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Home & abroad: It`s a bargain

December 13, 2009


With the sticky fingerprints of recession still dotting most of the economy, there is little wonder why a tradition as quaint as having market days is such a necessity in Britain and why charity shops, flea markets, auction days and seasonal shopping festivals are so popular on this island nation.

Today, as I make my way into the city centre of Rotherham — a small town sitting on the outskirts of Sheffield — there are people everywhere, despite it being a weekday. At the heart of the city centre sits the market a 9-to-5 venture run by specialists of every trade.

A sea of colour awaits visitors as they walk through isle after isle of open stalls and bustling activity. Here sits a farmer with his two sons selling produce from his own farms — potatoes and carrots, tomatoes and celery. There is no middle man in their trade and the three men have brought the local produce fresh from their farms that very morning. A closer inspection reveals that the prices are but a fraction of those listed along the slick aisles of leading supermarkets. No wonder there is a constantly moving line of eager shoppers filling up on their choice of fresh fruit and vegetables.

At another stall, two ladies, Ann and Jody, are promoting organic free-range eggs and a selection of rich, hand-made cheeses from their own farms. According to the ladies, things have actually picked up ever since the recession “Customers are coming in more than ever now; they know that they will find better quality here at much cheaper prices than supermarkets,” says Jody. An old pensioner fills her shopping trolley with a dozen eggs and a slice of blue cheese and pays Ann with a handful of coins. That's the way things are done around the market — plastic money is rarely the norm which makes the elderly and pensioners more at ease with shopping and keeping track of their dealings. It really is a pleasantly quaint, rustic world in here, a world apart from the slick, numbered aisles and beeping cash tills of supermarkets.

Walking around, you find anything and everything within the four walls of this old market place — clothes, shoes, jewellery and toys, ladies' accessories and chinaware, pet food and aquariums, fresh seafood and upholstery, pick-and-mix confectionery and even a barber's shop. Every stall you turn to, you find a sizeable discount in prices from what lies within supermarkets.

In fact, according to the British NMTF (National Market Traders' Federation), shopping for everyday food items at markets is nearly 32 per cent cheaper than shopping at supermarkets. Visiting here though, it is clear that it is not just the low prices that draw people to town centre markets. Rather, it is the entire experience of good old-fashioned honest shopping and having a one-on-one service with the producer and seller that is the biggest selling point. Here you find people walking around, biting into and tasting the apples before actually buying them; children are fingering the dirt on freshly dug-up potatoes while their parents purchase vegetables from a farmer. There is little, if any, environmentally unfriendly packaging on goods and the entire atmosphere resonates with a congeniality that is non-existent in the cool, detached atmosphere of supermarkets. And with an ever-increasing emphasis on greener living, people are swarming to local markets to reduce their carbon footprints and support local farms and producers.

As if having markets isn't enough to satiate the bargain hunting British gene, there is an increasing trend of shopping for everyday things at Pound shops. These evergreen ventures of pure genius thrive on selling literally everything for £1. Why buy a bottle of shampoo for £3.40 at a supermarket when you can get the exact same brand for a pound here? The logic is undeniable for all visitors; besides, the forever-festive interior and rapidly changing shelf contents are enough to lasso in even non-serious shoppers who end up leaving with at least two bags full of Pound shop goodies.

The spirit of charity has also led to some marvellously organised business franchises across Britain. Among these, charity shops reign supreme such as those run by Oxfam, Cancer Research, RSPCA, hospitals and other organisations. Displaying used and unused merchandise — mainly clothes, shoes, kitchenware, books, games and antiques — these shops are a great alternative to flea markets and also go to significant lengths to restore and colour coordinate their merchandise to a good — if not as-new — condition.

With the ever increasing popularity of young, hip celebrity chefs promoting the importance of using fresh local produce in foods, monthly and seasonal farmers' markets have also shown a come-back and are gaining in popularity among food lovers. Here perhaps, one finds the best bargains on food products in all aspects of quality, quantity and shopping experience. The event — no less than a mini festival of sorts — brings together local farmers of all genres to display their produce. Visitors are entertained by open food stalls; there are opportunities to pick and assemble one's own mini fruit baskets e.g. by going strawberry picking; ice-cream, coffee and snack bars welcome you with open arms and wine-tasting stalls beckon connoisseurs to come in and have a drink.

For all those looking to spend a little bit more, retailing giants of all genres are forever circulating seasonal sales to drive the merchandise rapidly off the shelves. Popular sales like the 24-hour Marks and Spencer pre-Christmas sales or the end-of-season sale by Next have the power to have shopaholics lined up before their doors a night before the sale begins. Once the sale opens, there is utter chaos on the store floor; even the doorman can do little to monitor foot traffic.

Yes indeed, bargain hunting is not just an obsession for Brits; it is a cultural phenomenon that has been passed through time, generation after generation. It is safe to say that they will always sniff out a bargain, whether it is in times of recession or the peaks of economic prosperity.