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14 February 2024

The unlikely refuge of British supermarkets

As libraries and community centres disappear, retail spaces are becoming the last resort of people seeking connection.

By Anoosh Chakelian

Every week at 10am, a long table at the back of a Morrisons café in the Essex estuary town of Maldon fills up. Pouring each other squash, shoppers catch up on the week – last night’s TV, politics, hospital scans – under the bleep of tills and clatter of trolleys. There are around a dozen regulars, from the 23-year-old cashier Joshua, who wears emerald nail varnish and a goth-black T-shirt, to the sparkly pink pashmina-clad retiree Suzi, 71. This is a “chatty table”, established two years ago by Lisa Croucher, 53, who has worked on the tills here for 11 years.

When I joined (“The tea’s free today; their card machine’s not working!”), I met pensioners whose partners had recently died, shoppers navigating daily life with a disability, and newcomers to the town – many from the east London borderlands of Dagenham and Plaistow. “When my husband passed away, I had to start from scratch,” said Suzi, who worked as a newspaper typist on Fleet Street and moved to Maldon to be nearer her son two years ago. “It’s more difficult to make friends at this age, so this has helped hugely.” The group have even been seal-watching and bowling together.

The Maldon Morrisons isn’t a one-off. Similar tables and benches are appearing in retail spaces across the country, run by local volunteers and charities such as the Chatty Café Scheme. Even in the icy glass fortress of commerce that is west London’s Westfield shopping centre, ten “Chatty Benches” were installed three months ago – with more coming soon to Manchester and Bradford.

Free spaces for people to gather have withered away over the past 14 years. Underfunded councils have sold off a yearly average of 6,000 assets – including pools, sports pitches and libraries – since cuts began in 2010, according to the Institute for Public Policy Research. Where village halls, youth clubs and community centres have closed their doors, retail is becoming a last resort for citizens seeking connection.

Having travelled around England to advise politicians on “levelling up”, Andy Haldane of the government’s Economic Advisory Council once told me: “If you ask people in struggling places what matters most, they don’t say jobs and income, actually. They say… ‘I want green spaces where we can go out and enjoy ourselves. We want libraries and youth clubs to be thriving, rather than being shut down.’” In a 2021 Survation poll, places to meet were the top thing people in 225 “left behind” neighbourhoods said they lacked – above jobs, housing, transport and healthcare.

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The private sector standing in for social infrastructure is now a research focus of academics at Cambridge University’s Bennett Institute for Public Policy. They showed me “place diaries” kept by 79 participants in Barking, Bristol, Liverpool and Newcastle – who logged places they went to regularly and their feelings about them – for a recent study. Supermarkets and high-street shops come up repeatedly as spots where community is sought. One participant from Barking in east London said going to Asda was a “meaningful” experience; a Liverpudlian who lives alone goes to Sainsbury’s every day for a chat, and is on a “first-name basis” with workers there.

“Supermarkets and other large retailers are becoming ever more important social and supportive spaces,” said Rosa Marks of the Bennett Institute. “What we call ‘micro-interactions’ or ‘weak ties’ happen there, which give a sense of belonging. These casual interactions are often taken for granted: if policymakers and local authorities could work closer with retailers to make this more widespread and integrated, that could be really powerful.”

Supermarkets are increasingly aware of their role beyond offering buy-one-get-one-free on Mini Cheddars multipacks. Most of the major brands have trialled “slow lanes” – for those who want the interaction of a manned till – and “quiet hours” for those with sensory or mental health problems. At the end of last year, the northern England chain Booths removed its self-checkouts altogether, to rekindle personal connections with customers. The UK retail world has been monitoring the popularity of the Kletskassa (“chat checkout”) – for shoppers wishing to converse with the cashier and others queuing – introduced by the Dutch supermarket chain Jumbo in 2019.

“Food retail is a very competitive market, and it may be that there are advantages in standing out from the crowd by providing community value,” said Caroline Lee, a supermarket researcher, nicknamed the “Asda Professor”, at the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership. She is sharing her evidence on supermarkets’ social value with their head-office and shop-floor staff.

These sceptred aisles can even appeal more than council-run groups. At Morrisons, I was told how “easy-going” and “visible” the supermarket café was. “There’s no commitment or pressure – you don’t have to sign up, and food shopping is in your routine anyway,” said Suzi.

But as the state has withdrawn, supermarkets have looked after themselves in the age of inflation. The odd affection Brits have for them (over Christmas, I counted at least 13 TV “shopaganda” documentaries going behind the scenes of British high-street staples) overlooks their less civic-minded behaviour. As food prices rose in 2022, the combined net income of Sainsbury’s and Tesco hit a six-year high and they handed out £1bn to shareholders, revealed the Common Wealth think tank. The competition watchdog ruled Sainsbury’s, Tesco, Morrisons and Asda overcharged customers by £900m for fuel that year amid rising energy costs.

As the morning at Morrisons drew on, the shoppers’ chat turned to their local hospital losing key services, including its birth unit and stroke rehab beds. “It’s neglect,” said Joshua. “The government has turned its back on things like community centres, football grounds, so we’re finding our own places to go.”

[See also: Can “yimby” Labour win the Kingswood by-election?]

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This article appears in the 14 Feb 2024 issue of the New Statesman, Trouble in Toryland