As the London riots rolled into their third day, businesses across the capital were shutting up shop. Mid afternoon and with the rush hour still to come, metal grates were being rolled down, alarms being set and doors bolted. Some shops on the high streets of Hackney, one of the worst affected boroughs, had even boarded up with hammer and nails. The capital was closed for business.
Retailers have borne the brunt of these riots. What may have started off as a protest against police brutality in Tottenham has been transformed into a hungry free-for-all, with looters trying on clothes for size in JD Sports, sifting through vitamin supplements in Superdrug and stopping at the till to pack stolen trainers into Nike branded bags at Foot Locker. There have even been reports of looters breaking into fast food restaurants and cooking themselves a burger. Any seeds of political protest planted in Tottenham on Saturday night have been eclipsed by opportunistic greed.
It’s not just the big brands that have come under fire though. “There seems to have been a shift from seeing multinationals as fair game to seeing all retailers as legitimate targets, florists, chemists and cornershops alike,” says Matthew Jaffa, spokesperson for the Federation of Small Businesses, which has around 7,000 members in the London area, most of them micro businesses of less than 10 people. On the first day of the riots, the Association of Convenience Stores announced that 93 independent newsagents had been targeted, and the British Retail Consortium warned that many severely looted small businesses would never open their doors again.
“People are attacking their own communities, their own amenities and endangering local jobs,” says Sarah Cordey, spokesperson for the British Retail Consortium, whose members represent 80 per cent of retail in the UK. “It’s extraordinary. We haven’t really seen this before, and it’s a very dangerous situation because you can’t get inside the mindset of people who have nothing to lose.”
The British high street has been in decline for decades, with planning policies favouring out of town retail parks and poor inner city regeneration dealing a death blow to independent community retail. There are still many small businesses that turn a profit of course, through hard graft and 90-hour weeks, but what the riots have shown is that a young inner city generation has emerged that no longer sees them as part of their community. For these looters, the till at Jones and Sons the local greengrocer is just as tempting as that at Tescos.
“The social problems caused by high street extinction run far deeper than the economic,” says Jaffa. “There are short-term solutions we need instantly if we’re going to stop still profitable businesses from going to the wall – such as banks guaranteeing good terms on credit and insurance companies keeping rates down. But we really need a long-term solution from the government. We’ve been calling for better apprenticeships and training schemes for years. Anything to help put businesses back at the heart of their communities.”