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February 4, 2013

Supermarkets vs Bristol’s super-independents


Last week Bristol City Council voted to approve Sainsbury’s application to build a new supermarket on the site of the current Memorial Stadium in Horfield, home to Bristol Rovers Football Club.

Fears are high that the development will spell the death knell for the famed and much loved independence of Bristol’s Gloucester Road, but we’re not so sure – if ever there was a high street capable of taking on the supermarket challenge it’s got to be Gloucester Road.

Voices of opposition

The council’s decision comes after months of sustained campaigning from Gloucester Road’s independent retailers and their supporters. TRASHorfield is the organising traders and residents campaign group and have been working tirelessly to gather a petition of over 6,500 signatures opposing the development.

Citing figures from an independent retail assessment commissioned by the council, they point out that retailers are set to be hit by as much as a 19% fall in revenues following the opening of the store – enough to close some shops.

More jobs & local trade: the benefits of going independent

Anyone who has ever taken even the most cursory wander down Gloucester Road will know that this is no ordinary street.

Dubbed ‘the UK’s most independent high street’, Bristol’s Gloucester Road has a long and celebrated heritage of independent shops. But as well as the sheer loveliness of having such incredible choice and variety on your doorstep, the fiercely independent Gloucester Road offers local people many more hidden benefits in the form of jobs and local trade.

According to figures from a 2005 Friends of the Earth report, independent grocers employ one person for every £42,000 of turnover. Since Asda don’t publish their accounts separately from their goliath US parent company Wal-Mart we can’t give you an overall figure for the UK supermarket sector, but we can point out that for Tesco, the UK’s biggest grocer, one employee accounts for a massive £96,000 of turnover – that’s over double.

Winner takes all

Though of course it’s all swings and roundabouts; less people per pound of turnover means a more efficient system and potentially cheaper products, but it also means less jobs for local people.

As followers of the Bristol Pound will know, chains and large supermarkets are also notoriously bad at returning money to the local economy. The same report notes that as much as 95% of supermarket takings are siphoned off and consolidated in distant corporate headquarters. Local food schemes by comparison return on average 50% of turnover to the local economy, whether through paying wages or buying local goods and services.

Finding a way to co-exist

The question is, can Gloucester Road find a way to co-exist with the new Sainsbury’s development? Tension is high every time another chain dips its toes into the Gloucester Road waters; Costa Coffee, Tesco, a smaller Sainsbury’s, Maplin and Carphone Warehouse are all among the chains which have braved the unfamiliar local resistance to their presence.

So far the two worlds seem to be finding a way to live together, but it’s not all plain sailing. Harvest is a worker owned cooperative grocery store on Gloucester Road, directly opposite an existing Sainsbury’s Local store. One of their workers and members, Zoe, tells us that when the Sainsbury’s first opened two years ago Harvest did suffer a fall in revenues on everyday items. “Milk, eggs and bread all got hit” she says “but we stock so many speciality products and have a lot of loyal customers who would never shop across the street!”

By contrast Luke, who is the manager of the Radford Mill Farm Shop on Montpelier’s popular Picton Street, just off Gloucester Road and very near the controversial Tesco Metro, tells us that they haven’t really been affected financially by the convenience store. He says of the Horfield development: “while I may have personal reasons for opposing the opening of yet another huge supermarket, I’m not worried from a business point of view”.
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The other side of the debate

Of course it’s important to remember that for all the reasons to oppose the new store, due to open by the end of 2015, there are also inevitably things which go in its favour. As well as the 6,500 people who signed a petition against the development, 60% of the people Sainsbury’s surveyed for its consultation were actually in favour of the development.

Following their consultation Sainsbury’s have made an effort to minimise the new superstore’s environmental and social impact, including improved low-carbon transport access; the planned construction of a new community centre and low-cost social housing; as well as renewable energy installations and recycling measures.

Wider community investment

The Council is set to benefit from an investment levy worth over £1 million which can be spent on investment projects across the city; with the proposal also opening the way for the development of much needed new sporting facilities and a new football stadium at the University of West England.

Amongst other payments and penalties Sainsbury’s will be subject to in the development of this site, they will also have to pay over £200,000 towards the cost of a full-time town centre manager, to partially offset their expected impact on Gloucester Road traders.

The end game

When summing up his reasons for voting in favour of the development, Labour councillor Fabian Breckels said that although he wasn’t 100% happy with the proposal, “you do have to see the bigger picture”. Arguably, the overall health of the local economy is the bigger picture; but unless and until such a time when towns and cities become totally self-financing, local council’s will always have to balance the interests of local traders with the many benefits of encouraging outside investment.

There can be no doubt that the new Sainsbury’s will be a far bigger challenge than anything Gloucester Road has had to face to date. But truly thriving local economies tend to be the ones which have had a few knocks and come back fighting; the key is how imaginatively they respond.

We don’t know about you but we’ve got no doubts about Gloucester Road’s ability to be imaginative, or Bristol’s for that matter – since the launch of the Bristol Pound last year, Bristol’s place as a national hub for independent retailers has only been strengthened. What else can we do?

For more information on the development see and For the full video transcript of the Council’s decision see


1 Comment

  1. Tom Crane says:

    Great article. The debate will continue because there really are positives in both sides of the argument. Business is all about new challenges however so it’s up to the local traders of Gloucester Road to make sure what they can offer is better for the customer, then hopefully people will vote with their feet!