To Buy or Not to Buy…

28th July 2022 What are your feelings about shopping? Like most people my age, I bemoan the fact that the shopping experience has changed in recent years. The advent of out-of-town retail parks, supermarket megastores and Internet shopping has caused the sad demise of many town-centre shopping areas and I find it very sad even though I myself am part of the problem.

A large part of my formative teenage years, and I’m sure also for previous generations, my friends and I used to meet each Saturday to ‘go up town’ in Barrow in Furness. We spent hours in coffee shops and cafes, eyeing up the boys in their own little cliques, and following them, both hoping and dreading that we might get noticed. It was a rite of passage from childhood to adolescence and I remember it with great fondness. But I’m sure it wouldn’t have happened in a retail park!

We would wander up and down Dalton Road, Cavendish Street, Forshaw Street and the markets (both indoor and outdoor), window shopping and looking for bargains in clothing, footwear and make-up. We’d wander the aisles of Woolworths and Boots, trying the tester samples of the latest eyeshadows and dab our pulse spots with the perfume testers, sampling the goods we couldn’t afford to buy. Our pocket money clutched tightly in our hot little hands, we would try to find some treasure that would make us feel like a queen when we wore it out that evening to whichever social gathering was most appropriate for our age at the time, be it the Tufty Club (a youth club), or later pub crawls round those same town centre streets, where there seemed to be a pub on every corner.

Here’s an excerpt from 2019 about the town’s shopping experience from the local paper the Barrow News and Mail:

“To give a taste of how Barrow town centre has changed in the past 60 years, these details are from a trade directory from 1959. The town then had eight banks, nine bakers and another nine fish merchants. You could visit 14 drapers, 17 outfitters and 25 confectioners. Barrow also 33 specialist butchers and an amazing 56 grocers – many of them trading from traditional corner shops.

Through the years, many once familiar names have vanished from the town centre – such as Doling’s hardware store, Story the Jeweller, Woolworths – with its famous pick-and-mix sweets – and other once popular chains such as the tailors, Burton’s and Greenwood’s, or Dewhurst the butchers and the Maypole Dairy.

Many will remember the Pass’ department store in Duke Street – where you could buy anything from a pin to a piano – and the Barrow Co-operative department store, cafe and bank on Abbey Road.”

Those of you who read me regularly on social media will know that my mum had her first job, aged 16, as a stock girl at Pass’ store – mentioned in both books one and two of Monday is Washing Day. I don’t remember the store myself, but it went through many incarnations, including a bedding centre and the Lotus Chinese Restaurant, finally ending up as a Yates’ Wine Lodge for several years, before being demolished due to the building being unsafe. The site remains a car park to date and seems unbelievably small in comparison to the businesses that were housed there.  As for the Co-op department store – that’s now doing very well as a Wetherspoons’ pub – the Furness Railway, long may it continue.

I barely recognise Barrow any more, although admittedly it’s more than forty years since I lived there, but the changes that have been wrought are sadly at the cost of the character of the town, in my humble opinion. I don’t know whose idea it was to demolish Forshaw Street to build the ‘Mall’ which became known as Portland Walk. So many independent shops were cleared to make way for this supposedly Americanised ‘Shopping Experience’, which had the effect of taking so much trade from Dalton Road. That once busy shopping area is now not much more than a den of charity shops, takeaways and betting shops. However, Portland Walk was never that successful, mostly due to the planners neglecting to make it a covered precinct, and sadly it was no match for the retail parks in the Hindpool area of Barrow. The thirty odd shops in Portland Walk are now mostly boarded up and it’s a sad sight to see. Meanwhile, all the brand name giants of the retail world have their stores in these retail parks, including Hollywood Park and Cornerhouse Park, and they all seem to be doing fairly well – but there is nothing characterful there – it could be any retail area in any town or city, there is nothing to establish the ‘Barrow-ness’ of the place.

It is these large retail giants that have contributed to the demise of the independent shop –how can they compete with supermarkets like Tesco and Asda, given their wholesale buying power, and the convenience of everything under one roof? And now even they are stocking goods priced to match the ‘cheap’ supermarkets of Aldi and Lidl, so what chance does the ‘little’ shopkeeper have apart from corner shops based in residential areas that are used for the convenient location, rather than the price of the goods.

When I was first married in 1976 and lived in Egerton Buildings on Barrow Island (Egerton Court as it is now), shopping was an almost daily task. There was a grocer’s just opposite the Devonshire Arms, which was very handy for general items, and a variety of shops on Anchor Road, including a butcher’s, post office, launderette and fish & chip shop which provided most of our requirements, so it wasn’t necessary to do a big ‘weekly shop’ at Tesco, which at that time was in Dalton Road. It was just a natural state of events to shop frequently – it got me and my baby out of our tiny flat, for a dose of fresh air and a little exercise if nothing else. This was the way my Nana had managed in her household in the days before fridges were common – she shopped fresh for everything, every day.

Nowadays, of course, practically everyone shops in the large supermarkets – for cost as well as convenience. We drive our cars to enormous car parks, fill up vast trolleys with a selection of enormous varieties of every item – from fourteen different sorts of mayonnaise to your cat’s favourite food – in dry biscuit form, or ‘wet’, meat, fish, or poultry, some including vegetables, and served in gravy or jelly, in pouches, tins or dishes. So much choice and variety in everything that we buy! I’m not saying that is a bad thing, but surely life was much easier when products were more limited? It’s probably a good thing that the stores are mostly open 24 hours a day – what used to be an hour’s shopping for the entire week now takes a couple of hours at least to do a ‘full shop’.

I’m a complete hypocrite, of course. I bewail the loss of independent small shops, yet I literally buy everything online – Internet Shopping, the other culprit, probably far more so than retail parks. It’s true – I find no matter what it is that I need, I can get it easier online. For clothing it’s Simply Be or Yours Clothing (a couple of the very few places I can find clothes to fit my more than ample size!), and for everything else, eBay or Amazon. Of course, internet shopping is a lifeline for me, with my agoraphobia and mobility issues – I can have the retail world at my fingertips without leaving my armchair, and it’s all delivered to my door within a few days. Shopping heaven!  I still tend to window shop – I go through all the vendor has to offer, adding things to my shopping cart or bag as I go, regardless of the cost. If I find something I like, but can’t decide which colour I want, I add them all – then when I’ve found what I actually really want, I go to the checkout, and blissfully remove all the things I can’t afford (which is the majority of them!) before finally paying for the one item I was looking for in the first place. It’s great fun, and a little retail therapy lifts my spirits – without actually costing me anything.

I’m a great one for gadgets – I’ve found that if there’s something I find difficult to do, there’s a distinct possibility that others have the same problem, and usually someone, somewhere has invented a gadget to help – particularly if it’s a kitchen gadget or something to do with mobility assistance. I have a acquired a wealth of wonderfully eccentric tools to help with myriad of situations, from strawberry ‘huller’ to a long-handled massager which also dispenses cream onto the right area of skin! They mostly work pretty well, although I have had a few disappointments.

For groceries and household, I have to say of all of them, I prefer Tesco. I suppose I’ve become used to the way their App works on my phone, and generally the food is of good or at least reasonable quality. They offer decent substitutions if the product I have ordered is out of stock, usually sending at least two packs of alternatives which I can keep at no extra charge even if it’s a more expensive version. For example, I once ordered a single 8oz rump steak which I planned for my Sunday lunch. They were out of stock of the single pack, at the time my order was picked, so sent instead two packs of two 8oz steaks, three of which ended up in my freezer! Bargain!

For the most part, I can’t fault them for service either. I usually try and time my deliveries for when I have my carer visiting, so that she can let them in and help unpack the crates directly into my kitchen. Sometimes it happens that is not possible, so when the delivery is due, I perch on a stool in my hall, prepared to buzz the driver into the building. Then, the drivers are always happy to bring the crates right in and unload my goods onto my worktops, without my having to struggle to help them. It’s very rare that their drivers are unhelpful or even rude, I’m very happy to report. They also give updates, sending messages if the driver is running late etc.

I certainly couldn’t fault the service I received from Tesco at Christmas 2011. It was my first Christmas without Glyn, and, knowing what a bad place I was in at the time, my lovely sister Mel, her six kids and two black labs had come to Mill Bank to stay for a week, to help keep my spirits up. It was a plan that definitely worked – I defy anyone to remain miserable when confronted with the happy banter and playfulness of my family especially as they were all teenagers at the time.

However, I’d booked my delivery of everything we needed for a fantastic Christmas spread over the holidays, and it was due to arrive on the morning of Christmas Eve. The driver brought crate after crate of goodies into my kitchen, aside from one – most important – item which was nowhere to be seen – the large Turkey Crown that was to be the centrepiece of our Christmas Dinner table! Frantically, I phoned the Tesco customer service line and told them of my predicament. I was told not to worry – they would send the missing meat out with the next delivery to my area. The day wore on, with no sign of the Turkey Crown. It finally got to about 4pm and I rang them again, asking when I could expect the driver to arrive. Horror of horrors, I was told that the final deliveries had all left the Burnley hub (which was where my deliveries came from) and to phone back if no one appeared in the next couple of hours.

By this time, I was irate – “I have eight people to feed tomorrow – what am I supposed to give them?” I finally spoke to a supervisor, who promised me she would sort something out and phone me back. You’ll be happy to hear that my family did not miss out on their turkey dinner – there was a knock at my kitchen door and there stood a man in a suit who asked if I was Ms Hughes. When I replied in the affirmative, he introduced himself as the manager of Tesco Supermarket in Sowerby Bridge. His colleague in Burnley had phoned him and asked if he had any of the required size Turkey Crowns left in stock; on hearing of my predicament, this gentleman had taken it upon himself to bring the said item direct to my door in person, for which I couldn’t thank him and the lady in Burnley enough! The day was saved!

I daresay we would have managed without the turkey and lived to tell the tale, but because of this person going the extra mile to ensure we weren’t disappointed, my loyalty remains with Tesco to this day, even if they’re not the cheapest.

To return to the opening paragraphs of this blog, I do find it indeed sad that small independent shops are having a rough time keeping their businesses going; I hold my hands up in shame that I am a culprit. But how would we have managed throughout the pandemic for the last couple of years without internet shopping and home deliveries – when it was so difficult to go shopping?

Believe me, if it was possible for me to visit local farmer’s markets and artisan shops for produce, I would, as I’ve always found those businesses an absolute delight. Hebden Bridge has always been a great town for that sort of shopping, and due to the local community and tourists to the area, hopefully long may they continue, those gloriously bohemian shops selling their wares. Hopefully they realise that they can also sell their products online to a wider audience in this Global Village of ours.

I wonder if all the other small towns suffering the same problems with town centres losing their independent traders will see the same thing happening as we see here in Sowerby Bridge. Our high street still has a few shops, such as a deli, florists etc, but the majority of premises are those of hairdressers, barbers, restaurants and takeaways – I suppose those are things that are always going to need personal contact – face-to-face transactions. There are at least 14 hairdressers and 24 restaurants/takeaways in our small town here – so at least we can look presentable as we eat our curries in front of the telly!

So – shopping – do you love it or hate it? Is it a necessary evil or something you find pleasurable? Why not let me know what you think by dropping me a line?

Until next week,

LH

By lizziehughesauthor

Hello! I'm Liz, a writer from Sowerby Bridge, West Yorkshire. I've lived here for nearly 20 years, although I'm originally from t'other side o't hill as they say around here. I'm from Barrow in Furness, which was in Lancashire when I was born - still, whether it's Lancashire or Cumbria, it still makes me a Northern Lass. That means I'm honest, straightforward and feisty. My current book is (very) loosely based on my family history, though the names have been changed to protect the innocent (and the guilty!) I'm hoping to publish in April 2022, or possibly earlier. Watch this space!

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