I gave up spending at big shops: here's how I got on

Anna Jordan from personal finance site loveMONEY tried spending solely with local and small businesses for a fortnight to find out how easy it really is.

Love Money
Last updated: 6 March 2018 - 2.23pm

Spending with small and local business is getting more difficult, with big brands taking over our high streets and web searches.

It leads to more money in fewer hands, giving us less choice. At a time when Tesco is merging with cash-and-carry giant Bookers, is the situation set to get worse?

Well, I’m getting tired of multinational corporations having a stranglehold on my spending and want to wean myself off my big business addiction.

I want my money to go to local people, not faceless companies.

So for my latest financial challenge, I wanted to learn more about local shopping and test whether I can spend exclusively with small businesses.

[Read more: I spent £28 at a lost luggage auction: here's what I got]

Why shop with small businesses?

First of all, I started off by trying to learn more about the importance of spending with small businesses in the age of convenience.

Jan Ashworth, president of the Women’s Institute in Woolsery (north Devon), promotes and publicises locally-produced food.

Her community has a range of motivations for championing local produce:

“Following a debate we had about food security and producing more of our own food, we decided we wanted to do more.

“That’s when we started work on our Local Food Resource Booklet. People could then make an informed choice to support local farmers and producers. 

“We update our booklet annually and distribute it online to other WIs as well as local campsites, tourist information centres, self-catering cottages, caravan and holiday parks, libraries and anywhere else where we think people are looking for this type of information.

"It has details of local farmers’ markets, farm shops and village stores."

Looking at it from a business perspective, spending smaller means that more money is kept within the community.

I also caught up with Mike Cherry, national chairman of the Federation of Small Businesses (FSB), to get his views on the importance of 'mom and pop stores'.

“Like all small businesses, small retailers are not only important to the economy but to a local community itself, often giving shoppers more choice, a personal service, or a ‘one-off’ product.

“FSB research shows that, for every £1 spent with a small or medium-size business, 63p is re-spent in the local area – compared to 40p in every £1 spent with a chain or larger business.

“Those that run small firms are constantly facing mounting pressures, which is particularly relevant in the retail sector where many have been hit with business rates increases and rising rents – so it’s vital shoppers get behind their local small businesses.”

Now that I'd learned more about its importance, I was ready to kickstart my challenge.

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The first few days

I thought I’d set a goal of only spending locally for two weeks, as a month seemed like too much of a stretch, which is saying something about how reliant I (we?) are on big businesses.

This means:

  • No chains (including charity shops);
  • Off-licences are OK, big brands within them are not.

I wasn’t sure if living in London would make things easier. Sure, there are a lot more shops and local communities (the area I live in has a sizeable Turkish and Indian population) but, at the same time, there are chains everywhere.

Starting out was tough as I didn’t have a sense of how restrictive this challenge would be. The first blow was struck when I had to turn down pizza with a friend on the day one.

But I was confident it would be manageable, not least because there’s a 24-hour Turkish supermarket over the road from my house.

There are also some independents and pop-ups in the tube station next to work so it’s possible to get by.

But trying to get a takeaway coffee after 7pm in Surbiton, south London was impossible. It’s a smaller residential area, but trawling up and down the high street, the only non-chains I could see were takeaways, convenience stores and a couple of nail salons.

It’s not just food and drink either: I soon realised that my regular swimming pool is part of a leisure centre chain, so I went to my local pool instead.

The good news is that it’s quieter, cheaper (£4.70 compared to £5) and has real showers with taps!

The cost of inconvenience

Fuss-free showering aside, some nuisances helped me to understand why people may not spend locally.

One of the biggest inconveniences I found with corner shops and local supermarkets was that they don’t give you a receipt – hugely impractical for anything more than a few items.

It’s not realistic for shoppers to note down prices to make sure they don’t get ripped off.

Then again, convenience stores aren’t intended for larger spends. I expected receipts from the small supermarkets though.

A pack of noodles (six baskets), a 400g can of kidney beans, a tub of houmous, a ring of fresh bread, some mushrooms, six medium eggs and a red pepper came to £7.50 at the Turkish shop I mentioned earlier.

When I handed over the cash I thought: “More expensive than Lidl, cheaper than Sainsbury’s?”

To find out, I did a (rough) fact check.

 

Lidl 

Sainsbury’s

Noodles (six baskets)

59p

£1.75

Kidney beans (400g)

30p

55p

Houmous (430g)

£1.50

£2.70

Bread

59p

£1

Mushrooms (100g)

36p

50p

Six medium eggs

79p

£1.50

Red pepper

45p

55p

 

£4.58

£8.55

[Read more: top deals from the supermarkets this week]

Convenience was one of the things I missed the most over the fortnight. Shopping locally limited me to smaller spends, meaning I could only really buy a few things at a time.

Though shopping habits are moving towards more frequent spends at local supermarket branches, I still do bigger weekly shops and batch cooks, so I struggled.

Charming, but expensive

This challenge also gave me a reason to travel up to Alexandra Palace market which I’ve been meaning to do for ages. It was vibrant, full of chatty vendors and shoppers.

Of course, the food was unbelievably tasty and it was wonderful talking to the sellers – their enthusiasm is so inspiring. They clearly love what they do.

The major downside was the price. Two blocks of cheese, an admittedly-generous slice of sparkly treacle tart, a 450g steak and ale pie, a cup of hot apple and ginger, three tomatoes and some mushrooms came to an astonishing £18.95.  

Delicious? Yes. Affordable? No.

The cellist playing nearby was a nice touch, but not for that kind of premium!

The positives

Of course, this wouldn’t be worth doing if I didn’t think some good would come out of it.

It took me to places I’d never been before, like an Indian market which I blindly go past every day.

I also had to look harder to seek out stuff that I could buy, leading to some more unusual purchases, particularly when it came to food.

As for the personal finance side of things, I found that I was more conscious of my spending.

Because I was limited to where I could go, I had to really think about my purchases, so I spent less on unnecessary convenience buys and only shelled out cash when I needed to.

Balance

Despite the upsides, I legged it to Lidl two days after the challenge finished and did an enormous grocery shop. It was such a relief.

Perhaps the answer is to work more local spending into my budget rather than spending at either chains or independents.

Jan agrees:

“Personally, I would just like people to think more about what they buy and if they can change some of their shopping habits to support local farmers and producers.

"Maybe they could select some items that they know they can get locally, rather than a drastic change which I know would be impracticable.”

It can just be a case of scouting new haunts and finding out what they offer:

“Sometimes people just don't know!  They are used to supermarket shopping and don't look for alternatives,” says Jan.

“Our idea is to show that there is a choice and often it can be delivered. We understand and appreciate the role of the supermarket, but we want people to do a combination of shopping that involves looking for fresh ingredients produced locally.

“It is also perceived that farm shops, for example, are more expensive – but this is not always the case. I know that my fillet steak from my farm shop, from its own farm, is cheaper per kilo than many supermarkets.”

I had mixed experiences with my local spending challenge. But as with finding the best deals, maybe I should take a bit more time to seek out the right local stores, and the perks will follow.

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