A few months ago, the giant Tesco supermarket chain opened a new branch in my local town, Keynsham, near Bristol in Britain. The High Street is more or less unreconstructed 1950s, where people know each other and there’s a farmers’ market on the second Saturday of every month, which I usually forget. My daughter, who lives in London, comes here for clothes from the half-dozen or so charity shops. A while back, when I told someone that I once worked with homeless people in the East End of London, she said: ‘It’s not like that here!’
An ageing, almost entirely white-working-class town with its own Town Council, but hitherto without a proper supermarket of its own, the giant Tesco supermarket used to run a free bus service from here to its nearest store in Bristol. It felt like a matter of time. Sure enough, the new Tesco eventually opened on what used to be a public car park.
The one convenience store - and the only ‘off-licence’ (liquor store) - closed down on the very same day, followed shortly by a cobbler that actually repaired shoes while also cutting keys and selling me a reliable watch for next to nothing. I have no idea where I shall have to go to find any of these things now.
Fellow members of the Green Party faced something similar in a neighbourhood of nearby Bath, and suggested we do a survey of shopkeepers in Keynsham to see what the impact of the Tesco opening had been. We were in search of ammunition. Besides, I never use Tesco, on principle.
For the first time in my life I entered a Wedding Shop - as yet, not a service provided by Tesco, though for how long remains to be seen, given that the average spend on weddings in Britain is said to be in the region of $30,000. The proprietors were delighted with Tesco and the increased ‘footfall’ both the store and its free car park had generated. The town’s remaining car park imposes charges, which means you have to check for the right change beforehand - a major impediment.
A pattern soon emerged, even in my favourite greengrocer, where you can find almost anything - a prime candidate for closure. No, my friend the greengrocer said he just wished he were in Tesco’s foyer, and railed against the Council’s charges in the public car park. Only the tender in a bar right by the store itself complained about the high-handed behaviour of the corporate giant during construction, breaking almost every commitment they made ‘as if they owned the place’.
Oh dear. Our collated results showed that a potentially overwhelming 67% of shopkeepers thought that the impact of the new Tesco store had been ‘positive’, despite the Great Recession. And Britain is, after all, a ‘nation of shopkeepers’. Worse - if, in Keynsham, they were unhappy with anything, it was with the scarcity of free car parking.
The promise I made to my Green friends to write up something about our survey for the local press stopped short of being prepared to write what would look like a puff-piece for Tesco. A pause for reflection was in order.
Well, on reflection, of course I won’t be party to suppressing the inconvenient truth. Of course I can insist that Tesco’s victims were unable to take part in our survey because they had closed already. Of course I can argue that in due course the apologists for Tesco in Keynsham will prove just as misguided as the apologists for the giant Kraft food corporation, which promised not to close the local Cadbury’s factory before they took it over, then did precisely that once they had. Of course we should talk with shoppers, as well as with shopkeepers. Of course, shopping is not necessarily the noblest of deeds.
Even so, it’s a blow. Even so, if you’re arguing against the mainstream, it’s hard to be confronted with the fact that opinions don’t always coincide with your own, without concluding that humanity in general is irredeemably daft.
I went to Tamlyn, my barber, just round the corner from Tesco, in preparation for a funeral.
‘How’s trade?’ I asked.
‘Never been better!’ he said.
‘Has Tesco helped?’
‘Sure it has!’
‘I never go to Tesco.’
‘Somehow I don’t think they’ll miss you much.’
He kept up this riff for a while. I resisted the temptation to ask Tamlyn if he felt the same way himself. After all, he gets a bargain from me, with nothing much left to trim.