Has the time come to say farewell to the Asian corner shop? By introducing shopping convenience to every community in the land, it changed British life for ever during the postwar years as much as the television set or widespread car ownership.
But there has been an estimated 23 per cent drop in the number of small stores run by Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis over the past decade, from about 15,000 to 11,500, and the numbers are still going down, according to David McEvoy, a professor of urban geography at Liverpool John Moores University.
One of the main reasons, Professor McEvoy told the Royal Geographical Society – Institute of British Geographers' conference in Belfast yesterday, is that young British-born Asians are unwilling to accept the mixture of long hours and low rewards that satisfied their immigrant parents.
Many are going into white-collar jobs, and those who wish to be self-employed are turning their energies to more flexible and profitable enterprises such as running restaurants or taxi firms. Furthermore, competition from edge-of-town superstores and discount food retailers, and the 1994 reforms that swept away restrictions on opening hours on Sundays and in the evenings, have removed the competitive edge the corner shops once enjoyed.
South Asians, and Indians in particular, began opening small all-purpose grocery stores in the 1960s and 1970s as British manufacturing – and the job opportunities that came with it – declined, and the immigrant communities began to feel that prejudice was holding them back from promotion in conventional employment, Professor McEvoy said. Many Indians suffered from "under-employment" – they were hugely over-qualified for the only jobs that they could find – and much preferred being their own boss. In 1978, he said, 20 per cent of the Indian workers in British retailing were graduates, compared with 4 per cent of the white workforce.
Those who opened corner shops found they had a remarkable "time niche" of their own. Although the 1950 Shops Act had imposed rigid controls on opening hours for conventional stores, corner shops that ignored the restrictions were in practice unlikely to be prosecuted, so they could open late and on Sundays with very little competition.
The new all-hours, all-goods little shops were seized upon eagerly by a society that was throwing off restrictions of all kinds, and sprang up all over the country. The process was speeded in the Seventies, with the arrival in Britain of Asians expelled from Uganda by the despot, Idi Amin.
Professor McEvoy said a number of social and economic factors were now working against the corner shop culture. One was the maturing of the generations of British-born and educated Asians, who in particular did not share the "myth of return" that had motivated their parents. For them there was no faraway community to return to with enough money to buy a big house, as their home community was here in Britain. The young, especially those of Indian origin, often achieved high educational success and had better job prospects than their parents. Professor McEvoy said: "The young people are saying, 'I'm not going to work 16 hours a day in a corner shop for peanuts and get all that abuse from people who are no better than me and in many cases not as good as me'. They reject the very hard work for very low returns inherent in a lot of small business activity." Economic developments were also working against the corner shops. Edge-of-town superstores had made convenience shopping much more general, while cut-price grocery multiples were moving into the inner cities, and even garages were starting to supply the demand for "topping-up" shopping – the take-away pint of milk or a sandwich.
But above all, the 1994 repeal of the 1950 Shops Act, which lifted bars on Sunday trading and late-night opening for any store that wanted it, was what did away with the corner shops' unique commercial advantage.
Professor McEvoy said: "As a result, the Asian corner shop is very much in decline. There has been a rejection of the immigrant work ethic. People are leaving corner shops, but young Asians are not replacing them. They are taking advantage of the new opportunities available to them, and taking professional jobs, or setting up restaurants."
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