Monday, 7 July 2014

Tottenham High Road: Traders' big brains

To run a small, precarious business on a London high street you have to be bright. Without exception everyone I have spoken to this week and last has come across as quick witted, and some exceedingly erudite. 

That this comes as a surprise to me says much more about me than about anyone in Tottenham, but try and cut me some slack... Before beginning this particular piece of research the extent of my interaction with the owners of small independent businesses on high streets was pretty much limited to buying food and everyday products in my locality of East London. In this I think I have had a similar experience to the vast majority of users of local high streets: I would bring milk, or lemons or batteries whatever, to the counter. The person at the till would take my money and if any words were spoken (frequently these transactions are carried out in complete silence) it would be an exchange about whether I wanted a bag, and in an extremely sociable example, the state of the weather (usually reserved for the fifth or sixth visit to the shop). 

Now, I'm engaging people about their business, and a little bit of their personal life (how many languages they speak, and where they live) and I realise two things. First, that the person behind the counter more often than not actually owns the entire business, organising everything from ordering stock to customer retention and loyalty strategies. They eat, sleep and work their shop, often with their immediate and extended family working alongside them. Second, to succeed in this extremely complex and many-faceted endeavour, you have to have a good bit between the ears, both knowledge and also practical wisdom, to nurture relationships, understand the economics, tax, rates and everything else. 

One way in which business owners demonstrate their skill and know-how is in their choice and arrangement of products, constantly rearranging the contents of their shop in a complex dance of sell by dates, customer preferences and psychology. Unlike the big players, who have teams of environmental psychologists on hand to help keep them in profit, for small traders this is a constant experiment of trial and error.

In addition, business-owners use a number of languages, appropriating their choice of language to accommodate different situations. Tottenham is a patchwork of immigrant groups, and traders speak in a huge range of tongues, both as native speakers and in the name of getting and retaining business. One man told me that while he is fluent in English and Swahili, he can "do business" in about ten more languages, as around half his customers do not speak English. He told me that he assesses the language in which he should greet a customer as they walk through the door, a skill which must involve combined and complex interpretation of the cultural clues presented by the person. 

It is the ability of the high road to enable people to start a business with very small initial investment (and to grow the business by increments, from market stall to shared premises, to a leased, individually-owned shop) which also makes it a true meritocracy. Negotiating the complex and ever-changing cultural and economic landscape requires a substantial amount between the ears. Traders who do not have all the skills, or the quick-wittedness to acquire the skills fast, are not running shops on the high street, and I am unlikely to meet any of them in this survey. 

For some more detailed research about languages spoken on London's high streets, visit the LSE's Ordinary Streets project, led by Dr. Suzi Hall

For a fascinating photographic record and discussion of the activities of London's small, local shopkeepers, visit Mia Hunt's excellent blog: Keeping Shop, Keeping Place

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