The Rise and Fall of the Corner Shop
There was a time when ‘shopping’ referred to obtaining the necessities of life and the reign of the corner shop was alive and well. The corner shop was more than just a place to buy provisions it was central to communities and a way of life for both the shop keeper and the customer. The lives of those from either side of the counter were intertwined as the shopkeeper relied on the customers loyal patronage and the customers relied on the local shop for supplies and when things were tight getting goods ‘on tick’ until pay day. These shops with their pigeon hole shelving, array of drawers, assortment of goods, dim lighting and personal service represented a way of life, shopping and housekeeping that has now vanished.
Throughout the 1800’s to the 1950’s independent retailers were a cornerstone of British life and were taken for granted. It was commonplace for people to buy groceries on a daily basis and for visits to the corner shop to be a routine part of life. Shop assistants would serve individual customers directly and the idea of customers helping themselves was unheard of. Goods were weighed out by hand, cut up, sliced and bundled. Everything would be tallied up on a receipt or else jotted on the front of a plain paper bag. It was an age when customers entered a shop through a door that required pushing and a time when there were no turnstiles to navigate and no maze of shopping aisles to browse. There was no checkout, electronic barcode scanning, chip and pin machines or club cards, but there was a counter and personal service.
The Victorian period was in many ways the golden age of the corner shop, by 1850 few retailers traded solely as mercers, tallow chandlers or drapers in villages and instead general stores were springing up selling groceries, household goods and drapery marking the birth of the corner shop that sold all and sundry.
As the 19th century progressed the range of new processed and packaged provisions such as Huntley and Palmers biscuits, Pears soap, Fry’s and Cadbury’s chocolate steadily increased and the shape of shopping and how we bought produce was about to change. For the best part of the 18th and 19th century, shop keepers had purchased wholesale consignments of staple ingredients such as sacks of flour, sacks of oatmeal, barrels of vinegar, blocks of salt and chests of tea which would all be sold by weight, very often inclusive of the wrapping paper. Bacon and ham would be sliced by hand whilst sugar would be cut from a solid cone known as a sugar loaf; but soon branded goods that came ready packaged in tins, packets and jars became the customer’s preferred choice over the traditional weighed out products.
During the 1920’s and 1930’s the corner shop changed very little with general stores still selling a range of provisions and household goods. with stock still being kept behind the counter and butter still being patted into shape and weighed out. The shopkeepers knew their customers by name and everything was carefully wrapped. This was an age before self-service shops and a time when customers had accounts that were settled in cash with purchases being written down in an order book, where everything was clearly itemised in the shopkeepers own handwriting. The power of advertising and window displays was being used to draw in customers, but the shopkeepers now faced new challenges as they met competition from affordable variety stores that drew customers away with their seductive deals and fancy offerings. The likes of Woolworth’s Fancy Bazaar were selling the latest products at attractive prices and were responding to customer’s needs. Whilst radio broadcasting and cheap newspapers meant that consumers were now quick to hear about new products and special offers. Even the likes of Marks and Spencer’s who had enjoyed great success with their penny bazaar now felt the pinch from competitors; after they had been forced to drop their penny price system during the First World War as stock became difficult to source cheaply, they revised their lines, prices and in 1931 started selling fruit, vegetables and tinned food. Things were changing in the retail sector and large stores and small independent traders alike had to react to new trends in order to survive.
The new consumer goods industries that were making their fortunes in large department stores were having an impact on shopping notions. Since the 1880’S it had become common for shops to be adorned with advertising materials and signs for products such as Epps Cocoa and its rival Fry’s and by 1910 products including Colman’s mustard, Crosse and Blackwell sauces and Hudson’s soap were all prominently displayed in the corner shop with accompanying signs, advertising cards and posters. The interwar years saw a further increase of branded and packaged products finding their way onto the shelves of the corner shop. Cleaning agents, tinned goods, packets of jelly and cereals such as shredded wheat were now all familiar products to find on the small independent retailers’ shelves and shopkeepers were benefitting from the promotional advertising supplied by the manufacturers that helped to seduce their customer into making extra purchases. They were also benefitting from a reduction in their workload as selling individually packaged and processed goods reduced the cutting, bagging and weighing duties of the grocer; though it did not eliminate the use of the scales as many things were still sold lose things such as dried fruits, biscuits and rice. Whilst sugar was still weighed into little blue paper bags and bacon was still sliced and sold by weight and it was still common to find golden syrup in large dispensers.
Whilst the big stores could inevitably offer a superior range and display of goods and were able to sell their own-label products at low prices, the Retail Price Maintenance legislation that had been introduced on branded goods in the 1890’s to cover a few lines, rapidly extended after 1914 to cover a large selection of goods that were commonly stocked by the corner shop. The existence of this price maintenance acted in the small retailers favour, as it encouraged people to shop at their local store for branded goods in the surety that these products could not be purchased cheaper elsewhere. Despite legislation helping the independent retailer and advertising aiding sales, increasingly people were travelling further afield to shop and the corner shop was beginning to rely on trade from the poor, immobile and convenience shoppers after odds and ends. There was always a steady trade to be found from those that lived on tick, those too poor to be bothered about bigger ranges and smaller prices, so long as they were given credit, but credit accounts alone could not sustain the corner shop and the interwar period when Britain moved into the depression were difficult times for both shoppers and shopkeepers. Many entrepreneurial business owners ran clothing clubs and Christmas clubs that allowed customers to save up towards larger purchases and these all secured some trade for the small shop.
The Second World War brought some relief for the struggling corner shop as rationing tied people to their local shop. Petrol shortages reduced the frequency and ability of people to travel and so corner shops often became resourceful in finding un-rationed goods to satisfy their customers, although most un-rationed goods made their way to the shops in town which encouraged people to make the journey whenever they could, a pattern that persisted during post-war rationing and as travel became easier the fight for survival of the corner shop became harder.
In 1951 the first self-service store opened in Britain and by 1956 there were three thousand self-service stores in operation and as these shops grew in size they became known as ‘supermarkets’. The 1960’s saw the face of shops change to become brighter and more clinical establishments, it was out with the dark wood shelving and dim lighting and in with fluorescent lighting, neon, plastic and Formica. Shopping patterns had changed and by the 1970’s the daily shopping ritual of previous decades had all but disappeared and the ‘weekly shop’ had arrived. People now enjoyed going to the supermarket once a week and stocking up on staples and convenience foods instead of visiting their local shop every day. People now had the means of chilling milk, butter and fresh produce as the fridge became ever popular. In 1948 just two per cent of households in Britain owned a fridge; even in 1959 only 13 per cent of homes had a refrigerator. Housewives had stored meat in a meat safe or in the larder and the daily shopping had been a matter of necessity. By 1970 the majority of British households owned an electric fridge. Refrigeration and the dramatic increase in car ownership caused a revolution in peoples shopping habits.
The abolition of Retail Price Maintenance legislation aided the rise of supermarkets and meant that the small shop keeper couldn’t compete with the supermarkets that were now free to undercut on branded products. The small shop still exercised longer opening hours than the big stores and survived on the convenience shoppers nipping in for the bits they forgot in their weekly ‘big’ shop and from the older generations, but ultimately the impersonality and convenience of the supermarket with its bright lighting and large selection of goods won the battle as they became a more appealing way to shop especially to the younger generations.
The old fashioned corner shop has all but faded away, but lives on in fond nostalgic memories and also in the village of Penybont, Powys, Mid Wales, where a unique snap shot of the past can be found in the form of the Thomas Shop. Originally built in 1805 the shop is more or less exactly as it would have been. This hidden gem is born from a love and passion of Derek and Liz Turner who run the Thomas Shop and the local community who recited stories of the old shop that closed its doors in 1958 and donated food and drink packaging, props and signs that now adorn the original shelves of the shop. It offers a wonderful and enchanting peek into a way of life that has now vanished and as the shop is multi-period (having packaging from the 18th, 19th and 20th century) there are brands that are reminiscent of childhood and growing up. It serves as a time capsule and holds the memories of the generations of shopkeepers that worked there and the daily visits of their customers.
Our shopping patterns may have changed forever, but it is certain that no supermarket will ever capture the British hearts and imaginations like the corner shop did. These traditional shops manufactured memories and they will always inspire fond reminiscences.