Home Page Why we could soon be shelling out our £'s and p's in a pod 10/10/14

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Hart of the Matter

There was a time when a pod was simply something that you shelled peas from. Nowadays it can be anything – a small shuttle from a spacecraft, a more solid version of a tent, a temporary school classroom or, as has come into common usage in Haverhill recently, a minishop.


In case you haven’t come across them before, pods, in a retail context, are little versions of shops, what might in historical times have been termed a booth, although nowadays that word has come to be linked inextricably with funfairs or American bars.


There’s nothing new about the demand for little shops, particularly in towns or cities where floor space is at a premium. Little ‘niche market’ shops are supposed to be high on the list of desirable things for a certain type of middle income shopper.


However, it has only fairly recently become the vogue for minishop versions of national chains to appear in supermarket car parks, or even inside the giant store. Nothing surprising about that, I suppose, in a world where almost anything can be inside almost anything else, in retail terms.


We are no longer surprised to find that the post office is in WH Smiths, or that the bank is in the chemists. The cost of a High Street presence, in terms of overheads, has become quite prohibitive, particularly now almost anything can be done on line.


You cannot, though, get a key cut on line, or get your shoes mended on line, so there is still a need for people like Timpsons to have an actual premises that one can go into in the old-fashioned way.


That won’t change, even if our high streets become given over entirely to amusement arcades, cafes and fast food outlets, as many now imagine.


But the supermarkets are never slow off the mark, and they can see the benefit of the surviving premises being next to, or inside, them, rather than on the high street.


Tesco have tried it and come up against a bit of local opposition, although the idea received a lot of support in other quarters, as bringing employment to the town and new facilities for shoppers.


Now Sainsbury’s are having a go. It’s nothing very new in some ways because various providers have been situated inside the store in the past, such as Sketchleys. The latest idea would see Timpson’s pod in the car park, having presumably decided the Tesco plan will not get off the ground.


I was particularly amused by the efforts of Sainsbury’s agents to justify this in terms of how it will not affect the high street. As far as I am aware, Sainsbury’s don’t have any sort of agreement in force about what can or cannot be sold in their store, having been on their out-of-town site for over 20 years, although it may be that some items were reserved with the idea that a big retail park would spring up around it. If so, heigh-ho.


Tesco, of course, do – something to do with tiny percentages of floor space which can be given over to things like white goods etc. I seem to remember everyone was very pleased to get this agreement at the time, even the MP.


But time does not stand still, and supermarkets are notorious for their efforts at incremental erosion of such things, especially now with both Tesco and Sainsbury’s so heavily under the cosh from stores like Aldi.


But Sainsbury’s planning application seems to imagine that Timpson’s would retain both the pod and their Queen Street shop. I’m sure they would to begin with, but I wonder how one might affect the other in the long-term.


If you know you can get these services up at Sainsbury’s, where parking is free, close and generally available, you are quite likely to save the job up until you are up there doing your shopping.


That would leave the town centre shop, a bigger premises, just serving those who shop on foot because they live close enough, or don’t drive. That doesn’t sound too viable to me.


Choice is all very well if there are lots of people and they are going to different things. It doesn’t stand up when there is a limited catchment who are generally likely to shop in a similar manner. As so often, a handful of new jobs in one place would quite likely lead to loss of more in another if these pods take off in quantity.


In some ways the Tesco idea was better, because it did cater for those who don’t drive. There is already a Halfords up near Sainsbury’s so one in Tesco’s car park might have been a useful addition, and less likely to affect its sibling. Of course, if you don’t drive, how often do you need Halfords?


It’s all very well saying pods would not be a destination in themselves, but the problem is whether they would affect places which currently are destinations.


As a shopper one might well be in favour of any new business, of whatever kind, in the town. But when you see what has happened in recent years, not only in Haverhill, but up and down the country, it becomes irresponsible to welcome all-comers in that rather desperate fashion. Untramelled market forces are unforgiving and take no regard of small towns.


How has the town benefited from the closure of Morley’s or New Look? The top of residents’ list in a survey of what they thought was missing in Haverhill’s retail offer, was fashion and sportswear shops.


The Kent Business School’s Destination Haverhill report hit at least one nail on the head when it said: "It is difficult to limit the glut of betting shops, charity shops, hair and beauty salons and take-away food shops which are currently taking up a disproportionate amount of space on the high street compared with shoppers’ needs.”


We may soon be adding pods in car parks to that list.

David Hart
David Hart revives his personal take on the week in Haverhill, covering everything from major town developments to what we do with our rubbish.
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