The Demise of the Corner Shop, and M&S

The thought that in the not too distant future Soph and I will not be driving, and will therefore be forced to take taxis to go shopping, brought to mind the corner shop of old. Like farms where the barns had the most pleasant smell of hay, feed, leather and horse, these shops had the smell of their own, compiled from jute bags on the floor containing potatoes, kindling, and dog biscuits, and the provender and spices on the shelves. To their regular customers the shops were always of interest, because knowing the taste of the customer, the shopkeeper not only talked as a friend of long standing, but would introduce new products for their delectation. Under the awning, on the pavement would be the veg, the eggs, and glass-topped boxes of biscuits. Nothing was too much trouble, and often whole discussions would take place between the customers waiting and the shopkeeper. Today shopping can be either a matter of completing a list as quickly as possible, or drifting in the hope of finding bargains. There is nothing personal, merely business.

The combination of the car and the supermarket has changed all that. Large conurbations are now built without a single shop, or a small area given over to selected shops, most of which are each part of a combine, having centralised purchasing and consequently the same products in every shop. In the old days, if you were a regular customer, the shopkeeper would buy in a small quantity of a particular brand that you chose, for you, and the chances are that others would try it. Now the shop determines the choice, the brands and the quantities. This is why mail-order has developed to enable people to purchase selectively.

To quite a considerable extent the shoppers are to blame for the loss of the corner shop, in their search for bargains. I know of cases where people have been to specialised shops to seek advice and view the wide range those shops hold,, and when they have discovered that the supermarket is selling the same product more cheaply, they buy there, forgetting that the increased costs in the shop cover the overheads for carrying a wider selection, and paying a knowledgeable counter hand. In this way the specialised shops go out of business, and your choice is what the supermarket has to offer, which will definitely not contain some of the dearer, and perhaps more imaginative versions of the article.

I am just sorry that the young people of today have to go to a museum to discover what a corner shop used to be like. But as an exhibit it won’t have the atmosphere, the smell, and the bustle that those shops had in their heyday.

Packaging Away back in their 20s and 30s measuring in grocers’ shops was cruder, more varied covering a much greater range of weights. Families were so much larger, their diet more simple, so they purchased fewer articles in greater quantities. I remember buying a stone of potatoes, weighed on a beam balance. Dried beans, porridge, sugar and other granular products, also dried fruit, were sometimes shovelled with a brass gauged trowel of standard volume, into pokes, pyramidal bags formed in the wink of an eye by the grocer from a pile of brown paper on the counter, and the flaps tucked in, in a flash. . The grocer always added a small extra to ensure fare quantities. Packaging was for meat, greasy articles and special items. The market stall holders might use bags, but most wrapped things in old newspaper.

M&S are stating that they are proposing to charge for plastic carrier bags in the future, and are running an experimental period in Northern Ireland. I don’t really believe that previous to this the bags were discounted. It could be part of the pseudo ecological front we are being fed daily from every quarter. Someone quoted Lidl’s policy of not providing bags free, but that doesn’t stand up, because the throughput is so different, and if you have a large quantity of items, the speed with which they are put through the cash register makes packaging so impossible that one tends to chuck everything into the trolley, unpackaged. The other day I saw a woman in Tesco’s, with four of her own bags in a trolley, and a mountain of shopping, dithering and taking ages as to which bag each item should go into. The cashier and I watch this in frustration, and it dawned on me that there was no way this trial will be a success, because it will involve the companies in increasing the cashout units, as people fumbled unaided with their own bags. I can see some problems in having bottle bank type containers to recycle the bags. and shredders would be open to vandalism. I believe allegedly free bags are here to stay.

Categorized as General


  1. Astute observations, Sir, much more eloquently explained than I could have written. I used to run a business, and my parents did before me. (My Dad stood on his feet to run it several hours a day in the late 60s to the mid-80s, long after the doctors in the 50s wanted to remove his legs below the knees, a result of his three and a half years as a prisoner of the Japanese. Like my Mum and Dad, I too used to buy stock (sometimes from a supermarket) in order to stock small amounts for certain customers. The shop, like many others has gone now, although it had been there since before the war. The PO two doors down has also gone. Sad changes that we are powerless to do anything about. But thank you for a good read. RG. May 10

  2. Sorry dad but once plastic bags are gone, they are gone, like over the border. It must be 2 or 3 years now since they were freely available there, and all the shoppers young and old alike dutifully use their ‘”bag for life'” . I have one, which , on emptying the contents onto the kitchen shelf, never gets replaced into the car for the next shopping trip. I bought it in Lidl about 5 weeks ago and already has split, I wonder when they say “bag for life” do they mean the life of a cabbage white, or perhaps a dormouse???

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