Napoleon described Britain as a nation of shopkeepers. But while local stores remain stalwarts of the economy, they are employing fewer people than ever. The higher national minimum wage, now £7.50 but set to rise to £9 an hour within five years, is making it too expensive for independent owners to keep paperboys and counter staff in a job. Instead they are investing in new payment technology.
Changing consumer tastes are also affecting the way we shop, with a decline in newspaper sales and a fall in the number of smokers leading to fewer casual visits. The Association of Convenience Stores says thousands of shop owners are now sacking staff and replacing personal contact with self-service checkouts, many of which do not accept cash any more. Shopkeepers are blaming the move on their increasing overheads.
Industry figures for March to May show one in five convenience retailers invested in upgrading their stores, spending a total of £40 million. This has far-reaching social consequences. The loss of the personal touch in corner shops will deprive those who like to pop in for a chat, including some vulnerable older people, of basic human interaction.
Despite the rise of the big supermarkets and online retailing, neighbourhood stores still represent about one fifth of the grocery market. The UK has around 55,000 local stores and corner shops, and about 35,000 are independently – often family – owned. But higher overhead costs imposed by politicians mean they have to adapt to survive if Bonaparte’s jibe is still to apply. Many thought he meant it sneeringly, but it would be a sad day if he were proved definitively wrong.