I ndependent retail chain Booths champions local sourcing and community retailing. But that hasn't prevented it from incurring the wrath of locals when trying to expand. Last week we reported on how the upmarket northern chain was facing its second battle with local traders in less than a year over a proposed new store.
Last year, plans for a 13,000 sq ft store in Barrowford, Lancashire, were rejected following protests from residents who feared it would result in more traffic and parking problems. Booths was forced to submit new plans for a smaller 10,000 sq ft store and increased the number of parking spaces from 85 to 98 - a decision is pending. A recent plan to build a 12,500 sq ft supermarket on the site of a car dealership in the South Lakeland resort of Grange-over-Sands in Cumbria has also hit problems.
The message is that it is no longer just the multiples that face opposition when trying to open new stores in small towns and villages. Independent retailers once looked upon favourably by planners are now being tarred with the same brush as their bigger cousins.
Booths is one of many independents that has struggled to get planning consent recently. Jonathan James, MD of Top 50 retailer James Graven & Sons, met with trouble over proposals to build a 3,000 sq ft petrol station and shop at a site in East Anglia.
There was an immediate backlash from householders, according to James, who was told by the local planning authority that despite the store being a good local business and proactive in the community, planners would have turned down the same application from a multiple and so could not be seen to be practising double standards. "I feel I was the victim of the bad feeling supermarkets have created," James says.
And unlike the major supermarkets, independents do not have large legal teams that can negotiate and manoeuvre their way around protests and opposition, according to Paul Delves, MD of Harry Tuffins.
Delves is struggling to get permission to extend the opening hours of one of his forecourt stores just outside Ludlow. "We are struggling with local opposition," he explains. "We want to open from 6am to 11pm. At the moment is it 7am to 9pm. The planning officers were in favour but councillors weren't. It's nimbyism. It's obvious Tesco would get it because it would be able to afford a top lawyer."
But Shane Brennan, Association of Convenience Stores public affairs director, disagrees independents are being unfairly treated. Planning decisions are based only on whether a retail development is appropriate for the location, he argues.
"We believe councils have the right powers and tools to assess what the impact of a retail development will be on the area," he says.
The issue is rather that independents need to put forward more compelling applications. "Retailers have to make sure they are aware of the different rules and criteria to allow retail developments to be built."
Figures presented by the ACS to the Competition Commission suggest it is harder for smaller independent retailers to expand than the multiples.
"Since 2001 new supermarkets have been built at a rate of two a week," says ACS chief executive James Lowman. "The big concern is that none of these have been built by a retailer other than an existing grocery chain."
So what should independent retailers do if their planning application is refused?
The answer, it seems, is to battle on. In the absence of funds to hire a top legal team, seek planning advice. Re-submitting proposals on a smaller scale and addressing local fears can help, according to James , who has reduced the size of his proposed forecourt expansion by a third.
Launching a public relations offensive and attempting to engage directly with the locals is also a good idea, suggest experts. Defending the Grange-over-Sands development, Booths chairman Edwin Booth stresses that it is trying to enhance the local community, not put other independents out of business. The Barrowford store design has been revised to reflect the views of local traders and residents, he adds.
It is perhaps a wise move. At present the supermarket has 26 stores, one fewer than in 2007. This statistic alone demonstrates why independent retailers must work harder to address local concerns and show how independents can benefit the community - unlike, some might argue, the multiples.tips for indies
If you have to re-submit a planning application, make sure you:
Are proactive in the community and are perceived to be a 'face rather than a fascia'
Ensure people know about the ethical way in which you operate and source products
Promote the fact that you are not out to take business from other people
Get the best planning advice available
Address the concerns raised by the planners about the first proposal
Conduct surveys with local people to get their views on services they think would benefit their community
Ensure your development is appropriate for the location