Sunday, 21 March 2010

Article: Service with a smile

“My God! There’s nothing frightens you more than a furtive grocer.” So said Nurse Gladys Emmanuel in the classic BBC sitcom Open All Hours.

One of the things that I love so much about this TV show, especially the further we head away from its original airing back in the mid-1970s and 1980s, is that it presents a wonderful image of what I think is sadly a fast-disappearing entity here in the UK – the friendly, local, independent shopkeeper. With a particular good-natured gentleness, the series exuded a wonderfully timeless charm all of its own, inducing a sense of whimsy and nostalgia for ‘the good old days.’

Earlier this week, I posed a simple question on Twitter: Is the traditional British shopkeeper a dying breed? The responses I received clearly corroborate my own sentiments, with many people disheartened by the closure of vast numbers of their favourite local suppliers. Sure, this can now be put down partly to the recession, but certainly this isn’t the key factor here – it is simply a topical element. The reality is, sadly, a lot more corporate in its nature.

Over the last 10-15 years, via the portal that is one of my neighbouring small villages here in Hampshire, I’ve seen the increasing dominance of the larger national organisations over the ‘little man in the street.’ At one time, some years ago, you could get everything you needed right on your doorstep; this in itself had a sense of assurance about it, but by default it also created and enforced trust, brought people closer together, created healthy inter-village competition (thus fuelling the much-coveted vegetable-growing competitions!) and provided jobs for generations of families living there.

When the local Co-op decided to expand, it was only a matter of time before we said goodbye to the butcher, the grocer and the wine merchant. The Post Office was next to be affected, being incorporated into the back of the newly refitted convenience store (not to everyone’s delight, it has to be said). Give him his due, the newsagent did his best to keep up, forced to obtain a license to sell alcohol to make up for his losses on basic groceries (having stepped in, just about, to plug at least part of the gap left by the aforementioned grocer’s departure).

But let’s not focus on the doom and gloom – it’s not all bad news. My Twitter poll flagged up a number of examples where people have been reassured by the continued survival of their local champions of community. They have related tales of one-to-one assistance more often seen in days of old, acts of kindness and professionalism which you just don’t get when shopping in larger supermarkets and warehouse stores. A shoe repairer glued a boot for free, an electrical shop assistant opened up a sealed pack to check for instructions and offered a full refund if he was wrong… Such stories are somehow quite heart-warming, aren’t they?

As a business owner myself – and, of course, as a consumer – it is immediately clear in the character of Arkwright (played by Ronnie Barker) just how one could/should go about providing a service to one’s customers. He also beautifully demonstrates the wrong way to go about things! The fact is that people love people – treat your customers right and they’ll return to you again and again; upset or anger them in any way, even on seemingly trivial matters, and chances are you’ve lost them on the spot.

As the backbone of many a small country village, corner shops such as Arkwright’s have, along with the church and local ale house, been at the centre of communities up and down the land for as long as we can remember. They say that our lives are progressing, advancing for the better thanks to the wider choice, cheaper prices and greater convenience afforded by the likes of supermarkets - but is this really the case? I’m not so sure.

I think that the recession is an easy scapegoat for not parting with cash. At the end of the day, and in spite of tight purse strings, people are still happy to pay a premium if what they get in return is better produce, better value and better service. And quite rightly so.

Clearly, not everyone believes the hype (dare I say ‘propaganda’?) which saturates our televisions, radios and billboards. This is why we are seeing a backlash, a movement of support for local producers and providers here in the UK. Farmers’ markets, ‘grow your own’ initiatives, loyalty schemes and town incentives are all slowly winning people over to the kind of values which, in all honesty, they probably know have always lurked deep within them all along.


If you would like to see what I get up to month-by-month, why not take a look at my Blog. And if you’re up to speed with Twitter, then please look me up and say hi. Social media, after all, is no different to our traditional forms of communication, other than it is hosted in a virtual space – so please feel free to comment on any posts, remarks, thoughts and ideas I may come out with along the way – the more the merrier!


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