Holiday snaps – a little French retailingPosted: August 16, 2011
Aux Produits de la Ferme
La Grange aux Fleurs
We’re just back from a couple of weeks in the middle of France, where the food is divine, the weather mostly good, and riots thin on the ground. Mind you, young people per se were noticeable by their absence, as farming mechanisation has caused the migration of jobs to the larger towns and cities, and communities have gentrified through tourism and retirement living, or otherwise decayed and slumbered.
Holidaymakers shouldn’t jump to conclusions, though – even retail holidaymakers, irritating their families by inspecting barcodes and pondering how planning consents might work. The photos above were taken in our local town, and it’s easy to conclude that the big edge-of-town supermarket has killed off the livelihoods of many independent retailers. However, I think this conclusion is glib and anglocentric.
While there was money to be saved at the supermarket, the differential wasn’t huge – discounting simply isn’t as prevalent in France as it is in the UK. What the supermarket offered was convenience – longer hours and a one-stop shop, and I believe that customers value this benefit at least as highly as saving money. Old-style retailing in France remains inefficient – opening hours are short and (to an outsider) random. Shopkeepers stick closely to the store-types we all learnt in basic French classes – la boulangerie, la boucherie, la pharmacie – as though there is a rule-book permitting only specific store-types. The concept of, say, a chemist selling snacks, or a cafe selling smoothies, is an alien one, which ensures holidaymakers can enjoy “traditional France” and comment on all the ways the French life is superior to British, while ignoring the commercial stagnation this traditional mindset can engender.
Nevertheless, our local town was in fact thriving. It had way too many retail premises – hence the voids pictured above – but it boasted three boulangeries, two boucheries, two excellent family-owned restaurants and much more besides. There was ample free parking throughout the town, and plenty of “community spirit”.
I shall write more about this, but for the time being there is much to catch up on. This corner of SW London was never a high-risk riot hot-spot, but the social and economic consequences of the last fortnight’s events will be far-reaching. It’s kind of good to be back…