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Clone town is a global term for a town where the High Street or other major shopping areas are significantly dominated by chain stores. The term was coined by the New Economics Foundation (NEF), a British think tank, in their 2004 report on "Clone Town Britain".
The NEF report argued that the spread of clone towns is highly damaging to society because of the removal of diversity. In particular,
- Small businesses lost out to larger chains. Between 1997 and 2002, independent general stores were estimated to close at the rate of one per day, and specialist stores at the rate of 50 per week; customers chose to shop elsewhere.
- Consolidation of large amounts of distribution power in the hands of these companies might lead to danger. For example, magazine editors lobbied the Prime Minister to act to prevent a situation where a few supermarket brands could control the distribution of magazines and thus effectively censor any publication they did not like, or even force it out of business. The report also found that many suppliers, such as farmers, feared making any public criticism of chain retailers, as the retailer could simply cut their distribution and force them out of business.
- Related to both of the above is the danger of the loss of regional colour. For example, the NEF report found that many supermarket branches in Scotland did not carry, or did not stock, regional Scottish publications.
- The tendency for chain stores, and in particular supermarkets, to locate out-of-town means that they purchase land which could have been used for housing, thus driving up house prices since less land is available.
- Chain stores and especially supermarkets tend to carry only the few most popular products in certain ranges (for example, the most popular computer games, books, and DVDs). Thus, they reduce the range of choice available, while removing the most profitable business that companies offering greater choice would depend upon.
The converse argument is that large chain stores have grown big because their products are desirable to large numbers of people, and thus their arrival in towns provides convenient access to the products that the population might want. It is argued that providing locals with easy access to popular products they want should be a higher priority than ensuring that people travelling between multiple towns experience variety. Furthermore, because they are wealthy businesses they are more likely to consume large amounts of local services and to employ local people, thus energising the local economy.
The NEF report also notes that the creation of chain stores and supermarkets has been in part a response to the consolidation of retail land ownership in the UK. Retailers are forced to consolidate in order to have any leverage over landlords who are already consolidated.
Other commentators have raised concerns regarding the loss of "sociability" offered by traditional shopping: "the demise of the small shop would mean that people will not just be disadvantaged in their role as consumers but also as members of communities – the erosion of small shops is viewed as the erosion of the 'social glue' that binds communities together, entrenching social exclusion in the UK."
The 2005 survey rated Exeter as the worst example of a clone town in the UK, with only a single independent store in the city's high street, and less diversity (in terms of different categories of shop) than any other town surveyed. Other extreme clone towns in England include Stafford, Middlesbrough, Weston-super-Mare and Winchester. Although not included in the NEF survey, many Provincial towns in Scotland are considered to have similar characteristics.
Notably, in spite of having the highest property prices in the country, London is not even close to becoming a clone town: even in the central areas of the city, a huge diversity of businesses exists, largely as a result of the city's relatively large size and cosmopolitan population.
- Molly Conisbee, Petra Kjell, Julian Oram, Jessica Bridges Palmer, Andrew Simms and John Taylor (2005-06-06). "Clone Town Britain: The loss of local identity on the nation's high streets" (PDF). new economics foundation. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2006-05-16. Retrieved 2006-07-17.
- Andrew Simms, Petra Kjell and Ruth Potts (2004-08-28). "Clone Town Britain: The survey results on the bland state of the nation" (PDF). new economics foundation. Archived from the original (PDF) on 2006-06-23. Retrieved 2006-07-17.
- "Editors Lobby Number 10 over Supermarket Censorship". The Observer. 27 March 2005.
- Hamlett, Jane (April 2008). "Regulating UK supermarkets: an oral-history perspective". History & Policy. United Kingdom: History & Policy. Retrieved 9 December 2010.