'Small businesses can't afford to compete'

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Stefano Ceccarelli's business has been in the family since 1938. Photo: The Local
18:29 CEST+02:00
Within ten years, small shops will be a thing of the past in Italy if the current rate of closures continues, the retail association Confesercenti warned today. The Local speaks to shop-owners to get their view on the worrying trend.

Twenty-one thousand shops have closed in Italy since the turn of the year, with Rome and Sicily being the hardest hit, according to the association.

For Stefano Ceccarelli, who owns a hardware and stationary shop, as well as a key-cutting service, the solution is simple: the government should stop giving licences to the bigger supermarket chains.

“I don’t see any alternative, maybe the EU should intervene too as this problem doesn’t just affect Italy,” he said.

“This is a terrible phenomenon in which small businesses have closed down because they can’t afford to compete with the big distributors, which lure people to their stores by giving them convenience.”

Like most other small shops, the store is family-run. It was founded by Stefano’s father in 1938 and is well-known in the Villa Borghese neighbourhood in northern Rome, as well as by those with the power to turn the situation around. Stefano is proud to count Italy’s civil service as the firm’s first and longest-standing client.

He has witnessed many fluctuations in the economy over the years and while this is probably the toughest period, he is grateful for a loyal flow of customers, which includes painters, blacksmiths, building contractors and businesses in the area.

He said the only armour small shopkeepers have against the big supermarkets is their ability to have a closer interaction with customers.

“We can give proper advice on our products, you wouldn’t find this kind of information in supermarkets. Our customers appreciate that.”

Stefano says that “large distribution is fake, it’s not cheap.” He backs this up with claims that his products cost up to 25 percent less, whether that be for screwdrivers, paint or glue.

“The big supermarkets give the illusion of offering better prices, when in fact it’s more about convenience.”

It is perhaps the businesses that sell products which can all be bought in the one place, such as food and clothes, that are faring the worst, according to Margarita Fazzi, who owns a shop selling antique home furnishings and jewellery.  

“It’s different for specialist shops like ours. Supermarkets don’t sell the type of products we do,” she said.

“We wouldn’t compete in the same way. I don’t have a huge client base, but there is a steady flow of customers. I’m lucky to be in a busy area too.”

She pointed to another trend which might help stymie the wave of closures: Italy’s aging population.

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“Our population is getting older so I believe some shops will stay. People like me, for example, like to go to the shops closest to home or by the local square. There are also residential areas, away from the centre of town, that depend on local shops. Not everyone likes or wants to go to the big supermarkets.”

For Antonella, who runs a clothes shop established by her mother-in-law in 1970, the situation is much tougher. The shop offers everything from baby clothes and women’s lingerie to jackets and ties. All are ‘Made in Italy’, she claims.

But the shop can’t compete against the flow of cheaper imitations from China. The only saving grace is that the products are of a lower quality, she adds.

“They soon come running back to us when their bra gives them an allergy,” she jokes.

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