Last week saw the launch of local markets fortnight, a national campaign to raise the profile of local markets.
It’s quite a necessary campaign. Not so long ago, the market was the heart of most British towns, but they have been squeezed out in recent decades by the supermarket. Built out of town, shoppers drive to the supermarket and buy everything in one place, where in the past we might have gone into town and browsed specialist market stalls, or used smaller local shops and delivery services.
In 1980, there were 300 large format supermarkets. By 2007 there were 1,500, and their share of the groceries market had risen to 85%. If you include their smaller outlets and branded convenience stores, the number of supermarkets rises to 8,151 in Britain today, gobbling up 97% of grocery spending.
That doesn’t leave a whole lot left over for Britain’s independent retailers and market traders, and surveys of traditional markets show that the majority are in decline. That’s a shame, because many of them have a history that goes back hundreds of years. They’re also an easy entry point for small businesses, with low overheads for small producers. If we want to encourage local food, our markets are going to be very important.
Of course, people want convenience. They prefer supermarkets, and they don’t want to shop in the rain. But there are plenty of good markets that demonstrate that you can run them well, invest in them, and people will visit.
I was born in St Albans, and the street market is the best thing about the town, in my opinion. It is vibrant, noisy, and diverse. As it’s right on the high street twice a week, you can’t miss it and it is always heaving with people. I now live in Luton, 20 miles north, where the market was shunted into a covered hall off the back end of the shopping centre. It is eerily silent, and dominated by ethnic food specialists selling vegetables I don’t recognise. I mainly visit it because it has a Kenyan cafe where I can get chai and mandazis.
It doesn’t have to be that way. Our markets can thrive, and it’s great to see a campaign dedicated to highlighting their importance. If you’ve got a local market, show them some love this week.