Small firms pushed under by the giants

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The Independent Online
"DUCK AND orange sausages. Better than Viagra," it says on the sign outside the shop of R J Balson & Son, alongside more standard encouragement to order Christmas turkeys NOW. The firm, in Bridport, Dorset - which boasts of being England's oldest family butchers (since 1535) - is clearly not afraid to move with the times. In four years since a Safeway superstore opened outside the town it has had to, or face going out of business.

"You have got to concentrate on things that the supermarkets don't do. We do a lot of game, that kind of stuff, otherwise we just couldn't compete," said Richard Balson, the proprietor. The "Viagra" sausages poster came about, he said, after four customers who were having problems conceiving got pregnant within a month of eating the specialist fayre (pounds 2.60 per lb).

In the year following the superstore opening it was reported that 40 businesses had gone under, and the High Street was pitted with boarded up shops. Yesterday, on market day, Bridport looked like any other thriving small town, with only an ice cream parlour standing vacant. But many of the old general retailers have been replaced by estate agents, solicitors, cafes , gift and charity shops. Meanwhile, the car park at Safeway, about half a mile from the town hall, looked comfortably full.

Not everyone is unhappy. Locals say that the superstore is rarely crowded, it is bright, warm, and the staff are friendly and helpful. It is convenient and, crucially, the parking is free.

"You could see the problems when we first got here but the town has managed to revive itself," said Ros Fry, who arrived from London four years ago with her family. "As the shops close they are replaced with interesting specialist shops which have definitely added something to the place."

Recent additions include a patisserie and a record shop which will find you "absolutely anything", she said. A recent frustrating shopping trip to London ended with her finding the gift she was after in Bridport's gentlemen's outfitters.

Community campaigners say that the influx of people from outside, including a large number of retired people, has distorted the local economy, leaving it vulnerable to a general downturn. But recent research by a student at Bournemouth University found that 37.5 per cent of retailers felt that the superstore had had a noticeable effect on trade.

Tim Crabtree has pioneered farmers' markets in the town, where producers sell direct to the public. "Small towns are seeing that food can be a way to rejuvenate the local economy," said Mr Crabtree. "It is a lesson that all small towns need to learn."

It is a message that would certainly be welcomed by Alan Holland, who runs Washing Pool Farm Produce, the only remaining town-centre greengrocer. He saw his business cut by 50 per cent overnight when the superstore opened. He survives by servicing the growing local restaurant sector. "We have only kept going because we're a family and we grow a lot of our own stuff," he said. "Maybe increased tourism will save us, otherwise I don't see a future for the High Street."