So, the final act as been played out and the Hertford Waitrose is no more. Some might say this is a sad day for the town but more of that later. I am reminded of Marc Antony in Julius Caesar Act 3 Scene 2
The evil that men do lives after them;
The good is oft interrèd with their bones.
So let it be with Waitrose.
I have seen hundreds, perhaps thousands of comments on social media sites from posters who have accused everyone from Council (pick one from three) to Waitrose to John Lewis to Diageo and Wrenbridge and Planners in general for the closure.
Some of the comments have been at best uninformed and at worst pure fantasy. I do not claim to be completely ‘au fait’ with all the events leading up to today but if you read a selection of my posts on this subject (right) you will see that closure was inevitable and no one single person or company’s fault.
I have known Waitrose to have been a part of Hertford’s commercial and social life since 2001 when I first became involved in the town and right up to my retirement as Town Centre Manager in 2010.
They were one of the major sponsors of Hertford Fun Day. My abiding memory of the manager at that time Jim Brewin was seeing him in the middle of Old Cross standing by his collapsible chair, floppy hat on head, water bottle in hand directing the road closures.
Jim was Chairman of the Fun Day committee until 2005; he organised his staff to help man the road closures and act as stewards and as seen in the previous sentence led by example.
Waitrose provided some of the initial funding for the radios for Hertford Town Watch; a town centre security initiative that with 50 traders, licensees and venues with radios and 19 CCTV cameras became the envy of many other towns.
It might not have been that way had not a van parked in Salisbury Square on the morning of one Fun Day exactly where the stage was to be set up. The radio to CCTV control would not work and we discovered that when Waitrose closed at night and on Sundays as it did then, the power to the aerial was also switched off. Of course the aerial is now fully functional 24/7 and has been moved now that Waitrose has closed.
Along with Lloyds Bank Waitrose sponsored the food for the Hertford Town Watch members breakfast meeting at the Waterside until Michelle left. A free breakfast was extended to all town centre traders and you could get everything from a cup of coffee to a full English.
So it has always been. Nearly every organisation in town has cause to be grateful to Waitrose for a form of sponsorship or charitable donation; the Horticultural Show at the Castle, Hertford Food and Drink Festival and lunchtime Soundbites concerts at All Saints Church are amongst those too numerous to mention to have benefited and this does not include the monthly community matters also known as the green coin box.
As sure as night follows day the Hertfordshire Mercury has had an input in its own inimitable style – ‘Eleven things we will miss about Waitrose’. I will mention a few.
First – Overheard in Waitrose – I was going to award an Oscar here but here are three contenders in reverse order; 3. When does the sale start? 2. I hear John Lewis will be moving in when you move out and my favourite of all time which would have taken the Oscar and the teatime biscuit 3. Wetherspoons have bought the whole of the shopping centre and there will be a bar on the ground floor and a beer garden on the first floor and be overlooked by the car park.
Second – Free coffee – yes, it was great to pick up your morning boost of caffeine at no charge along with the Daily News but as I have mentioned elsewhere Waitrose became part of the problem. Small coffee bars in many English towns suffered a significant loss of trade with this initiative. So now Hertford’s own independent coffee shops may see a small upturn in trade, along with the newsagents with newspaper and Lottery sales and even the dry cleaners.
Third – Employees own the business – they do not. Owners of businesses are not made redundant. ‘Partners’ as they are called have a contract of employment like any other company employee, they have to fight for their holiday entitlement against each other, they get disciplined for breaking company guidelines like anybody else and many are paid just above the National Average Wage.
The company will claim that they offer a competitive wage which when the annual bonus and staff discount are taken into account brings the salary up to the level of the National Living Wage. That may be so but the level of profit sharing has been dropping over the last few years and with the supermarket pricing wars raging staff discount does not always compensate for the slightly higher pricing structure at the stores. This is not ownership.
To continue my theme of mentioning the good it should be noted that all staff that expressed a desire to remain with the company have all been found suitable employment within the group. Those that wished to leave have done so with a very good redundancy and/or retirement package.
Throughout this experience since closure was announced in February there has been constant consultation and support from many Head Office departments for all the staff and you cannot say fairer than that. There is sure to be many a tear dropping from eyes when four o’clock chimes.
I don’t know if this will be the case throughout the town. Everyone who knows about these things knew that Waitrose lease expired in 2016. For many years previous County, District and Town Council members and officers have all stated that Hertford will collapse and die if and when Waitrose should leave. No one has done anything to lessen the impact such closure will now have. Retail units are already starting to become vacant.
A huge sum was spent on the Hertford Town Centre Design and Vision Strategy. That did not offer any proposals either other than a rather extensive appendix as found in Rollercoaster Tycoon or Sim City to illustrate the varied and wonderful designs of street furniture that could be installed in Hertford Town Centre. They were a little light on where the finance was coming from.
I know that the fall out from the closure of Waitrose will be painful and will continue to talk about it here.