SELF-styled “Queen of shops” Mary Portas couldn’t have got it more wrong when she told us that "the days of a high street populated simply by independent butchers, bakers and candlestick makers are over". Amidst the current retail carnage, where chain after chain goes bust and even the perennially buoyant Greggs reports its first loss, the delicious irony is that these small shops she dismissed as a romantic remnant of the past are patently thriving.

While total consumer spending fell 7.1% last year, research for Barclaycard shows that spending at independent food and drink shops, including off-licences, butchers and bakeries, jumped 28.6%. Despite constant anti-meat propaganda and the hex put on them by Portas, sales in independent butcher shops increased spectacularly – 49% up on 2019. Artisan bakeries, not so long ago derided as snobby and exclusive, are working full tilt to satisfy new business, with steady queues out their doors.

As more of us step away from supermarket crowds, corner shops that once dabbled in fruit and vegetables are stocking up and expanding what they offer to take advantage of the uplift in sales. It was fantastic to see a previously defunct fish shop reopen nearby, encouraged no doubt to put fresh catch on its slab by the visible popularity of the new minimum-packaging, organic food and refill shop a few doors along.

Established non-food concerns, such as the florist and pre-loved clothes shop, when allowed to open, have benefited from the increased footfall generated by these new food ventures.

Like post offices and banks, food shops strengthen other retailers by generating footfall. And this hum of activity generated by new wave, local food businesses is rippling through once deadbeat shopping parades. We’re witnessing what Dan Thompson, who founded the Empty Shops Network, calls the “rewilding” of our high streets.

Back in 2007, when my investigation of supermarkets was published – Shopped: The Shocking Power of British Supermarkets – I documented how unfettered development of edge-of-town supermarkets with their unfair free parking advantage had warped our food shopping scene, sucking all the retail life away from local shopping parades.

From the 1980s onwards, the ascendency of supermarkets, clustered with big chains and fast food outlets on out-of-town retail parks, seemed unstoppable. And when Portas wrote off small shops in her eponymous, fairly useless 2011 review of the future for our high streets, any notion that small, independent food shops could revive their localities was seen as a futile hope of closing the stable door once the horse had bolted.

So how encouraging it is now to see this dystopian defeatism proved wrong. As Thompson puts it: “An ecology damaged by big box retail and the clone town is being allowed to revert to its natural, balanced state.”

But once Covid fright wears off, how permanent will this shift in buying habits be? I think it’s here to stay. Times have changed since Portas opined that “the major supermarkets and malls have delivered highly convenient, needs-based retailing, which serves today’s consumers well”.

The pandemic shredded that last century concept of convenience. Is it really so handy to get in the car, queue, and then walk round the aisles of a superstore when all you really want is a litre of milk? True convenience is having a varied food offer close to where we are.

So it’s not surprising that one in three shoppers plans to spend more at independent stores this year than we did in 2019, according to an Enterprise Nation poll. Younger people, who were always less wedded to the monotonous weekly supermarket shopping trip than their parents, are even more up for it. Half of under-35s plan to shop more at independents.

The trajectory of Glasgow-based Locavore is evidence that this trend, although accelerated by lockdowns, pre-dated them. Locavore started out in 2011 as a cramped local food hub in Strathbungo, in a small shop more likely to appeal to the party faithful than to convert supermarket shoppers.

By 2018, it opened Scotland’s first Social Enterprise supermarket on Victoria Road, a confident and accomplished leap forward from the original prototype that was a joy to see. Last year Locavore launched another impressive store in Partick, this time designed to appeal more to supermarket locals who might feel less at home in a whole food shop atmosphere.

The Partick store, according to Reuben Chesters, Locavore’s Founder and MD, was “proof of concept”, a persuasive model for a local shopping outlet with broad appeal that can be rolled out cheaply and swiftly anywhere. Locavore just launched its “Bigger Plan” to open 10 of these local, organic and zero waste supermarkets across Scotland over the next two years. I’m convinced that this plan will succeed.

By seeking suggestions from the public on where they would like new Locavore Shops – you can get in touch through its website to ‘request a Locavore’ in your community – it will be able to map demand and respond to it. “Being invited by the local community seems like a good starting point,” says Chesters. So many areas in Scotland could do with a Locavore. If you think your community fits the bill, flag up your interest now.

How different this sensitive, listening approach is from tactics of the big supermarket chains. They impose new stores on communities, often in the teeth of local opposition. Local authorities lack the money to block their plans. Councils are left trying to squeeze something that can be portrayed as compensatory “planning gain” out of new store approvals, while defending their ruinous, high street-blighting decisions as local regeneration. What a bad joke.

Small independent neighbourhood food shops, not supermarkets, are our true regenerators and place-makers. Their presence gives us a sense of safety. They feel inviting, and the accumulation of their distinctive characters imbues our local neighbourhoods with a richness that encourages us to linger. In a nutshell, they help create streets we want to go to, rather than walk through.

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