Boots go to Israel. The world gets more boring

By Simon Round, May 29, 2008

So Boots the chemist is on its way to Israel. I am sure there will be plenty of dancing in the streets of Tel Aviv at the news that Boots No 7 cream (with its anti-ageing properties) will now be available there.

However, the opening of any famous chain in my own local high street fills me with dread, these days. Why? Mainly because shopping in any part of the country has become a monotonous experience. These days every high street is the same as every other high street. In my own North London neighbourhood there is a Boots, a W H Smith, Woolworths, Starbucks and M&S. Up the road there is a branch of Sainsbury’s.

If I decide to make the shortish trip to Muswell Hill just for a change, I am able to walk into a Boots , WH Smith, Woolworths, Starbucks, M&S and Sainsbury’s. Admittedly the shop-fronts are a little more elegant and you get a better class of shopper there, but it’s hardly worth the parking ticket.

I love those small independent shops with a slightly idiosyncratic feel. We used to have a bookshop in Palmers Green where I live. It was a great place to browse and the staff were always friendly. It closed down of course, I think because they never stocked any books that people wanted to buy. However, it was still a great local asset for book browsers. The same goes for all the heroic independent coffee shops which opened in this frontier territory of North London before the big chains were brave enough to take a chance on us. Once they were seen to be doing good business, Starbucks moved in a big way with their flashy muffins and slickly marketed, if slightly soapy-tasting, cappuccinos, and now the Greek bloke on the corner who does a tasty panini and a very nice cup of coffee is looking a very worried man.

At least there are certain outlets which remain unaffected. For example, in Golders Green, certain restaurants, like Blooms, are not providing anything that Pret a Manger can compete with. I’m looking forward to the day Pret offers lifestyle versions of latkes and tsimmes (perhaps with a little coriander dip on the side). But I don’t see it happening any day soon.

In fact, to be an independent these days, it seems to me that you either need to sell everything for a pound, stay open until three in the morning or have a Unique Selling Point. For example, if you are the only stockist of Dutch mountain cheese, giraffe’s yoghurt and yak’s milk north of the Thames, you might just have a chance. Or then again perhaps not, because although it is important to offer something the chains do not stock, it is also an advantage that these products be things that people may want to try. I’m not even sure if yak’s milk is kosher (not that I plan to lose any sleep over it).

Anyway, I don’t want to be a wet blanket (or perhaps a damp Boots flannel), but I’m not sure that going to Israel would be so much fun if all the shops were identical to all the shops here.

In Palmers Green, due to the presence of a large Cypriot community, we already have lots of Mediterranean fruit and veg and on a warm day you could almost imagine you were in Israel. So I think I’m going to stay put, save my air fare and wait for a heatwave. At least it’s comforting to know that when the hot weather arrives, I will have access to Boots’ range of sun creams and lotions.

Last updated: 3:32pm, September 23 2009