull, repetitive, functional weekly stock-up will be there to welcome you with open arms.

Artisan bread loaves in baskets

Independent shopping hotspots:

  • Mainstreet Trading in the sleepy Scottish village of St Boswells won the title of Britain’s Best Small Shop 2018 at the Independent Retailers Confederation Awards. It’s a food and kitchen shop, café and bookshop combined.
  • 50 indie businesses in Ashburton, Devon are drawing attention to the need for more community spirit by baring all in a nude charity calendar, upping the town’s already impressive shopping profile. 
  • Markets made up of stalls and food trucks are springing up around busy mainline stations, such as London’s King’s Cross. Welcome trade for small businesses and handy food for commuters.

Read more articles by Joanna Blythman...

Pleasure doesn't come in a packet
Stop plastic waste – sit and sip your coffee
Britain has gone daft for national 'food days'
Wonky veg isn't second best
Cheap processed food comes at a high cost
A sandwich is not a proper meal
Can no-death meat replace the real thing?
Enough with the supersized sweets

Do you agree with Joanna? Let us know on Facebook and Twitter #bbcgfopinion or leave a comment below...


Good Food contributing editor Joanna is an award-winning journalist who has written about food for 25 years. She is also a regular contributor to BBC Radio 4.

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