Business hours and ‘housekeeper culture’

November 27th, 2011

An article in today’s Observer made mention of a service called Hubbub, started in Islington (of course! Honestly, the Guardian should change its name to the Islington Gazette…) which offers an online ordering and delivery service for buying food from local independent shops. In a similar tone is another article from the Guardian about the value of traditional markets in towns and cities. Now, I entirely buy into the argument that food purchased from independent retailers is often better quality, cheaper and more sustainable than that from supermarkets. I would dearly love to wander, wicker-basket in hand, around a lovely old covered market hall and buy my fruit, veg, bread, meat and other delights from jolly local traders who know and understand their produce. However, I don’t. Almost all the food that I buy comes from Sainsbury’s or Tesco. Why? Because they’re open at times when I can go shopping.

Now, I’m not working silly hours, either: I leave my house at 8am to be at my desk (12 miles away) at 8:45 – and I leave work at 5:30 and get home by 6:15. However, that effectively excludes me from dealing with all independent shops except at the weekend. Now, I could, of course, go and do my weekly shop in the city market, and perhaps visit Northrop’s the butchers’ in Mill Road on my way home. The market trades primarily in the morning – by mid afternoon the produce has been sold – and Mr Northrop doesn’t trade on Sundays (he is due a day off, after all). So that effectively means that Saturday morning has to be earmarked for food shopping, and of course there are lots of other people in the same boat as me, and so the city is heaving. This also limits what you can do with your weekend, and means you have to be out of bed on a Saturday morning before 10am…

So far, so much whingeing. However, I think there are a couple of wider points worth making.

Firstly, extending business hours into the evenings would massively increase the target audience of small shops, and would potentially allow them to compete more readily with big chains and online retailers. Of course, the shopkeepers themselves would need to take on extra staff to cover the extra hours, which would help with our present unemployment problem. The challenge would be to get a critical mass of shops to all open together. Cambridge supposedly has late night shopping on a Wednesday (meaning that the shops close at 7pm, woo, that’s late!) – but by no means all shops participate. For some businesses, a change in their work patterns would also be required. Bakeries, for instance, would need to keep baking through the day in order to have fresh bread in the evenings – in Portugal they do just that, and many people stop by the bakery to buy bread and cakes on their way home from work. Finally, by keeping the shops open, our town and city centres remain busy into the evening – which reduces crime and anti-social behaviour that can otherwise happen in deserted shopping streets after dark.
I’d be seriously in favour of a trial in which government under-wrote the costs of opening shops later in town centres, on the expectation that the retailers would boost their profits and the social benefits of a lively evening culture in towns would save money in other areas of spending. Managed well, I think it would be a great success.

Secondly, there’s a broader point about how we organise our society. We still seem to have a lingering social expectation that someone in the household will be not working during office hours. Courier companies and the Royal Mail attempt to deliver parcels during the day. Last week, National Grid (at four days notice) told me that they needed access to the house in order to replace the gas main. As soon as you bring children into the picture, the cost and hassle and issues associated with childcare, the desire to bond with your own offspring and the societal expectation of someone being at home, is it any wonder that so many parents -mostly women- choose to give up work?

In other countries shops trade late – why not here?