Several times a week, I spot delivery vans purring on neighbours’ doorsteps while they unload bags of shopping. Quite often, I spot a loaf or two poking out from the stripey Tesco bags or the Ocado box: a sliced sandwich loaf, perhaps; a ciabbata; maybe a Hovis. And several times a week, I think to myself: the high street really is doomed, if even my neighbours cannot be bothered to walk 200 yards to shop locally at Judges Bakery, where we’ve struggled (but managed, in most cases) to keep prices comparable with (non-organic) supermarket prices, and where our breads not to mention cakes, pastries, biscuits and muesli have scooped many awards.
The internet can be a wonderful thing, offering convenience in ever-busier lives. But there’s a real risk that we’ll end up like so many villages in France, if bread-lovers don’t realise the impact of their actions when they click-to-buy their loaves. Many French villages are now ghost towns: where once there was a thriving boulangerie, not to mention a butcher and greengrocer, many villages and small towns have nowhere to buy food at all. The reason: when out-of-town Carrefour supermarkets opened, the residents of those villages flocked to shop there. Did they realise that by choosing to do that, their local retailers would fail and the heart would be ripped out of those villages? Probably not, but there’s no turning back, now.
I suspect there are many small bakeries that could just about survive if they only had to compete with supermarkets, with their free parking. But when bread can be delivered to your door, convenience can trump taste, quality and even loyalty. In the baking business, we all face the ever-rising costs of ingredients, labour and compliance with red tape. But while I completely sympathise with mothers and food-lovers who live nowhere near a local bakery and so buy online, a real mental shift is needed, so that those shoppers fortunate enough to have a bakery nearby truly understand the long-term impact that buying their bread online will have on their community.
According to a recent report from the Local Data Company, the proportion of shops sitting empty is now 14.5%, up from 12% a year ago. Some areas are affected even more seriously: in Margate, for instance, 37.4% of shops stand empty and it’s a reasonable assumption that the national figures include some bakeries. And there’s no question, in my mind, that some of the blame for that can be laid at the feet of online delivery services, with their lack of queues and timed delivery slots.
Ironically, the way for local bakeries to fight back, in a small way, is through offering bread online, just as we have started to do at Judges. But it still seems nuts for us to be mailing bread half-way across the country, when some of my neighbours are buying theirs from a multiple retailer whose bakery facility is probably also half a country away, delivered by a supermarket van.
For the sake of the planet and our communities let’s hope that my neighbours (and yours) wake up and smell the croissants, before it’s too late.