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5:53pm on Wednesday, 12th November, 2008:



I met up with my dad today. I don't get to see him all that often, because he lives a 4-5 hour drive away; however, he came down with his (second) wife to stay with her brother, whose wife is convalescing after an operation. These two live about an hour from me, near Stansted Airport, so we met up somewhere roughly half-way between us: Braintree.

Specifically, we met up at Braintree Freeport.

The original idea behind this kind of "shopping village" was to allow High Street stores to try sell last year's stock again. Even after the sales, stores have plenty of goods left over; rather than recycle them or ship them to Eastern Europe and pretend they're the latest fashion, they can open a retail outlet in a freeport and sell them there. This makes sense, and is indeed how many outlets in freeports still operate.

Retailers had long wanted to try sell stock again for people who missed it the first time round, but they had a problem: if they opened a discount shop too close to an existing shop, people would think their current line was too expensive, or simply wait for it to be moved to the cheaper shop. They therefore wanted their shops to be off the beaten track. Unfortunately, when they tried this, too few people went to those shops — the fact that an obscure market town has a Laura Ashley selling quality clothes inexpensively did not present sufficient a draw to cause people to drive miles to visit it.

The solution was to put lots of these stores together in the same place. Then, there wasn't just a Laura Ashley, there was a Wedgwood, Edinburgh Wool Company, Gadget Shop and two dozen shoe retailers. This did amount to a draw.

There remained the issue of where to put such a collection of discount shops, though. The more outlets there were then the bigger the draw, but the greater the chance that there would be a non-discount version of one of the shops within striking distance. Therefore, if you were going to open a freeport, you'd want to put it in the most remote, out-of-the-way place you could find in the entire country.

As a consequence, Britain's very first freeport was placed in Hornsea, East Yorkshire — my home town, and where my dad still lives in the house I grew up in.

Freeports have regular shops in them now as well as discount ones, and they're also closer to civilisation (their developers found that all that was necessary to avoid brand conflicts was for them to be out-of-town, not out in the sticks). Nevertheless, Hornsea Freeport is still open and still thriving. Because of this, my dad and his wife are freeport experts: they go to the one in Hornsea once every couple of weeks or so, so know what's available and what's a bargain and which shops are better than the others.

Thus, despite not having visited Braintree freeport before, my dad's wife was able to take her sister-in-law round the shops for an hour and a half while I shared a pot of Earl Grey with my dad in the comfort of the Thornton's coffee lounge.

Ah, a happy day.

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Copyright © 2008 Richard Bartle (richard@mud.co.uk).