Clone Town Britain

Interesting report from the New Economic Foundation (pdf) about the rise of "Clone Town Britain".

In the place of real local shops has come a near-identical package of chain stores replicating on the nation’s high streets. As a result, the individual character of many of our town centres is evaporating. Retail spaces once filled with independent butchers, newsagents, tobacconists, pubs, book shops, greengrocers and family-owned general stores are becoming filled with supermarket retailers, fast-food chains, and global fashion outlets. Many town centres that have undergone substantial regeneration have even lost the distinctive facades of their high streets, as local building materials have been swapped in favour of identical glass, steel, and concrete storefronts that provide the ideal degree of sterility to house a string of big, clone town retailers.

In general, it is not WalMart that puts small, local shops out of business, but WalMart’s customers, who choose to shop there. And since they clearly prefer the value that WalMart provides to the convenience – at a price – of more local shops, then it is hard to see how the customers could be worse off as a result of having that choice. I personally prefer small traders to large chain stores, and I generally shop in my local, sole-trader grocery store rather than Safeway across the road. But I am in the fortunate position of being able to afford the slightly higher prices that I pay as a result. For many people who live within very tight budgets, the cost reductions provided by the large-scale retailers are of considerable benefit. The willingness to pay higher prices to preserve local, independent retailers seems a somewhat bourgeois luxury; and I have little time for those who want to use the planning system to limit access to the lower prices that the big chains can offer. But the NEF report makes an interesting point about the value of diversity which is threatened by the growing domination of a small number of chain stores. They make the analogy with genetics, in which diversity lays the basis for natural selection, and hence the evolution of better genes. Perhaps we need diversity in our towns and retailing to provide an environment for innovation and hence improvement? Most societies have norms – usually enshrined in law – against incestuous relationships with close relatives. The reason for this is that there is a public good interest in preserving the diversity of the gene pool. By analogy, I suppose there may be a case for public policy to promote greater diversity in our towns, despite the market pressures towards homogenisation.

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