In both cases, I asked people who knew where I'd be likely to get them, and in both cases I was told that - until recently - there were one or two local shops where I'd have found what I wanted.
In both cases, I now had a simple choice - with the car part, the only shop within miles was the Halfords on a local retail park about two miles away. I go. The thing I need is out of stock. I make a few phone calls to people who know where to go and my only other option is another Halfords on another retail park about five miles away - somewhere I'd never been before. I go there (this is now approaching three hours to buy a very standard car-part) and luckily, they are in stock and - admittedly - it is very keenly priced.
We used to have a really good friendly and helpful local small retailer, but they closed down in the last year leaving Halfords with total control of this retail market.
With the door, it's a similar choice. Either B&Q or Wickes. And the standard model that Wickes provide for this door had something about it I didn't want (opaque rather than clear glass). So B&Q it is then - no option. After all, you can't go into Wickes and say 'take that glass out and replace it with the other type for me, will you?'
I call numbers in the catalogue for local shops and don't get answers. Then I call the head office number and they tell me the door I want is in stock at one of the local shops. I go to that store and they tell me they've never stocked it. So I go to a few other local branches of B&Q armed with a catalogue. In both cases, the items are out of stock - though in both cases, it took ages to find this out because no-one who worked in these shops had much of a clue about anything that they sold.
At the moment, I'm struggling to work out how I'm actually going to get this door without spending a day driving around on the probably futile task of looking on the shelves of each branch in a 15 mile radius myself. I live in one of the most built-up areas of the country. I'd understand if I lived in Little Piddling and had to go all the way to the big town to get it.
All of this is anecdotal, I know. But the ability of these companies to keenly price objects has enabled them to shut down all of their smaller competitors. They do this and then drive down every other element of their service to the minimum offering low staff numbers and expertise, milking out the profits for their shareholders.
Now I'm no economist, and I'm not a regulator either. But it seems to me that both of these examples reveal a clear monopoly situation. I'm told that we regulate to prevent monopoly situations from arising, and I wonder why the small business lobby are so quiet about this?
I suspect that it's a combination of two things:
- An outdated political cleavage in which small businesses haven't adapted and looked for a party that is more likely to represent their interests. For some reason, my limited experience of small business people is that they imagine that the Tories are their party.
- The importance of pressure group politics and the need to ensure that well-funded lobbies aren't the only voices at the table. The Federation of Small Businesses don't seem to be using their website to complain about the free reign large retailers are given and I wonder if this is because they're badly funded or managed?
As far as I can see, though, there is a gap in the market for a political party to promote itself as the party of small business.