Findings from our case study markets

Three new reports documenting evidence from the Markets4People research project about the wide-ranging economic, social and cultural benefits produced by three of the UK’s largest and strongest traditional retail markets are now published on our website. Building on previous research, the reports bring a new focus on the importance of markets from the perspective of their existing customers.

Traditional retail markets (TRMs) are ‘indoor and outdoor markets selling food, household goods, clothing and the like’, their broad, diverse and affordable offering distinguishing them from more narrowly-focused and often more expensive farmers’ and specialist markets (Gonzalez & Waley 2013). TRMs provide affordable and quality produce, they are inclusive and generally accessible places, sustain employment and livelihoods for traders and generate economic value through customers’ purchases, rental income for market operators and increased footfall in towns and cities through the ‘anchor’ role they play. As our research confirms, TRMs are particularly important to low-income communities, older people, migrants and black and minority ethnic groups.

Despite their wide-ranging importance, UK TRMs have been marginalised and neglected in recent decades. Compared to supermarkets and the wider retail sector, they have been framed as declining and in need of modernisation. This has contributed in many cases to an under-investment in market infrastructure, maintenance and repairs over decades, particularly as local authorities, who tend to manage and own them, suffer from austerity cuts in their budgets. In this context, the national market operators’ and traders’ organisations, NABMA and NMTF, have supported the professional development of the sector, including adapting to changing consumer habits and expectations. They have also produced evidence and tools to demonstrate the importance and contribution of markets.

Historic underinvestment, coupled with pressures shared by retail and the high street in general, have led to market redevelopment schemes often designed to appeal to new, younger and more affluent customers. In the process, pre-existing traders and customers can be marginalised as rents become higher and markets change their atmosphere and offer. This is a particular problem because the customer base of TRMs generally includes groups of people already suffering from isolation or multiple vulnerabilities, who rely on markets for affordable provisioning and opportunities for social interaction. The impact of changing the market offer on these user groups is rarely taken into account, partly because there is a lack of evidence and research about them. While the importance of markets as spaces of social and cultural interaction was firmly-established by Professor Sophie Watson’s work in the 2000s, there has been no large-scale consumer research which has included markets’ social and cultural functions as well as their economic functions.

It is in this context that the Markets4People research project brings a focus on the combined economic, social and cultural benefits of TRMs, which we call “community value”. Through a rigorous selection process, we identified Queen’s Market in Newham, east London, Newcastle upon Tyne’s Grainger Market and Bury Market in Greater Manchester. We surveyed a representative sample of 500 customers in each market, to explore how different groups (in terms of age, gender, ethnicity and income, for example) use and value markets as spaces for shopping, eating and socialising and as local community assets. We also undertook two focus groups with selected customers and approximately 10 interviews with key local actors in each case. This case study research was preceded by around 30 interviews and several workshops with key actors within the markets industry nationally, as well as analysis of documents and participation in key sector events.

Our community focus on markets makes an important contribution to the current debate about the future of the UK high street. Research from the Institute of Place Management has already established markets’ positive impact on footfall in high streets and town centres. This evidence contributed to markets being identified by the High Streets Task Force as one of its 25 ‘vital and viable’ priorities. In addition, Grimsey’s influential report has called to rethink the high street as a ‘community hub’ away from the more traditional retail uses, highlighting how markets can play a role. Markets can also be at the heart of increasingly-influential inclusive growth and community wealth building policy agendas. The Greater London Authority, for example, has funded a number of market improvement schemes as part of its ‘Good Growth’ regeneration programme, and developed a toolkit through which operators and others can demonstrate the ‘social value’ of markets.

The community role of TRMs as inclusive spaces has been sharply exposed by the Covid-19 pandemic. Their role in providing access to affordable food has been particularly important at a time when many household budgets have come under pressure, especially because, as our research shows, market users are less likely to shop online. The possibilities markets afford for social interaction between traders and customers have also been particularly precious at a time when other opportunities have been severely restricted.

Traditional retail markets are therefore not a lingering feature of a nostalgic high street but very much a key aspect of a future strategy for inclusive, community-focused and sustainable towns and cities.

Traditional retail markets are therefore not a lingering feature of a nostalgic high street but very much a key aspect of a future strategy for inclusive, community-focused and sustainable towns and cities. However, this future should not be one of standardised and gentrified markets. When markets serve older people, low-income communities, migrants and black and minority ethnic groups, this should be celebrated and strategically supported to bring benefits to economic development, public health and social inclusion. In this context, the evidence contained in these three reports about the wide-ranging economic, social and cultural benefits of TRMs can help not only to make the case for a dedicated support package for markets but also to reposition markets as community hubs for more inclusive economies.

Our findings across the Markets4People research provide a strong rationale to recommend that the national government implement a package of support for market traders and operators, as proposed by the markets’ sector lead organisations NABMA and NMTF. This would enable Markets to continue to deliver wide-ranging economic, social and cultural benefits to marginalised, disadvantaged and vulnerable communities as they emerge from the Covid-19 pandemic.

The reports challenge the idea that the only future for traditional markets must be to attract new, younger and more affluent customers.

The reports also suggest that the role of traditional retail markets in serving older people, lower-income communities, migrants and ethnic minority groups is something to be celebrated and supported by the sector. The reports challenge the idea that the only future for traditional markets must be to attract new, younger and more affluent customers. Thus, we recommend a joined-up approach by local and national government, which recognises markets’ contributions to wide-ranging policy goals relating to economic development, public health and social inclusion. This new community approach can unlock new, much needed investment to reposition markets as community hubs for more sustainable high streets.

Read the reports