Matt McCarten on politics

Matt McCarten is a Herald on Sunday political columnist

Matt McCarten: The human cost in our capitalist competition

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Small towns and communities are losing to The Warehouse. Photo / Dexter Murray
Small towns and communities are losing to The Warehouse. Photo / Dexter Murray

This week my favourite retailer vanished.

I was confused when I couldn't find his shop doorway and had to pace backwards and forwards to try to find the signage. It took a few seconds to dawn on me that part of my history had been replaced by a papered-over front window.

I'd known my retailer and his family for almost three decades.

I used to be a daily customer and even after I moved out of the area I managed to drop in regularly.

My guy never failed to greet me and other customers by our first names. He was always relentlessly positive and you never left his store without feeling your spirit had lifted. He knew all his products and if he didn't have something, he'd offer to order it.

A few years ago one of those box retail chain stores opened down the street. Initially, little changed but in recent times I noticed gaps in his shelves.

The last time I saw him his cheerfulness was strained and his smile fixed.

On the brink of tears he told me he couldn't compete with the chain store and his mounting debts had caught up with him. I hoped he'd be able to continue to eke out a living.

We know abstractly that in our capitalist economic system it's the natural order of things that big corporations eat smaller businesses to grow bigger still.

When we see the human cost it's difficult to be so philosophical.

And now he is gone.

It was cruel irony on Friday that I read a glowing article in the Business Herald on the hundreds of jobs being created in a new Warehouse and a couple of supermarkets in Silverdale on Auckland's North Shore.

I could feel the pride of new employees who were so enthusiastic and grateful for a chance to earn a living with a big employer. It may not be full time and the workers may have to give up their evenings and weekends, but it's the price for having the dignity of work.

I wasn't sure if the writer was being sarcastic when he mentioned a 17-year-old young woman was "happily" doing a 50km round trip each day to get to work. Given it would cost her more than $100 a week from her after-tax minimum wage, she's certainly a trooper.

What wasn't said, of course, was that opponents of these giant national retailers claim that for every job they create, one-and-a-half existing jobs are lost as they squeeze smaller retailers out of business and use their dominance to reduce the margins of their suppliers, who also shed staff to stay operating.

Just about every small town has lost its battle with The Warehouse. It's hard to resist the lure of cheaper prices of goods from countries such as China.

Trading our local small community business owners who know us with faceless staff in the same corporate uniforms, trained to say and act in the exact same way, is one thing.

But now it seems these corporates are moving to the next level of reducing costs and maximising profit.

Have you noticed how The Warehouse and supermarkets now expect us to check out and pack our own goods? If we insist on a checkout operator, do you notice the fewer stations and longer waits? Eventually, the only human we'll see is a security guard making sure we don't pinch anything.

After using a convenient free carpark, I sat in the comfort of my air-conditioned mall where it never rains or is windy, musing over the fate of my former shopkeeper.

For good reason we should blame faceless corporations and the Stephen Tindalls of this world for destroying our way of life.

But we bear some of the responsibility by accepting the demise of our local communities, where everyone knows our names.

We have traded it for the impersonal but convenient shopping malls and sheds where no one even cares to ask.

Welcome to the future.


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- Herald on Sunday

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