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A Nation Of Shopkeepers? UK Seeks To Keep Its Soul


LONDON (AP) â¿¿ The small shopkeepers in Greenwich are running out of time.

In the London borough that gave its name to Greenwich Mean Time, businesses like Lorraine Turton's are endangered by online shopping, cut-price competition from giant supermarkets, changing tastes and, increasingly, the protracted recession. Her Internet cafe on Trafalgar Road is a rare hive of activity on a "high street" â¿¿ the British name for a town's main business district.

These days, those streets are increasingly dotted with empty storefronts.

Napoleon once derided England as a "nation of shopkeepers," but its small retailers are vanishing at an alarming rate. If the trend continues, the character of the country's cities and towns, whose high streets have attracted retailers for hundreds of years, could change profoundly.

"The shopping high street is an important local place of community," Turton said. "Our entire country has been founded on the principle of market towns. If we lose our high streets, we lose an intrinsic part of our culture."

Retailers are being forced out of business as Britain struggles to recover from an economic slowdown that has been longer and deeper than any since the 1930s.

What makes this downturn different is that consumers have been reluctant to start spending again on small purchases â¿¿ just the sort of thing people buy at the neighborhood store. Three and half years after the start of the downturn, so-called nondurable purchases remained more than 5 percent below pre-recession levels. After the recessions of the 1980s and 1990s, they had already rebounded within three years.

A study released last week by the accounting firm PwC and the Local Data Company found that retailers were closing an average of 20 stores a day, a number it predicted would rise to 28 per day in the first three months of this year.

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