Gunvor Jónsson and Sophie Watson from The Open University’s Department of Sociology reveal findings from their year-long study of the market…
It’s best known as Europe’s longest street market to outsiders, but for many locals, Walthamstow Market is considered the heart of the community. As the pandemic has taken its toll, however, this heart appears to have slowed, if not gradually stopped beating.
The UK government largely ignored markets in their business support plans over the last year. As the Covid-19 crisis unfolded in 2020, footfall at Walthamstow Market gradually reduced, as customers became increasingly reluctant to leave their homes, turning instead to online shopping.
So why have the traders at Walthamstow Market not simply responded by converting their businesses into online enterprises?
Some traders have indeed initiated ‘click and collect’ services, as well as online ordering and home deliveries. However, most of the people we have talked to resisted converting their enterprises into full-blown online businesses. There are many possible explanations for this, but in this commentary we want to highlight one important reason: the social significance of Walthamstow Market.
We are drawing on research carried out over the past year, for which we have conducted interviews with traders at Walthamstow Market as part of a project called ‘Moving Market Places’, led by The Open University.
Our research confirms findings of existing studies, which highlight the important social role of markets in the UK – they often serve marginalised populations, offering low-cost and good quality products, as well as providing a space for social interaction, which helps combat loneliness and isolation, particularly for elderly people and single parents. This is certainly the case in Walthamstow.
We also found that not only the customers but the traders themselves derive many non-economic benefits from working at the market, which they do not consider as merely a means of generating income. For example, traders often emphasised the importance of fresh air and the physical aspects of the job, which keeps them fit and healthy.
One food trader told us he kept his stall open during a lockdown to support an employee with mental health problems – who would have otherwise been confined to their bedsit alone, potentially aggravating their condition. Interacting with regular and new customers, the thrill of completing a sale, and ‘the banter’ are vital, worthwhile aspects of being a market trader in Walthamstow.
We also found that trading at the market helps people develop important business and communication skills, which in turn can help them grow their enterprise further, with some traders branching out into wholesale trade and shops. Traders learn such skills informally from each other and from their customers. The everyday, casual interactions that take place between people at Walthamstow Market are therefore not just fringe benefits, but in fact important tools for growth.
Fortunately in Walthamstow, the value of the market has been well-recognised by Waltham Forest Council and market managers. Policies have been introduced to support traders through the crisis, such as relief from rental payments during their months of inactivity. Market managers say they have been contacted by 30 to 40 people wanting to set up a stall during the pandemic, but at this stage licences cannot be issued until there are clearer guidelines regarding reopening.
With all this enthusiasm for supporting and enhancing the market, we do not doubt that it will continue to exist as a vibrant and significant part of Walthamstow’s diverse economic, social and cultural life.