Why the general retail market is an important fixture in our High Streets

Over the last decade, retail sales figures have been gravely affected by the dual onslaught of online shopping and stagnant wages. With the former, it is cheaper for some households to stay at home and pay the online retailer’s delivery charges instead of bus or taxi fares. In the last month, we found that last Christmas’ sales figures were the worst for 25 years.

If you look at it from one side, it is safe to say that the internet has won. Instead of tromping into town, you could get everything you could find in Stalybridge 40 years ago on the internet. You wouldn’t find the social chit chat between yourself and shop assistants if you go to eBay instead of The Magpie’s Nest. Chain store or market stall, you get to know the staff. They might remember your order, or leave the tea bag in your brew for exactly five minutes in your favourite café.

Retail markets go beyond their role as a shopping destination. If you see your friends in the same café or micro bar week in or week out, they fulfil a social need. The shopping trip goes beyond buying a dozen oven bottom muffins: it becomes a day out in itself where friendships and acquaintances are formed.

In medium-sized town centres or administrative centres like Ashton-under-Lyne, Bolton, Oldham or Bury, the indoor market hall is a large building. Size-wise, a match for any supermarket chain. It is as much a focus of the town as other public buildings, or notable privately owned buildings. Sometimes, it is the only publicly funded general market hall in the whole municipality.

In smaller towns, the indoor market hall isn’t quite as ubiquitous. Some have become Civic Halls with an exhibition space for sporadic markets and craft fairs. Others have become retail units or public houses. Some have ceased to become general market halls and became niche market halls. In other words, they have specialised in food or antiques.

Some £4.00 pork pies are more equal than others

The most popular fad has been the Foodie Market. In the last five years, the market hall as a gastronomic paradise has been hailed as an answer for revitalising town centres. When Altrincham’s indoor market hall moved from being a general retail market to a foodie’s paradise, footfall rocketed. Shortly after opening, gourmet pork pies at daft prices became the flavour of the month.

It is this magic remedy that has been hailed as an answer for reinvigorating the Victoria Market Hall in Stalybridge. By the end of March, Glossop Market Hall will be given an Altrincham-style makeover, which would see the traditional stalls elbowed out by peddlers of artisanal bread at silly prices. A case of ‘more gourmet, less Gamesley’ for want of a snappy tagline.

Altrincham is regarded by some people as a posh place, largely due to being close to Deepest Cheshire. The Tory Heartland Cheshire of Knutsford, Rostherne, Mere and Mobberley. On one side, Altrincham is close to Hale and Hale Barns – the poshest part of the town’s surrounding area. On the other side, Broadheath and Timperley is more akin to anywhere in Tameside.

Glossop is a working-class town, thanks in no small part to the cotton industry. A Labour town under the vassalage of a Tory constituency. Whereas Old Glossop and Padfield is semi-rural, Whitfield, Dinting and Gamesley are down-to-earth places.

Gamesley village was expanded in the late-1960s when Manchester Corporation created an overspill estate. Before the noughties, it had regular buses to Manchester. Today, it is cut off from the city centre and its peripheries and (after 6pm by bus) Glossop. Besides poor public transport, social inclusion by means of unemployment and food poverty are the village’s main issues.

If Glossop Market goes Full Altrincham, opening the indoor market from 9am to 10pm (or 9am to 6pm on Sundays) could be a boon for the town’s night time economy. The town already has a lively pub scene with The Star Inn, The Oakwood and The Globe being ‘must visit’ hostelries. On the other hand, an Altrincham style market in Glossop on a concessions’ pass for Buxton residents could be preferable to going to Manchester for the Mackie Mayor market.

Though a foodie market seems a good idea on paper as a tourist attraction, what about the ordinary shoppers who begrudge paying £4.00 for a pork pie some two inches in diameter? For some people, £4.00 is almost half a day’s rate of basic level Universal Credit.

In place of general retail markets, I think foodie markets are elitist. They cater for a small section of the population who don’t mind paying over the odds for fairly ordinary food. Ordinary food that is just as locally sourced and produced as premium priced equivalents. Ordinary food that is still available at supermarket prices (or better) at Ashton Indoor Market. If the town centre is big enough to have a general market and a foodie market, then fair enough.

On their own, foodie markets continue the gentrification process we have seen on housing estates. Where does Mr/Ms Ordinary go for fresh cabbage instead of the supermarket? Does s/he choose to pay over the odds for one in the foodie market – or pay over the odds in bus fare to get from (say Gamesley) to Hyde Market?

If s/he used to make a quick trip from Melandra Castle Road to Glossop Market Hall on Friday for cabbage, would s/he choose the long bus ride to Hyde or go to their favourite supermarket website? I suspect the latter. If s/he had their own set of wheels, a quick drive to the semi-permanent traffic jam outside Glossop TESCO would suffice.

Though a foodie market might get the adulation of local and national press, they blatantly ignore the wider needs of the population. A general retail market should cater for as many people as possible, whether you like Double Gloucester or plantain chips. Will you get the same mix of clientele in any of Glossop Market Hall’s post-gentrification era set of stalls as you would with the present stalls till March of this year?

A more inclusive retail market

If you want to see how an indoor market can hold its own against the supermarkets and the internet, I always look at Ashton-under-Lyne’s Indoor Market as a great example. Though the open market seems to have lost its way in the last five years, the Indoor Market is a must-visit retail destination, due to the diversity of its stalls. Also its mix of established stallholders and newcomers to the scene. (Oh, and the micro pub which you must visit).

The airy ambience of Ashton Indoor Market and its refurbishment was due to the fire it had in 2004, a black day in the town’s history. Its reopening in November 2008 was met with a mixed reception, with some nostalgic for the idiosyncratic layout of the pre-2004 market hall. Nevertheless, it has bedded in well, eleven years down the line.

During the same period, Glossop Market Hall had barely changed. Stallholders may have been and gone in that time, but little had been spent on improving the overall interior. Its open market ground seemed like, and still seems like to this day, an afterthought.

Both the soon-to-be-phased-out-version-of Glossop Indoor Market and the post-2008 Ashton Indoor Market offers something for everyone. Whether you want cheap toiletries or a new coat, and some decent sausages at an affordable price, who needs the supermarket?

Besides offering fresh food at more affordable prices, what else does a general retail market offer?

  • Camaraderie between the customer, stallholders and staff;
  • A visible meeting place which cannot be missed by anyone who only has a Key Stage One knowledge of the town or city;
  • A nurturing environment for business start-ups who wish to sell their own wares;
  • Publicly and/or privately funded communal space which is at the heart of its community and beyond. Somewhere to meet friends and family as well as retail therapy.

A foodie market can fulfil some of the above functions, but the social mix may not be as diverse as a general market. With a general market, you can have thematic markets on the open market ground that caters for, say Asian and Irish communities in the area.

In Tameside, we have occasional open markets for cake lovers, artisan produce, handicrafts and farmers’ markets. Hyde has an Asian market. Both Hyde and Ashton have well-supported secondhand markets. Why hasn’t Glossop had similar markets, say with further stalls along Norfolk Square?

Having a general market as well as a foodie market would make for a happy medium. Instead of competing between the two markets on price, the two types of market should coexist and add to the mix. If they coexist, ideally along the same site, shoppers may be inclined to make impulse purchases from the regular stalls as well as occasional stalls.

As a role in regeneration, I would sooner have a general retail market over a foodie market. One with a few occasional markets as well as regular indoor and/or outdoor market stallholders. If people need to eat well at an affordable price, we also need to support allotment schemes and projects like Incredible Edible as well as having affordably priced cabbages. They could be complementary to a general retail market instead of a foodie market that would benefit anyone who could easily pay £4.00 for a 2″ pork pie.

S.V., 24 January 2020.

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