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UK: To Be a 'Clone Town,' or Not: That Is the Question

by Lizette AlvarezNew York Times
November 1st, 2004

STRATFORD-UPON-AVON, England - To survive the approach to the home where William Shakespeare was born, a striking timber-frame house in the center of this bustling town, it would be wise to bid adieu to all bucolic notions of quaint old England and ready oneself for the onslaught of globalization.

A visitor must march past Country Casuals, Boots pharmacy, Next, and Marks & Spencer, and pass Accessorize, HMV, Whittard and of course, the dueling coffee shops, Starbucks and Costa Coffee. If it were not for Shakespeare's dwelling and a few notable old houses, this town - with row upon row of British chain stores - would scarcely be different from any other in Britain these days. Most butcher shops and hardware stores have closed. So have the family clothing shops, the fishmongers and a long list of other independent businesses.

"If someone blindfolded you, put you in a helicopter and set you down in a town somewhere in England, you wouldn't be able to tell where you are anymore," said Jim Hyslop, 55, who lives just outside Stratford. The chain stores, he said, "change the character of a place."

In the past five years, chain stores owned by corporations and out-of-town megastores similar to Wal-Mart (one of them, Asda, is, in fact, owned by Wal-Mart), have come to dominate many British towns and cities, creating a palpable sense of homogeneity from Kent all the way to Cumbria, and drawing striking parallels to America.

Many of the main shopping thoroughfares, so-called "high streets," now traffic in sameness: ubiquitous cellphone shops (Orange, Vodafone, O2); the familiar coffee chains (Starbucks, Caffe Nero and Costa Coffee); the typical clothing stores (Gap, Next, Warehouse); and the cookie-cutter restaurants (Café Rouge, ASK, Pizza Express). Neighborhood greengrocers are also on the way out, replaced by chain minisupermarkets, most notably Tesco, a company that has become one of the world's top retailers.

"In the case of Britain, and especially England, there is a huge sense of identity investment in the image of towns and cities, and the notion that this sort of bland, gradual effacement of character is taking place has taxed people at a deep level," said Andrew Simms, policy director for the New Economic Foundation, an independent economic research organization that published a report in August called "Clone Town Britain."

"It makes life boring," Mr. Simms added. "It makes our communities boring places to be. That is one thing that has touched people deeply. People don't want to live in towns that look all the same. It's dull."

In its report, the foundation visited a series of towns and cities and counted both chain shops and independent businesses. It also contends that the spread of chains and sprawling Tesco-style stores winds up hurting local economies, because less money is pumped back into the area, and people are deprived of choice. A previous report in 2002 found that specialty stores like butchers and bakers were closing at a rate of 50 a week, along with 20 traditional pubs a month.

The reasons independent businesses are vanishing here are familiar to Americans: high rents; customer demand for cheaper goods; and corporate muscle. It is just that in the past few years their disappearance has become increasingly visible and particularly striking in a part of the world that once took such pride in its community shops.

"It's happening because of the consumer," said Nick Gladding, senior analyst at Verdict Research, a group that specializes in retail. "They are becoming more demanding.

"And people increasingly like familiarity," he added, noting that there are generational differences in shopping trends. "People like to know what to expect when they go into a shop or restaurant."

Lacey's, an ironmonger, or hardware store, in Stratford-upon-Avon, has been in town for generations. It is run by David Haywaid, 53, as it was by his father and grandfather before him. Mr. Haywaid said the town had changed markedly in recent years as independents had been driven to close because of high rents. "The only shops that can make money are the clothing shops, with their horrendous markups," he said.

His own shop is so old-fashioned that it is now a draw in itself, luring nostalgic out-of-towners who pine for "something different," said Mr. Haywaid, who owns the building his store occupies. Around the corner, at Barry the Butcher, Stewart Ashfield, the deputy manager, agrees. Not too long ago, there were 12 butcher shops in town; now there are 2. "Stratford has changed out of all recognition," he said. "We've been damaged by these chains, and the out-of-town shopping stores where people shop for everything under one roof as in America. What's been lost is the personal touch."

"Clone towns," though, as the report calls them, are beginning to encounter resistance as people question whether Britain should emulate America or follow Continental Europe, which is trying hard to preserve its uniqueness. In France and Poland, for example, local authorities can veto the construction of large supermarkets.

Local governments here are starting to push for economic incentives to guarantee a greater variety of shops. One town, Ludlow, has joined an Italian movement called Citta-slow, which embraces the "slow town" concept and promotes the benefits of eating locally grown produce.

A few powerful landlords have also taken stands against chain stores. The Mercers' Company, one of London's biggest landlords, is trying to attract independent shops by offering them discounts on the streets around Covent Garden, a popular tourist spot. Howard de Walden Estates, the hereditary landlord of much of Marylebone Village in London, has rejected a number of chains on its high street in order to preserve a unique, and quite popular, mix of shops. The company's chief executive has been critical of local governments, saying they are taking a short-term view of planning by always going with the highest bidder.

The question is: Is it too late to stem the tide?

"They talk about a tipping point, where you suddenly see independent retailers wiped out in certain areas," said David Bishop, a spokesman for the Federation of Small Businesses. "Unless you take some constructive action now it will resemble the U.S. We're a long way from that, but it is a real danger."




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