There is little doubt that the shopping experience we enjoy today has changed almost beyond recognition from the days of our forebears, when life was slower, respect for your fellow man and woman was a top priority, and the local shopkeeper stocked virtually everything you might need.
Some of the best pictures that have featured in the Bugle over the years show proud shopkeepers in front of their business premises, with family members and their shop assistants by their side, and occasionally a family pet.
Jill Guest of ‘Cradley Then and Now’ has kindly provided us with some terrific photographs, taken in the early years of the 20th century, of shops in the Colley Gate area of Cradley. There had always been some doubt about the exact location of the picture that included the two shops alongside each other, but further research revealed that the picture of the single shop (details of which were already known) was the same premises as the shop on the right-hand side of the two adjoining shops. The gentleman with the flamboyant beard is Henry Bird, who kept the Colley Gate shop with his wife, who is the older woman in the picture. The young girl at the front is Ethel Allsop aged 14 or 15, and the photo was taken in the late 1920s. There are no details regarding the people in the first picture, which was probably taken about twenty years before, but that's of no real consequence because, as a delightful scene from the Black Country of old, it epitomises the shops and shopkeepers of yore and the retail experience our forebears would have had.
The retail trade in all its guises is a fast moving fluid industry that changes on a regular basis to suit customer demand and owners’ profit margins, often introducing new and innovative ideas that can leave people a little bemused at first.
Once there was the corner shop, then the specialised high street store with more than one floor, then the supermarket that catered for almost every need. Then came the out of town retail park with dozens of shops and an undercover indoor mall which kept shoppers warm, dry and immune from inclement weather conditions.
And finally the age of the computer has given us home shopping, a service now offered by most of the major supermarket retailers and online traders, so we don't have to leave the comfort of our living room if we don't want to. Life is beginning to resemble one of those sci-fi movies from the ‘50s and ‘60s, when everything could be achieved at the press of a button.
The giant supermarkets that most of us patronise today, and the new retail innovations that utilise the internet (not forgetting the wounds inflicted by the current economic recession), have combined to downgrade our high streets from a place of hustle and bustle to, in the worst cases, a ghost town. There are now an increasing number of abandoned and boarded up shops, and no doubt every generation has had to face up to the tough times and the need to implement new ideas.
It is therefore interesting to look back and discover a concept that was being proposed for the Black Country over half a century ago that was pointing the way to the future of shopping in the year 2000; an initiative that was called the High Market Project.
Details of the idea were published in the Chance Brothers magazine ‘Chance Comments' in July-August 1956, and every reader would most likely have needed to employ a lot of imagination to get their heads around it at the time.
(Follow the rest of this story in Bugle 1050).