Marks & Spencer: a step too far?

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It’s astonishing what can change, even in a tiny little place like St Andrews, when you turn your back on it for six weeks. Next time you walk down Market Street have a look to see if you can spot something that’s missing. Starbucks? No, it’s still there, churning out astronomically priced sugar syrup and caffeine concoctions, served with the usual ersatz smile and over-the-top “HI THERE!”

Tesco? Despite recent news of branch closures and Tesco’s trade empire beginning to crumble, the St Andrews shop is thriving.

Give up? Okay, I’ll point it out to you. Next door to Boots, the little health food shop has now closed. Perhaps the couple who ran it simply decided to retire, or perhaps they were pushed out of business by their nearby chain-store competitors. Who knows? Why it closed isn’t the point I wish to focus on, but rather on the fact that St Andrews loses a little bit of its character with the loss of each one of these small, independent businesses.

Boo-hoo, it’s a dog-eat-dog world, go away and cry into your organic quinoa, you middle class hippie, I hear you say! Before you brush off what I’m saying so quickly, think of one of the key factors that makes the economy of St Andrews run. SAAS payments and parental bail-outs, yes, but even more importantly, tourism.

A town is a much more attractive and interesting place for tourists to visit if the local businesses are unique and diverse. Soulless, predictable chain stores, which can be visited practically anywhere else and offer no different or more interesting a visit than the identical branch in the next town or city don’t entice tourists back.

“Have you seen that beautiful branch of Holland and Barrett in St Andrews? We have to visit the next time we’re back in Scotland!”, said no tourist, ever.

Something else has changed noticeably over the past few weeks.

Where not so long ago stood an abandoned red-brick abattoir and 19th century cottage is now a noisy building site where builders are rapidly constructing the steel skeleton of what is to be Marks & Spencer, a prospect which no doubt many of you will be enthralled by. Personally, I’m not quite so thrilled. M&S is a business which I view with a particularly strong degree of contempt. For you to understand this, I’m going to share a secret with you all, something which I don’t like to readily admit to due to the prejudiced judgments that tend to be made of people in this position.

Here it is. I grew up in Morningside! For those non-Scots amongst you, Morningside is a particularly affluent area of Edinburgh associated with snobbery and obscene wealth. Let me get this straight; I have been brought up as a socialist, taught to always help others who are in need when you’re in a position of having plenty. I am NOT posh. Therefore naturally, much as Morningside is my home, I grew up to be disgusted by a lot of what I saw around me in my area. Morningside is of course the perfect place for a branch of Marks & Spencer, as well as a Waitrose to thrive. I’ve witnessed the opening of both; on the weeks leading up to their openings, people awaited eagerly in anticipation of all the “wonderful” luxury goods that’d be available on their doorsteps. Then, over the following weeks, in passing the new shop, one could see hoards of middle aged, hawk-like women with beady eyes and thin red lips, clutching Radley purses while stalking around the shop going “Ohhh!” over displays of smoked salmon or whatever food was “in” at the time. They then proceed to walk out of the shop proudly, with their shopping bags acting as a status symbol, a means of showing the world how much they can afford, how much better they think they are than everyone else for shopping in Marks & Spencer, not paying the blindest bit of attention to the Big Issue seller as they passed.

Overall, quality of life does not improve with the opening of such businesses. People simply get used to the luxury they offer and begin to take them for granted. Shops like these serve only to reinforce existing class boundaries and that is why I object to them so strongly.

Here in St Andrews, the M&S is to be built directly opposite a food bank. The juxtaposition of abject poverty and of those who will be queuing up to spend ridiculous sums of money on Percy Pigs and prosecco is something which I hope will not go unnoticed.

 

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