Coronavirus is making London’s corner shops vitally important again

Image: Reuters/Jorge Silva
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Images from London show supermarket shelves stripped of food, while stories circulate about shoppers stockpiling toilet paper. But in Waltham Forest, an outer London borough with over 270,000 inhabitants, most shelves are full.

Why? Because so far, large-scale panic-buying seems to be restricted to supermarkets, where people expect to be able to stock up in bulk. Most shops in Waltham Forest are independent grocery stores that tend to open very long hours and stock only essentials. (Because they’re often on the corner of a local street, they’re called corner shops.) They often don’t offer choice, nor do they try to beat supermarkets or online retailers on price. They are tiny, but their unofficial network is huge. What they do offer is localism and consistency, on the kind of scale that might become absolutely crucial in the coming months.

At 4pm on Monday, the International Supermarket in St James Street, Waltham Forest, was packed: Lines of people stretched from the two open tills, while checkout workers joked with each other about wearing gloves (they were) and masks (they weren’t, yet.) This is bigger than most corner shops: it has a large fresh produce section, a small butcher and bakery, and aisles of rice, olives, soft drinks, and household products.

Only the flour section was evidently depleted, but manager Mustafa Demir said he’d seen panic-buying of four key products: Flour, pasta, sugar, and salt. Of all the different ethnic minorities in the area which the supermarket—Demir said they have 20 different suppliers for the different groups—those ingredients are fairly common to every cuisine. (Everyone now eats pasta, he said.)

His suppliers, a mixture of cash-and-carry and other wholesalers, are running out of supplies and hiking prices, Demir said, but he won’t pass those on to the customers who rely on his shop. “We have to support the locals. That’s why our locals are supporting us…If we were to change the prices we [would] regard it as like daylight robbery,” he added. The increase in volume—Demir said he’s 2-3 times busier since the middle of last week—is helping to make up for some of that loss on profit margin.

Not all shop owners are so ethical. In Manor House, a couple of miles to the west of Waltham Forest, one Quartz journalist saw hand sanitiser kept behind the counter and sold for £7 ($8.50) a bottle, while another corner shop sold packs of toilet paper for £7.99 ($9.80). Of course, these hikes might reflect the prices shopkeepers are having to pay to get hold of the items.

From shop floor to frontline

Italy and other countries have taken the step of closing most businesses. Food shops are some of the only places that remain open. The UK has so far kept any quarantine measures extremely light compared to many European countries. But if most businesses were to shut, food shop workers would become some of the most-exposed people in the country. Demir said that in that instance, he will let his 25 staff decide. If they’re happy to volunteer for shifts, he’ll open; if not, he’ll have to close.

On Sunday (March 15), Mike Coupe, CEO of Sainsbury’s, one of the UK’s largest supermarket chains, wrote to customers asking them to refrain from panic-buying. “I wanted to personally reassure you that we have more food and other essential items coming to us from manufacturers and into our warehouses and distribution centres. If we all shop just for the food that we and our families need, there will be enough for everyone,” he wrote.

The system of very large supermarkets, which have replaced small shops in many people’s buying habits over the last decades, certainly isn’t holding up brilliantly. Much of the buying is happening online. Via Sainsbury’s delivery arm—the reason Coupe has customer email addresses in the first place—it’s usually possible to get next-day delivery for a minimal cost, or sometimes for free. Right now, there are no delivery slots available for the next three weeks, which is as far ahead as customers can book. Ocado, an online-only retailer, on Saturday began placing new customers in a queue, rather than processing their orders, due to high demand. The website for Waitrose, a high-end grocery retailer, also crashed at the weekend.

But plenty is also happening in-store. Panic-buying is self-perpetuating, because seeing empty shelves (or pictures of them online, or blocked sites) spurs a very animal fear that we won’t have enough to eat—even though, aside from the actions of other shoppers, there have been no warnings of food shortages.

And yet, corner shops remain well-stocked with almost everything. (Exceptions are paracetamol and hand sanitiser, which small shops often stock only minimally or not at all.) They are also, unlike most large supermarkets, within easy reach of the elderly, single parents, people without a car, and others who might struggle to get to big stores. For many, they are set to become a lifeline.

Waves of post-second world war immigration to the UK, much of it from its former colonies, led to large, distinct ethnic populations settling in major cities like London. These include Indian, Pakistani, and Bangladeshi families which often opened small shops, in part to combat unemployment. Turkish immigrants in the 1970s and 1980s also set up corner shops, while more recently, many more Polish stores have sprung up since Poland joined the EU. Over the last two decades there’s been a worry that the small shops are declining, but they still form part of the fabric of most London boroughs.

Erol Koc runs a very small corner shop, Roj Supermarket, also in Waltham Forest, that employs four people on a rota to staff the single till. Koc said he’s struggling to keep his shop stocked, as the cash-and-carries he buys from are running out of in-demand products like pasta and toilet paper. He raises his hands, encased in latex gloves: In 16 years of shop work it’s the first time he’s worn gloves, he says, and they make him feel nervous.

Yesterday, in a ramp-up of the low-impact measures they’ve introduced thus far, the UK government advised everyone over 70 as well as other at risk groups to self-isolate as much as possible. Koc says that when an elderly customer came in he asked her age. She was over 70. “I said, you’re not allowed to come out. She said how, where am I going to get the food?” Koc says, adding that he delivers food to his grandparents and leaves without touching them.

Will they stay open if the crisis worsens and other businesses are closed down? Koc says that he’d like to close, even go back to Turkey where in his opinion the government is responding better to the crisis. (Turkey has had fewer that 50 coronavirus cases so far and no deaths, but has already closed social venues and brought in other social distancing measures.) But the likelihood is that his shop will be, come the peak of the crisis, one of the only businesses in the area that’s open.