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The rise of the “Polo mint” economy: Has Covid-19 revived Britain’s local high streets?

Lockdown transformed our shopping habits, revitalising cornershops and suburban thoroughfares. But will this change last?

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A few weeks into lockdown, Tiggy Taliadoros began to notice something strange. The cafe she has run with her sister Stella in Walthamstow, north east London, for six years started becoming “really, really busy”.

Following the announcement of lockdown in March, they switched to a takeaway and delivery-only business, started closing on Sundays and Mondays and cut opening hours by two and a half hours a day. Yet during that time, the cafe had so many customers that she was able to bring her whole team of ten staff back from furlough by May.

A family-run coffee shop, the navy-fronted Wynwood Art District is a snug sanctuary off a large four-way junction on Chingford Road. Tiggy and Stella’s Greek-Cypriot parents moved to Walthamstow in the outer London borough of Waltham Forest in 1986, and in 2014 the sisters began running the cafe to “provide for the community we grew up in”.

They serve coffee and an array of deli foods, from loaf cake to spinach pies.

“A lot of customers haven’t come in before because they’ve been working in the city – now they can actually be in their area”

As the lockdown was imposed, they decided to deliver to their customers – having never done so before. “I had to literally call my dad and be like ‘hey, let’s get in the car and go’!” Taliadoros recalls. “There was a point where we would have 20-30 deliveries a day.”

They also began taking pre-orders to collect, and catering for everything from council training days to individuals wishing to surprise their partners on housebound birthdays.

“We’re making more money than we did before [Covid-19],” Taliadoros says, attributing this to new customers who discovered her coffee shop when major chains were closed during lockdown, people from further afield beginning to commute into Walthamstow for work, and locals working from home who usually travel into central London five days a week.

“Quite a lot of customers will say they haven’t come in before, because Monday to Friday they’d be working in the city, and now they can actually be in their area,” she observes. “At first, during their hour of exercise a day, they realised we were open and thought: ‘Hey, why don’t I go in and see what it’s about?'”

This popularity has endured, and built both a new clientele and sense of community. Taliadoros says she now knows 75 per cent of her customers on conversational terms, providing a space where people can “offload” – particularly about the negative impact of Covid-19 at such an unsettling time.

“In the coffee shop environment, people just like to chat – we almost are their therapist!” she laughs.

The cafe has even begun sending out a community magazine (called Social Distance) with a print run of over 8,000 to nearby residents, containing recipes, stories, artwork and poetry, and funded by local charities and organisations.

“This period has helped us as a brand, to develop new things, and we were able to start thinking about doing merch for the shop,” says Taliadoros. “It’s been a great time for our shop, 100 per cent.”

Cities that sleep

The Wynwood cafe’s experience is not unique. A rapid transformation in the way we shop is changing the fortunes and reviving the culture of local commerce.

Three days before the UK’s official lockdown on 23 March, the government recommended that employees work from home where possible. Although that advice was then lifted in July, 20 per cent of workers in the UK are still exclusively working from home, with that figure likely to rise following the government's change of advice this week to return to working from home where possible. The Welsh government is aiming for 30 per cent of the country’s workforce to continue working at or near home in the long-term.

This trend coincided with guidance from the government to limit shopping trips and outside interactions as coronavirus spread through the country. Supermarket shelves were emptied of essentials as shoppers stockpiled in an attempt to avoid frequent future shopping trips. Long queues outside large and medium-sized supermarket branches became a common frustration.

 

Graphs and maps by Michael Goodier

Suddenly, people accustomed to commuting into central locations every day for work began to discover what their corner shops and local convenience stores had to offer beyond the occasional late-night dash for milk.

This trend continued even as restrictions were eased. Public transport usage  favoured by commuters working in central business districts – is still far below where it was at the same point in 2019, even as car usage has recovered. This suggests a hollowing out of those central districts, with people choosing to spend their time and money elsewhere.

 


As delis, cafes, pubs and restaurants launched takeaway and delivery services to feed a public stuck indoors, suburban high streets and small residential thoroughfares enjoyed a new kind of engagement among local residents.

Manchester disunited

Greater Manchester illustrates this trend. While footfall in Manchester city centre has only recovered to 49 per cent of its pre-lockdown level, surrounding town centres have fared far better.

Comparing the pre-lockdown period up to 6 March with the post-lockdown period up to 1 September, Ashton-under-Lyne has recovered to 77 per cent, Bury to 75 per cent, and Wigan is even over-performing at 102 per cent, according to data from Centre for Cities shared with the New Statesman.

 


“The broad pattern is that the large cities are recovering a lot slower,” says Lahari Ramuni, a researcher at the Centre for Cities. “By identifying eight other local centres outside of Manchester city centre but within Greater Manchester, we've seen the local centres recovering faster than Manchester city centre itself.”

There are two main factors driving footfall, she says. The first is the displacement of people who would usually work and shop in Manchester city centre staying at home and shopping locally, and the second is people returning to work.

“Less affluent places are recovering faster”

Contrary to the assumption that affluent areas are more likely to win out from the sudden presence of well-off home workers, Ramuni’s data shows the opposite: “Less affluent places like Rochdale, Oldham and Bury are recovering faster than, say, the more affluent places, which are Altringham and Stockport.”

Less well-off places have a higher prevalence of jobs that cannot be done from home. “You’ve got more manufacturing, retail and construction jobs in the local centre,” says Ramuni.

Workers and shoppers rely less on public transport to travel to local towns than to the city centre – with walking, cycling and driving more popular options during a time of social distancing.

“I grew up in Bury,” says Ramuni. “So if I wanted to go to Bury town centre, I could reasonably have walked there, and the parking infrastructure is there a lot more than it is in Manchester city centre.”

The small smoke

London has similarly suffered a hollowing out of business from the centre of the city. Figures from customer activity intelligence firm Springboard shared with the New Statesman show that, as of the week beginning 13 September, footfall in central London was down by 56 per cent compared to last year: more than double the 23 per cent seen in outer London.

 


This pattern has remained fairly consistent since the middle of June, with both outer and inner London seeing a slight rise in footfall as restrictions were eased and the government encouraged office workers to return. However, footfall across the whole capital is now showing signs of decline as Covid-19 cases have started to rise again.

No more cutting cornershops

During lockdown, 57 per cent of convenience stores began a delivery service for the first time, according to the Association of Convenience Stores. Forty one per cent now have a website, and there has been a surge in local shops using third-party e-commerce or delivery apps to show off their wares to an unfamiliar public, and provide a more accessible shopping experience.

The independent off licence Ocean Wine in Canonbury, north London, for example, saw its online sales rise from zero to £10,000 a week when it began putting its stock on Deliveroo during lockdown.

The average number of baskets of items bought between March and July rose 32 per cent at local convenience stores that use the PayPoint till service, compared with the previous four months. The number of goods in each basket rose 39 per cent, and the value of each basket rose 64 per cent, the Retail Gazette reports.

 “The pandemic brought about a renaissance in convenience store shopping”

Independent stores and “symbols” (franchised convenience stores that trade under common names, such as Spar, Londis, Costcutter and Nisa) have recorded a 31 per cent increase in consumer spend on the same period last year (mid-June to early September), according to analysis by Kantar. The only section of the UK’s grocery market more successful was delivery service Ocado, which experienced a rise of 41 per cent.

“The pandemic massively changed how people were shopping,” says Fraser McKevitt, head of retail and consumer insight at Kantar. “A lot of people turned to their local convenience stores where there weren’t queues, and often the stocking was better with fuller shelves. So it brought about a renaissance.”

Convenience stores accounted for about 12.5 per cent of grocery sales in January – rising to 16.3 per cent in April. This figure has since fallen again to 13 per cent, and McKevitt suggests the public is on a “slow march back to normal”.

He believes the shift to shopping locally will be a “less sticky” behavioural change than the huge rise in ordering groceries online; UK online grocery sales grew 77 per cent year-on-year in the four weeks to 6 September 2020.

“The demise of the cornershop’s been predicted time and time again and it always seems to manage”

But future coronavirus breakouts defy all predictions, and online shopping still only represented a total of 12.5 per cent of all grocery sales in the four weeks to 6 September 2020 (the percentage is higher for retail, at 26.6 per cent in August, according to the Office of National Statistics).

Despite a drift back to previous shopping patterns, the renewed popularity of local grocers remains. “The true independents, independent stores and the likes of Nisa and Spar, have been more resilient,” McKevitt points out. “They’re still benefiting from greater local trade.”

The traditional British cornershop is particularly robust, says Babita Sharma, a BBC news presenter who grew up living above her parents’ cornershop in Reading, and wrote a book about the industry last year: The Corner Shop: Shopkeepers, the Sharmas and the making of modern Britain.

Rising to prominence at a time of rationing and food vouchers in postwar Britain, cornershops – situated on the corners of terraces, and therefore neighbours to the streets they serve – are well-suited to times of “national crisis”, Sharma says. She recalls customers relying on buying paraffin gas from her parents’ shop during the regular power cuts of the late Seventies, for example.

“Decade in, decade out, cornershops see us through times of national crisis”

“The demise of the cornershop’s been predicted time and time again and it seems to manage,” Sharma says. “It’s also about convenience. Decade in, decade out, it’s been the place where you go whether it’s for your football coupons in the Eighties or your Lottery ticket now, or your toilet rolls and hand sanitisers today, which you couldn’t necessarily get in the supermarket.”

Cornershops have the bulk-buying know-how and connections with locals that meet demand for both convenience and comfort in times of trouble.

“It brings people together, and there’s no discrimination between class or race or gender in a place like that, whereas with supermarkets you might say there’s a distinction between the type of shopper you have at Waitrose or Booths or Sainsbury’s,” she says. “A cornershop is a kind of leveller.

“In a supermarket it’s quite a cold exchange, whereas in a cornershop – if you’re going in regularly – you get to know the face of the shopkeeper, potentially their name, and their family,” she adds. “And they definitely clock who you are because they’re smart and shrewd businesspeople. Once they get to know you as regular customers then they entice you in, they can sell you whatever it is you’re after and then some.”

Au revoir, Pret a Manger

As office workers stayed at home, city and town centres fell quiet. Staples of the commuter economy – the cafe by the train station where you buy your morning coffee, the pub that hosts your after-work drinks, and, of course, Pret and its brethren – fell empty. The reliable flow of customers for businesses serving the lunchbreak and office nightlife cycle, labelled the “Pret economy” by the Financial Times’ Sarah O’Connor, disappeared.

Jobs at high street stalwarts fell like dominos: 7,950 from Marks & Spencer, 1,100 from Pizza Express, 4,000 from Boots, 1,300 at risk at John Lewis, 3,000 from Pret and many more. Pizza delivery chain Domino’s, in contrast, has created 11,000 new jobs in the UK since the virus hit, benefiting from a takeaway-hungry public.

“There is an exciting opportunity as to how we approach the high street”

This has created a “Polo mint” effect: the hollowing out of central locations, as described by the Royal Institute of Chartered Surveyors (RICS) on 30 July, with “local shop hubs benefitting” from the change.

In a survey of the UK commercial property market at the time, RICS found 93 per cent of respondents envisaged businesses scaling back their offices over the next two years as people moved to longer-term home working, and 64 per cent predicted offices would increasingly shift to the suburbs.

High streets ahead

As offices begin to reopen, how is local commerce holding up? “Metropolitan centres are struggling,” says Hew Edgar, head of UK government relations at RICS. “Outer commuter areas and the outskirts seem to be coping better. It’s simply down to footfall: what keeps shops open is people walking in and out.”

Although it’s “hard to say” how big the impact of the pandemic has been on “sub-central” shopping thoroughfares so far, Edgar notes they are “far busier than they have been in the past”.

This shift could be an opportunity – to create more housing in urban centres (perhaps renovating disused offices into much-needed homes) and to reimagine the purpose of high streets.

“There is an exciting opportunity as to how we approach the high street,” Edgar says. “What do people want from it? A social space? An experience if they go to the shops? Residentialisation? Each and every town and city is different, and it’s time to think imaginatively.”

“Spars, Budgens, Co-ops, McColls, all those guys have had a real boost”

Shop owners have been forced to think creatively during lockdown, using methods such as online ordering, takeaway, delivery, promotional offers and even till-free scanning apps to help customers avoid touchscreens, queuing and cashier contact.

“We’ve noticed that some local retailers who stayed open and did takeaways during lockdown have actually fared really well,” says Michael Goulden, co-founder of the local shop delivery app Pinga based in Nottingham and London, popular with home workers particularly for coffee and sandwich deliveries from their favourite nearby stores.

Orders on Pinga (which has had 30,000 downloads since it launched last year) jumped to 3,000 a month during lockdown with 10,000 daily website visitors, and has been growing since then.

“It’s massively jumped forward,” he tells me. “And local businesses are doing really well for it.”

“To carry on this success, local stores need to be old school and high tech”

Since coronavirus hit, basket sizes in local convenience stores using the “scan, pay, go” app Ubamarket increased by 21 per cent, and uptake of promotional offers increased by 30 per cent, according to Will Broome, founder of the app, which launched in 2017.

Ubamarket, which had already been used in Budgens stores, is given the branding of whichever convenience store pays a licence fee for the service. Customers using the app can then check their local shop’s stock, and scan and pay in store using just their phone.

There was a “groundswell” in local convenience stores seeking to innovate during lockdown, says Broome, who has just launched with some select Spar stores, is about to launch with the Co-op in central England, and is in talks with a flagship Nisa store, and the McColls retail group.

“Local stores and convenience stores – Spars, Budgens, Co-ops, McColls, all those guys – have had a real boost,” says Broome. “Suddenly they had their local markets back in the way they would’ve had 30 or 40 years ago, in the old days.

“Now, they’ve collectively realised they need to keep that customer base – with ways to keep them coming back in, a local community spirit, and the right levels of stock and items.”

Ethical consumption

New services have been built by local shops to benefit communities they serve in a time of need. Local shops are now providing over 600,000 home deliveries a week in their communities, and 56 per cent of them now offer “card not present” transactions to help volunteers shop on behalf of local vulnerable people, according to the Association of Convenience Stores.

Shopping habits before coronavirus were already changing, particularly the expectation among younger customers of digital accessibility and an ethical story behind their purchases.

“Millennials and Generation Z want everything to be digital, sustainable, and cheap,” says Goulden. “Retailers that don’t embrace that as an offering will definitely suffer.”

Independent cafes, restaurants and off licences supplying a “hybrid” of both online options and easy in-store experiences are most likely to succeed, says Broome: “Old school and high tech.”

Local high streets could be complemented by new pedestrianisation and cycling infrastructure being built across the country by councils, following the government’s £2bn package for active travel announced on 9 May.

This could mean safer, greener and more pleasant shopping trips, beyond the short-term social distancing benefits of wider pavements and avoiding public transport.

Health warning

Nevertheless, the vast majority of small businesses found the national lockdown “incredibly damaging”, says Mike Cherry, the national chair of the Federation of Small Businesses.

“Small firms are resilient,” he says. “Throughout the course of this year, many have found ways of operating productively from home, offering alternate services and galvanising their online operations.

“However, many firms – not least those in the incredibly hard-hit leisure and hospitality sectors – that rely on bricks and mortar operations will find future lockdowns, including those at the local level, increasingly difficult after struggling immensely over the past few months.”

“Shops in the hole of the Polo mint will continue to suffer”

Indeed, the fate of local high streets is bound up with the government’s ability to keep the economy functioning in the face of rising Covid-19 cases. The boost in demand, and the incentive to modernise, enjoyed by stores during the first wave will only last if customers have money to spend, after all.

“Long term, these independent retailers have been squeezed by the multiple operators [supermarkets],” says retail analyst Fraser McKevitt. “They had a tiny market share – it was under 2 per cent before the pandemic hit, but it’s had a resurgence because they are fulfilling what we need. They’re there, they’re part of the community, and they’re easily accessible.”

Of course, there are plenty of independent shops and services in the middle of the “Polo mint” who continue to suffer, and face the devastation of a potential second national lockdown.

“It must be so difficult for businesses in the city centre,” says Taliadoros, back at Wynwood café in Walthamstow. “People don’t really go out there, the rent is high, I imagine it’s very hard to be set up there. We’re very lucky to have our community.”

Anoosh Chakelian is the New Statesman’s Britain editor.

Michael Goodier is a data journalist at New Statesman media group