The Great British shopping experience as it had been known for generations received its first vision of the future at precisely the halfway point of the twentieth century – when Sainsbury’s opened their first self-service ‘supermarket’ in 1950. The location of this landmark was the innocuous environs of Croydon, South London. The company’s soon-to-be Chairman, Alan Sainsbury, had visited the USA in the late 40s and had seen for himself the benefits that supermarkets could bring to the high-street; he envisaged the arrival of such a revolutionary form of retail in Britain as liberating shoppers from the traditional poky little British stores, giving them room to breathe and time to dawdle as they marvelled in the novelty of selecting their own goods without recourse to a hard-pressed shopkeeper.
Perhaps the visionary Mr Sainsbury surmised that supermarkets were precisely what the country required as the dismal cloud of the 40s threatened to hover over the new decade, although it’s doubtful whether even he could have foreseen how his Croydon guinea pig would prove to be the blueprint for every radical leap forward in the retail sector for the following fifty years. The impact on the corner-shops of Britain as supermarkets slowly began to appear in every major British town and city as the 50s progressed was felt gradually; but the arrival of ITV five years after the arrival of the first supermarket would lead to a rapid colonisation of the high-street by supermarkets as commercials were pumped directly into the nation’s living rooms for the first time, loudly advertising products that, in many cases, could only be found down the aisles of supermarkets. As the ITV network spread across the country in the late 50s, the supermarket mantra went nationwide.
Supermarkets benefitted hugely from television advertising, in a way that the corner-shop could never emulate. And the supermarkets were instrumental in transforming the eating habits of the nation by introducing the likes of the frozen ready-made meal, easing the burden on the housewife at teatime, but gradually changing the diet of Britons as a consequence. By the 1960s, supermarkets were established as a commonplace element of the high-street shopping trip, with most elevated to household name status – Tesco, the Co-Op, Spar, Finefare – and the largest provincial high-streets boasting several of them alongside the more traditional family firms of butchers, grocers and greengrocers. The saviours of the corner-shop, who kept it alive in the years following the urban redevelopment of the 60s and 70s, were enterprising Asian immigrants, who proceeded to revitalise a failing format by extending opening hours – particularly on Sundays – and branching-out into new areas such as home-video rentals, reminding people there was always an alternative to the supermarket on their doorstep, especially for those without personal transport – for car ownership would be the key to the next stage of the supermarket revolution.
Come the 1970s, television advertising and the supermarket were established enough fixtures for a generation to have risen with precious little knowledge that their pre-eminence within the culture of the country was a relatively new development. A clear sign that the supermarket was going from strength-to-strength came when the high-street was regarded as an unfit environment for containing the ambition of newcomers to the brand, such as Asda, a company originating in Leeds. In the early 70s, Asda began to open a string of huge superstores or ‘hypermarkets’ away from the cramped clutter of the high-street and geographically isolated from the competition. Just as the high-street supermarkets had undercut the corner-shop, the new superstores undercut the high-street supermarkets by offering an even greater range of goods at even cheaper prices. The ‘hyper’ prefix to these awesome retail monoliths came from the fact that they combined the traditional food-based stock of the supermarket with the wider selection of a department store, creating venues that housed all of the average shopper’s needs – needs that had always necessitated a trip to numerous different shops in the past – within the confines of one huge multi-purpose establishment. They were effectively a king-size corner-shop.
The precursor to the hypermarkets and superstores of the 70s had been the indoor shopping centres or ‘precincts’ of the 60s, although these were essentially glorified covered high-streets smack bang in the middle of town centres, with token trimmings to emphasise the ‘leisure’ experience such as nightclubs, restaurants, cinemas, hotels and bowling alleys. The most famous (or infamous) of this brave new breed was Birmingham’s Bull Ring Centre, which was officially opened in 1964. Covering 23 acres, the Bull Ring contained all the amenities that had been present amongst the original markets and businesses that had previously stood on the site as well as the aforementioned innovations, and was heralded as the future of British shopping. Very much a product of its era, the Brutalist behemoth of the Bull Ring was an intimidating concrete island, surrounded by traffic and only accessible on foot via a complex series of subways, walkways and escalators; moreover, the vastness of the Bull Ring was disproportionate to its surroundings.
The aesthetic blight of Manchester’s gargantuan Arndale Centre (opened in 1975) received especially virulent condemnation from architectural critics like Dan Cruickshank, who viewed the Arndale Centre as embodying the ‘brutal obliteration’ of British town centres; the notoriously ugly exterior was famously described by The Guardian as ‘the longest lavatory wall in Europe’. Many of the city centre shopping precincts’ add-on leisure gimmicks that had been sold as novel attractions in the beginning were quietly closed within a few years and converted to shops in the hope that nobody would notice. But the notion of a huge, sprawling shopping complex containing every conceivable outlet under one roof didn’t die with the failures of the 60s and 70s city centre precincts; in the future, the out-of-town hypermarkets and the shopping precinct concept would combine to create a retail monster.
Long a fixture of American popular culture, the shopping mall was the 60s shopping precinct taken to a frightening new level. Mainly situated out-of-town (like their hypermarket predecessors), the British malls began to sprout up across the country to cater for the 90s consumer boom, although the first recognisable inkling had appeared in the mid-80s, with the birth of the Metro Centre in Gateshead, near Newcastle, and Westfield Merry Hill near Dudley in the West Midlands. By the beginning of the twenty-first century, the rapidly commonplace shopping malls were approached with an almost reverential awe by their patrons, enforcing the notion that these sterile temples of frivolity were the new houses of God – as long as God was a chain-store. For the traditional high-street, the mall was a monster it couldn’t compete with, so the only option was to throw in its lot with the enemy. As the big name stores gradually vacated their cramped old premises and moved to expansive new locations in the mall, town centres slowly embarked upon an agonising descent into dereliction, losing the motorist as a customer and leaving the pedestrian shopper with an increasingly limited choice.
Since the economic crash of 2008, however, there has been a noticeable downsizing by the big supermarket chains, with closures and redundancies a-plenty as budget-priced newcomers such as Aldi have found favour with hard-pressed shoppers and the old weekly shopping expedition for many has been superseded by daily trips on foot to the proliferation of small convenience stores, many of which are situated on the street corners of urban neighbourhoods. We appear to be back where we began.