On a recent visit to Belgium, I noticed something was missing from the outskirts of the towns and cities I visited: large supermarkets. I began to wonder if I'd just not noticed them. After all, if they didn't exist, where did people buy their food?
I eventually saw some smaller supermarkets in the suburbs, but they were a long way from the massive American-style retail parks common to the UK.
All became clear after a visit to a small town centre cafe, where I indulged in a capuccino and some people watching. I noticed that many locals came into town on their bicycles. They bought meat from the local butcher, bread from the local baker, vegetables from the greengrocer, and bumped into friends for a chat along the way. There was a small town centre supermarket, but it didn't have a car park. Again, most customers walked or cycled. There were no massive queues, no big car park traffic jams, and no-one losing their temper.
No, I hadn't fallen asleep and started dreaming. This was real. In some respects, it was like being transported back in time 30 years, to a time when the high street was the centre of retail trade in the UK. But it was also surprising that shopping in this way could still be an easy, stress-free experience - even with today's high-speed lifestyle, and even if you had to go to several shops just to get the basic essentials.
In the process of going into several independent shops on a regular basis, you'd meet several familiar faces. Those shop owners would get to know their customers personally, without needing a computer and a loyalty card to track their regular purchases. In turn, this seems to foster a sense of community. And that's an experience that the out-of-town megastores have difficulty matching.
In the process of demanding low prices and instant availability, I wonder if we've lost something quite important at the heart of our communities.
So shop local - maybe your community needs you!
Image: adapted from Maastricht Shopping Street by Redvers, Public Domain, obtained via http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Maastricht-shopping-street.redvers.jpg (yes, I know Maastricht isn't in Belgium, but I am impressed that you're reading this bit at the bottom).