Big Box/Little Box & the future of High Wycombe?

Ever enjoyed the movies “Megamind” or “Despicable Me”? They both depict stereotypical bad guys who are thrown into the role of being good guys. Who, today, are our cartoon bad guys? We were challenged for our obvious delight that Hobbycraft were coming to Wycombe Marsh retail park. The anguished-cry went up that we should be AGAINST any big box store. If not, the argument went, then it must mean we are against buying locally. Is it that simple? Is there no middle path? Is this issue so polarising?

In the ensuing Twitter discussion we wrote “there are no cartoon bad guys” and this is what it boils down to. Context is everything. Firstly: Hobbycraft already have big-box-out-of-town-stores that serve High Wycombe. They are in Reading and Watford. You want to drive there? Get a bus? What? That is crazy. What we need is diversity both big and small; but if it isn’t IN High Wycombe it can’t contribute. Hobbycraft isn’t a monster just because it is big now, it was started by a small nursery and garden supplier near Bournemouth. They are British, started small and are fairly “local”!

What is “local” anyway? It depends where you are! Wycombe Marsh Retail Park is CLOSER to our Totteridge home than the Town Centre. It is “local” for a lot of people. It is on the A40 and well served by buses. It is a mixed development of retail, restaurants and homes – all in walking distance. It might be a microcosm of what future suburban communities might look like. Who knows? It would be nice if the products Hobbycraft sell were made in High Wycombe but we have a long journey to get there.

What REALLY drives us nuts is the shallow cultural expectation (driven by the media & local politicians) that the opening of every new big box retail scheme is some universal GOOD. We rolled our eyes at the enthusiasm being whipped up, at the time, for Eden, Matalan and Primark stores. We are better than that and there is better economic development than simply more shops. There is local manufacturing, energy utility and food production. But Transition is not self-sufficiency. It is about a re-balancing of the local versus national, national versus international. Just look up the economic ‘food cake’ diagram in the Transition “Local Food” book.

Above all Transition is pragmatism and an experiment. We don’t know all the answers. We need to try things. These things may be totally unexpected and they will refuse to fit within anyone’s expectations. There are lots of niches to be filled, lots of opportunities for small business and social enterprise to re-invent our local High Streets. High Wycombe is too big to have all of its needs met by one High Street with lots of small shops. It is impractical. It is not 1950 any more. A town of 100,000 people will need lots of High Streets, diversity, lots of shopping areas, food production opportunities, manufacturing jobs, all within easy reach.

So, does size matter? Big shops are “economically efficient” in a cheap energy economy with long supply chains. That sounds wonderful until you realise it means that big business destroy jobs and it is not in our long-term interests to let that go unchecked. Big shops displace small shops and put people out of work. Long supply chains make them vulnerable. They aren’t resilient which is why small local shops are our Plan B. We must embrace them as well. What we hope is that sufficient new Businesses come forward to employ those that this version of ‘economic efficiency’ has left behind. For today small Business must find its competitive niche and offer something the big boys do not offer. But nobody is paying for economic resilience in today’s market. We have to offer MORE.

We have lived in this town long enough to see TWO Hobby Shops close down never to return. You cannot blame Hobbycraft for that. The internet was enough. We now have ‘The Works’, a new card-hobbies shop in the Chilterns plus a couple of haberdashery-type shops dotted around. Will Hobbycraft kills these? We hope not and omens are good. These stores are already forging their economic enterprises successfully in the face of an out-of-town big-box retailer that has been here for years: John Lewis.

The big and the little can coincide sometimes. It just works differently in different market segments. Which leads us to the other dissatisfaction with big-business: firstly they are owned by remote shareholders (sucking money out of the local economy), secondly; they use their monopoly to compete unfairly. On the latter count there is a case to answer with supermarkets cited as common examples. Yet we still remain unconvinced that every big retailer is a cartoon bad guy because they are BIG. Since 2010 Hobbycraft is now owned by Bridgepoint; a private equity firm who also own Fat Face and the sandwich chain Prêt a Manger. They are in a business to be better and cheaper than their competitors. There are very isolated accounts of Hobbycraft under-cutting smaller competitors but if you don’t like the idea then don’t shop there. That is your choice. But you cannot caricature Hobbycraft as a monster simply because they are good at what they do. They are big and economies of scale matter in their market place. We wish for a world where all the products Hobbycraft sell (& more) could be sold via smaller, locally owned, retailers… But we must be realistic. That isn’t what most people want is it? We are where we are and it will only change when our shopping culture changes. Just look at the success of Fairtrade. Everything can change. More resilient local economic models will arrive. Hobbycraft might not survive but we’ll still want what they sell.

At the end of the day you shop where you want, for what you want, at the price you are willing to pay for it. There is no organisation, running through the streets, waving little red books and enforcing some kind of cultural revolution against the will of the people. Nobody can force anyone NOT to shop where they want. Transition Town High Wycombe has worked closely with the Business Improvement District Company and we are delighted with their award of £10,000 “Town Team” money for our High Street. We continue to encourage local small business in every shape and form; from food to energy.

Then there is the issue that these arguments miss; we would much rather a hobbies shop opened here than another mobile phone shop or computer games outlet. Afterall, what are the values we hold dear? In a world made-by-hand everyone needs practical hobbies. We were saddened when Focus DIY closed in favour of Matalan because DIY is a practical resource in a time of austerity. Just look at the rising popularity of home-crafting as a way of saving and earning money. Would we rather be passive consumers parked in front of the TV so we can watch adverts for the latest gadget? Or would we rather pick up a tool and make something? Transition is all about making a world for ourselves. We know the life that we would choose. It is the life that we have already chosen. It is rebuilding the skills that will make our local economy more resilient. From the market stalls of Clairabella to the crafting workshops at the new Wycombe Environment Centre: there is a market for this and we should not discourage it.

So Transition is not about what we stand AGAINST; it is defined by what we stand FOR. We are not building ourselves a ghetto. The new economy is for everyone.

About post-carbon-man

A passionate advocate of a peaceful transition to a sustainable political-economy, Mark hails from a working class farming background. Today he is a Company Director and Chairman of the Low Carbon Chilterns Co-operative. Whilst at University (Engineering Masters) he was active in Conservative Student politics but has had no affiliation since. He has travelled widely on business covering the USA, Europe, Middle East and Central Asian Republics. In 2007 Mark founded Post-Carbon-Living and a year later co-founded Transition Town High Wycombe. He lives with is wife & daughter in a home they retrofitted to be carbon-neutral. Today he blogs about surviving politics on a shrinking planet and is passionate in his rejection of Nationalism.


Big Box/Little Box & the future of High Wycombe? — 2 Comments

  1. Not sure the sewing and wool shop in Totteridge would agree..Hobbycraft is going to take trade away from them just due to it’s close proximity.

    Also, although I am not against big stores per se – as you say someone has grown them from a small beginning, they provide local employment etc, I do object to the fact that they use their size to negotiate trade discounts which smaller retailers cannot do and this leads to unfair competition in a retail environment which is already very difficult for small retailers with competition from the internet, high in town rents etc. Time will tell I guess.

  2. Thanks Kirsty. We know the shop you talk about but we have only had cause to go there a couple of times. This is dwarved by our visits to Hobbycraft in Watford and Reading. Until the niche shops can serve every hobby then the Hobbycraft have an advantage. We suspect that our local shops may not have that big a problem. This one in particular has material offcuts for sale. They offer specialist support for sewing machines too. I doubt this is something Hobbycraft will bother with. We have high hopes that a good hobby shop is something the town needs but, as you say, time will tell. It is a complex argument but I wanted to express the idea that we should be open minded and take into acount the nature of the shop and wider social benefits. Small shops cannot do what big DIY shops do. It is horses for courses and some co-existance will take place. Big stores have been around for a very long time. It is their unwieldy supply chains that are a bigger problem!