Wednesday, 1 June 2011

Enjoy this Community Responsibly

I'm going to leave aside issues of global concern for a moment, and instead spin a yarn of more parochial nature.  And like all good stories it will have a hero and a villain - and a damsel in distress.  But first, the setting.  We find ourselves in an area of south Bristol, known as Bedminster, and it's 1995.  This is one of the less classy, more run-down regions of 90's Bristol, and it has a name for being such by city dwellers.  It would seem that Bedminster's path was set, that the part it was to play in this city's drama was written.  But the dream of one man - and the saving of one building - would change its fate.  Bristol architect George Ferguson bought the site of an old tobacco factory to save if from the senseless demolition that fated its sisters.  Ferguson had had a dream for these buildings, to construct “a one million square foot thriving mixed use ‘urban village’". And although this was not to be, the Tobacco Factory project alone has become a model of economical and sustainable urban regeneration. But more than that - much more than that - it started something.  Like a drop of ink on blotting paper, from this single site, rejuvenation began to spread.  Now, in 2011, Bedminster's North Street is a thriving community of independent businesses, bustling with trendy cafes, bars and performance venues.  And the influence continues to spread. Street after street, houses are being painted and fixed up.  The high street to the west is still run down, but there is a sense that it is only a matter of time before the wave reaches these doors too.

But of most importance to this tale is the spark that started if off, and for that we must return to the beginning - to the Tobacco Factory, and its adoptive parent George Ferguson.  For he holds true to personal values which are paramount in our quest for a better place to live.  He is a champion of independent business and he has founded a campaign to 'Strike a Light for Independents!'  There are many reasons why independents are a vital part of a happier future world, but that is a story for another day.

Right now, the Tobacco Factory is our hero, and it is perhaps divine irony that the villain of the piece is juxtaposed such as to almost surround our idolised structure.  The not-so-independent (or socially aware) Aldi supermarket (and its car park) claims a huge swathe of this otherwise independently-driven community.  And with such a large foreign footprint on this land should come an equal measure of responsibility toward the locals, yet it is not a responsibility the store has chosen to accept.  Instead it chooses to spite the local subjects.  In all its wisdom this purveyor of fine foreign brands has installed in their car park a system which automatically doles out a fine of seventy English pounds to anyone who leaves their car there for more than two hours - regardless of how busy the car park is or even whether the store is open.  Indeed, myself and my sister both received fines through the post for leaving our cars there on a Sunday evening, to visit, of course, the Tobacco Factory next door.  Now, I understand that during the week, during business hours, Aldi may have an issue with workers in town occupying their spaces and denying their customers of available parking, and they of course reserve the right to install measures to prevent this.  But a socially responsible company would adapt their policy in two ways.  Firstly, they would issue a warning on first offence, because many people will not see the signs (me included).  Secondly, they would allow the spaces to be used by locals, without fear of punitive measures, outside of their own opening times.  Of course this will not happen, because Aldi have subcontracted the running of the system to an external company who will only earn money if they fine people.  So it is within the interest of the contractor for the policy to be as aggressive as allowed.

The simple rule of business that Aldi has overlooked here highlights one of the key differences between chains and independents.  For an independent business owner would never forget that the passer-by of today is the customer of tomorrow.  There is no distinction to make.  If I park my car and walk away today, it doesn't mean that I didn't shop with you yesterday or won't next week.  Your customers are not just the ones that are at your checkout right at this moment, they are the entire community.  You must treat them all with respect, else they will not return.

I have not returned.  The end.

Oh the damsel?  That would be me then, in this case.  Sorry to disappoint.  But it's also you (who may be far more attractive), and indeed all consumers.  And just to make the point briefly (before that story-for-another-day I mentioned), I am not anti big business, I'm anti socially irresponsible business - big or small.  I'm not asking anyone to boycott Aldi, that's my battle, but I urge people to use the power of social media to highlight any similar tales of woe (as a comment here if you like).  And also, checkout the Tobacco Factory website.

Til next time, P.

(PS: Aldi's brother owners became Germany's first and second richest men)