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Are you living in a clone town?

High street shops

Land in a new town and you’d be hard-pressed to tell where you are, according to a new report. Does your town have its own personality – or do the same old shops leave it in danger of becoming a clone?

We’ve all got personal examples of how the big chains have muscled their way in to our local high street. The quaint cricket ground in my home town has recently been wiped out by Waitrose, for example.

While individual accounts like this aren’t likely to change the whole shape of a town, it does edge them closer to becoming a faceless, unrecognisable place that could be anywhere.

‘Clone Town Britain’

A new report by think tank nef suggests that we’re actually heading for ‘Clone Town Britain’. It says that 41% of the towns it surveyed are clones, with a further 23% on the verge.

Depressing? Yes. Over-exaggerated? I don’t think so.

Think about it. How many times have you rocked up to a new town just to be greeted by familiar faces on the high street? It’s pretty hard to escape the likes of Starbucks, McDonald’s and supermarket chains anywhere you go, and bigger towns are nearly always home to M&S, Monsoon, Oasis et al.

Sure, there’s value to big brand names moving in. Get the balance right and they can help the smaller shops by attracting new shoppers. But get it wrong and your town loses its personality and fails to offer shoppers anything new or surprising.

Towns doing it for themselves

Thankfully, there are some towns that are maintaining their individuality, according to Paul Squires, co-author of the report:

“It’s not all doom and gloom. We found many towns that are thriving with initiatives to retain local diversity. The local currency schemes in Lewes and Brixton, for example, or community buy-outs of post offices and pubs from Yorkshire to Cornwall.”

And I can add my own to that list. I’ve just returned from a trip to St David’s, Britain’s smallest (and probably loveliest) city, in Wales, where I noticed a branch of Fat Face. But, far from making me reel in horror, I thought it a good addition to the place. It’s one of the only chains the city offers, and as an ‘outdoor brand’, it works there.

So are you worried about your local high street – and can anything be done to protect it from becoming a clone? The report suggests we ‘use them or lose’ them when it comes to independent stores, cinemas and markets. It also suggests you grow more of your own food and use FreeCycle to distribute your unwanted goods.

You could even get involved in running a local currency, like Lewes and Totnes… or is that a step too far?


I love independent shops as much as the next man – except that, clearly, the next man doesn’t love independent shops.

The problem is, that everyone always moans about identikit towns, but given the opportunity to shop in the small retailers they supposedly love, they never seem to do so. Instead, it’s straight down to Tesco! The fact is, that people seem to prefer the reliability and consistency of larger retailers, and the majority (on the whole) seems to welcome more chains.

Sad to say, but the myth of the quaint unique town where the inhabitants support local enterprises is just that – a myth. Sure, there are towns with independent shops – but instead everyone flocks to bigger and better options!

I’m sure it’s true that the bigger shops have more clout, and can occasionally pressure high street freeholders into giving them space that had previously housed nice, far more interesting, shops (mainly by throwing money at them!).

But in the case where a supermarket opens up round the corner from locally owned shops, and those shops see their custom plummet, there really isn’t anyone else to blame but the patrons who prefer anonymous and corporate to personal and local.

Sophie Gilbert says:
16 September 2010

I think that’s exactly it, Hannah, balance is the key.

I find clone towns utterly disappointing, and I often find nothing to buy in quaint uniques towns’ overpriced shops. Mix reliability and consistency properly with creativity and variety and you’ve got a winning formula. I don’t have an answer to how you arrive at it, however. Like the poet said, it ain’t easy.

pickle says:
16 September 2010

My town, Shaftesbury, is fast becoming a cloned town – although it hasn’t got there yet. There is strong local opinion against the new Tesco, but everyone uses it! We have 5 charity shops and a lot of estste agents which dilute the number of shops available. Nevertheless there are quite a few independants who are doing pretty well. We have lost our ironmongers unfortunately so it is difficult to buy paint or screws. Hopefully things will improve.

Julian Smith says:
17 September 2010

It’s no use looking for enterprise to get us out of a recession if “start-ups” are squeeezed out of existance. Small shops are vital outlets for small business, big business just hoovers up all the business opportunity in a small town. People blame immigration for job losses, but a £1000 spent in a big “efficient” business mostly means money sent to China and higher taxes for everyone as local people go on the dole. It’s the crushing of opportunity and the export of jobs that’s the problem.

In the end as business gets “hyperefficient” and the right effectively lobbies for lower taxes, money will disappear from the economy and the big chains will find that they are losing customers to Pound stores, the black market, and charity shops. It”s happened to my Northern town, which would welcome clone shops, or any shops at all, most business having gone. I expect that as the benefit cuts bite, that the Pound shops will become 50p shops and more booze and cigarettes will be sold on the black market.

I think the major change that has taken place on our high streets has been prompted by the “big sheds in a car park” developments that the planning authorities gave in to during the seventies and eighties. The high street with its small shop units, parking problems, delivery difficulties and exposure to the weather, could no longer cope with the pressure from households for a bulk weekly shop instead of doing a bit of shopping every two or three days. Different work/leisure patterns and family time constraints [made worse by the ever-increasing amount of time taken in getting to and from work each day] favoured the supermarkets and malls. I don’t think consumers can be “blamed” for deserting their local shops although there undoubtedly is a cause and effect but it is an evolutionary process that has been going on for centuries. I remember growing up in the fifties and sixties and, for the sake of a bit of variety, going to different suburbs or town centres with my parents, but they all [almost without exception] had their J Sainsbury, Boots the Chemist, W H Smith, David Greig, International Stores, U K Tea Co, Freeman, Hardy & Willis, Lovelace, Manfield, K Shoes, Barratts, Dolcis, Clarks, Montague Burton, John Collier, Dunn & Co, Times Furnishing, Currys, J Lyons, ABC, Wimpy, Golden Egg, United Dairies, Gas Showroom, Electricity Showroom, Cooperative Society, to name but a few, plus several other local or regional chains. How uniform is that?! The only independent high street shops in those days were the butchers, bakers, greengrocers, ironmongers, clothiers, drapers, haberdashers, and newsagents run by traditional proprietors and their families. Most residential districts also had corner shops selling a variety of day-to-day essentials and which did indeed stay “open all hours”. So we have had clone towns before, its just that now the scene is different because the retail sheds have abstracted footfall from the high street and the car has replaced the shopping basket or delivery boy. The phenomonon I cannot understand is the apparent necessity to have six or more mobile phone shops in every town centre – for such a small and utilitarian product the floorspace given over to this item is grossly disporportionate and indicative of huge excess profits seemingly unaffected by the intense competition; how can this be? The growth in the presence of estate agents is easier to understand as there has been a big rise in home ownership. Charity shops have taken up much of the released space to the dismay of many but they do provide a benefit even though some people think they sell good things too cheaply and detract from other shops. I wonder whether the current downturn will harm the retail parks more than the high streets which do seem to have a little more resilience as peole rein in their shopping habits.