Combined Strength Of Labour
And Capital Is Against Him
By FRANCIS HUNT
AV1NG considered the combines and the co-ops last week let us now turn to the " little man," or as he is usually termed, the
As we have seen 92 per cent. of the shops are owned by these private shopkeeper's who despite their numerical superiority are only transacting about half of the nation's retailing. Further analysis has shown that about two-thirds of these little retailers employ no paid labour at all, being " family " businesses operating from shops with dwelling house attached, or even from dwelling houses themselves. The latter type, classified usually as parlour shops, are more numerous in the South than in the North.
What is the position of these 691,000 little retailers in the national economy today?
Fighting For His Life
Well there is little doubt that generally speaking the small shopkeeper is having a terribly hard fight now to keep his head above water. Faced with fierce competition, the growth of cheap transport to and from the big shopping centres, the vicissitudes of population migration under townplanning and various clearance schemes, and in addition not infrequently sheer inexperience, the mortality rate amongst these little business men is exceedingly high.
In the years 1930-1932 there were amongst the shopkeepers 10,000 bankruptcies, involving nearly £15,000,000 in liabilities). These take no account of the thousands of small retailers who year by year give up the fight and just put up their shutters. Some idea of what is happening, however, may he gained from the instance, given in the House of Commons recently, of Coventry where in 1880 a survey of a quarter of a mile down the four main streets of the city revealed that at that date there were 323 independent retailers in that area. In 1933 the same streets only contained 26 such businesses, the remainder having been ousted by their bigger competitors.2 Labourites' and Capitalists' Defensive Alliance An attempt was made a short while back to bring in legislation to stop the continued encroachment of the combines and co-ops on the single proprietorships. A private members' Bill, under the title of the Shops (Retail Safeguards) Bill, was introduced in the House of Commons the object of which was to restrict the expansion of the multiple stores and encourage the little shopkeepers. it was signifioant that the Bill was defeated on its second reading after it had been Mtterflr aitadzed 1,44 Gi4ernment M.P.s who had interests in big business, and the the Labour opposition on behalf of the co-ops.
Thus it may be said that the " little man" has very few friends amongst the powers that be. and any hopes of help from Parliament are too remote to be worth worrying about. If he is to be saved it will be by his .own efforts. To do this he will have to shed a good deal of the dogged individualism that in the past has so characterised the class to which he be
longs, and be willing to organise himself and prepared to co-operate in a system of shop-planning which must sooner or later come as a natural corrolary of town-planning.
Unhampered Competition It is essential that a census of distribution be taken in the near future, and that this be followed by some scheme of shoplicensing. The present laissez faire method of development in the retailing world cannot go on. As things are now there is no attempt whatever made to relate the numbcr of shops set up in any district either to the local population, or to the number of similar shops already existing in the neighbourhood. We have on average one shop per forty persons in the British Isles, and the little retailers' average takings has been computed to be somewhere around £33 per week.3 Moreover no qualifications are needed to set up as a retailer, and this perhaps more than anything is responsible for the state of chaos into which distribution has got itself. Anyone with a few pounds, such as a Service gratuity, looking around for something to do, more often than not proceeds to start up as a small retailer under the mistaken impression that along that way lies the road to wealth and independence. It might have done fifty years ago, for it is important to remember that all our big multiple stores started as small shops, hut today it is the exception rather than the rule for a private business to expand, and conditions now exist, as one authority has succinctly put it, where
.. . . . it comes about that for up wards of ten miles in and out of London, north, south, east and west, every main thoroughfare is littered
with a jumble of shopping areas buding, in being, passe, derelict. The process of decomposition covers perhaps a thirty yeats' span, but the end is tolerably assured."
Newsagents Set an Example It is perfectly obvious to all but the most incorrigible adherents of the Manchester school that some sort of regulation
must be introduced. In this connection it is interesting to note that the National Federation of Newsagents has adopted a restriction scheme whereby new newsagents may not be set up except by permission of a joint committee representative of the Federation, the, Newspaper Proprietors' Association, and the wholesalers. This idea pervents overlapping and imbecilic competition.
Statistics show that although the aggregate annual sales of morning and evening newspapers have increased in value by 225 per cent., and that of Sunday newspapers by 475 per cent., between the years 1914 and 1932, the number of shops doing that business has only grown by 24per cent. during the same period, from 41,000 to 42,000, of which 80 per cent. incidentally are " one-man " businesses. In comparison, over the same span of years the number of tobacco licences issued has increased from 200,000 to 500,000, and confectionery retailers from an estimated 100,000 to 250,000.5
Licensing along the same lines would gradually tend to diminish redundance which process moreover could be hastened by buying out businesses where they were hopelessly overdone in the same manner as public houses are being closed down, the owners and 'licensees being compensated out of a. fund raised by. a general levy. What proportion of private traders should be allowed to the co-ops and combines is a thorny point that would require much careful consideration. In this connection, however, it must be remembered that the
ultimate decision will rest with the public, so long as we conduct business on lines of competitive enterprise, as opposed to monopolies like the Post Office.
All-Important Prices A lot rests with how far the little man can compete with the combine in prices. With uneconomic competition removed by licensing the next step the private retailers will have to take is to establish collective buying agencies to enable them to purchase in bulk like the multiples do. These exist already in the U.S.A. hut so far have not succeeded in recommending themselves to the English retailers. Only by lessening the costs in this or some similar way will the private trader be able to hold his own against the larger units.
If there is any retailer who would believe that there is no need to worry about re-organising something is now happening which, if disregarded, will soon sadly disillusion him. At long last there has been a revolt of employees in the distributive trades against the miserable wages and long hours generally obtaining therein. As a result of representations made by the trade unions, the co-ops and certain of the bigger stores who paid good wages but who resented competing against others who didn't, the Ministry of Labour has now set up machinery for examining conditions in the retail trades, with a view ultimately to regularising them.
While the Government has declared itself in favour of the employers concluding voluntary agreements with their employees, it has at the same time made it clear that should these agreements fail to materialise, or prove to be unsatisfactory, legal enforcement will be resorted to.
An idea of what wages are now being paid may be gained from the results of a referendum conducted amongst some thousands of adult male grocery assistants in all parts of England, Wales and Scotland. Only 7.5 per cent. of the assistants covered received over 55s. a week. 83 per cent. received 50s. or less, and 49.4 per cent. 40s. or less.6 Little Man's Only Chance Legislation of decent wage standards will heavily increase the commitments of the small shopkeepers, employing paid labour and if they are to survive they must place themselves in a position to offset the new expenditure by economies elsewhere. Any attempt LO pass on the increase to the customer will only succeed in driving him away.
Planning must came in the shopping world as it has to industry, and it will be to the best interests of the private trader not to oppose it but to be willing to cooperate. Only by so doing will he survive as a separate entity, and in a planned economy he would have, moreover, a security of livelihood which he certainly cannot claim to possess now.
I Shops and The State. P. C. Hoffman. • 2 Hansard : eitcd in debate on Shope (Retail Safegtiards) 3 Shops and The State. P. C. HofTman.
4 Retailing and the Public. Lawrence and Neal.
5 Shops and The State. P. C. Hoffman.
6 The Shop Assistant. July 10, 1937.