ONE of the least effective exercises we sometimes commit to is trying, Canute-like, to hold back the tide of evolution, though it is always valid, and wise, to wonder if evolution is actually progress. The changing face of our cities, the social and commercial hollowing out of so many towns or villages, shows that one man’s progress is another man’s poison. The commercial consequences are significant but, in the longer term, the social, cultural, and environmental changes may be felt all the more sharply.
Too many streets in our cities and towns are pock-marked with too many shuttered buildings that once housed thriving businesses. The situation above street level is at least as bad, where space is slipping towards dilapidation and redundancy. Buildings that once supported the owner’s family and their employees are empty, unprofitable liabilities succumbing to dereliction. They are liabilities for neighbours, too, creating an atmosphere of decay and defeat hardly conducive to an attractive or even sustainable retail environment.
There are many, well-rehearsed reasons for this decades-long purging of independent retailers but we seem to be at a tipping point where the very nature of the communities we live in is being changed by forces that seem unstoppable.
Independent bookshops, music shops too, are almost a thing of the past. So too are traditional butchers’ shops as almost all of food retailing is now concentrated under the roof of one supermarket chain or another. Access and city centre parking, often difficult to find and always inordinately expensive, contribute to this decline. The list of lost enterprises or family-run retail outlets is long and shows no sign of slowing.
Supermarkets were the first wave of this concentration but online retailers, some of unimaginable size and influence, have changed our world in a way that could not have been anticipated as recently as the turn of the century. Accessible 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, they offer an alternative to a time-poor consumer. Retail Excellence, a lobby group for the sector, estimates that Irish consumers spend €850,000 online every hour. If you are not as quick as an old-time grocer with your calculations, that’s over €20m a day, €600m a month, and the annual figure hardly bears thinking about — especially as Retail Excellence suggests two thirds of this money goes to overseas retailers, with obvious consequences for Irish retailers, retail workers, their domestic suppliers and, not least of all, the exchequer losing out tax income.
It seems fair though to suggest that retailers have clung too long and too hard to circumstances no longer ideal. Rigid opening hours that run parallel to most people’s working day are hardly helpful. Later opening one evening a week maybe?
Despite all this gloominess, all is not lost. As the first wave of online retailing changes — the bigger companies eat the smaller companies as ever — we can redirect a portion of our retail spend to smaller, local firms, the ones that keep our city and town centres alive. Just as we are responsible for all the plastic in the seas, we are responsible for the destruction of towns and cities by not being as thoughtful as we might be. A small change in buying habits would make a big difference.