Retail Price Maintenance (RPM) and the Black Market
One of the main spearheads of the Government Campaign to keep Britain fed in World War Two was price control on goods. This was accomplished by what was called Retail Price Maintenance or RPM for short. The Black Market was the name given to an underground illegal trade which subverted RPM at inflated prices.
Retail Price Maintenance was what its name implied. It forced each and every shop to sell its goods at prices set by the Government. This meant that identical items cost the same in every shop. It was an attempt to be fair to everyone during the shortages. It meant that the wealthy would not be able to buy their way into getting more food than the rest of the public and that shopkeepers would not be able to attract trade by dropping prices.
My parents often talked about it when I was a child, but to me, at the time, it simply meant that I could spend my pocket money wherever I wanted without the fear of paying more than I needed.
RPM, like rationing, went on for many years after the war, as the shortages continued.
Legal ways round Retail Price Maintenance
I had always assumed that shopkeepers didn't like Retail Price Maintence because they wanted to charge more, so as to increase their profit. In fact the reverse was true. Many wanted to charge less to increase their trade.
My main experience of this was when my husband and I set up home in the early 1960s, nearly 20 years after the end of the war. Like for all newly married couples, money was tight and any way that we could legally save on our purchases was welcome. We found that we could get percentage reductions by belonging to certain organisations, which we did.
I suppose it must have been legal then because there was nothing underhand about it. I don't know whether or not it was legal during the war.
Anything that anyone wanted to buy always seemed to be readily available on the Black Market, ie illegally and at a high price. From time to time my mother was offered them by neighbours who "knew somebody who knew somebody else". The offer was never explicit - because that would have risked being caught at breaking the law. Rather it was hinted at through saying things like, "Of course Mrs Clarke, if you are ever really short, I know someone who can probably do something to help". My mother never followed any of the offers up. She would never have considered anything illegal, and anyway, money was too short. Black market goods were always excessively expensive.
The Black Market was very much looked down on by ordinary people. It meant that if you knew the right people, you could get (almost) anything you wanted if you were prepared to pay for it. This was always more than the Government's 'maintenance' price - much more. It provided a hefty profit for those involved in the trade but the risks were huge and the penalties for discovery were great.
An illegal trade that for some reason was certainly not looked down on was the barrow boys who I saw when out with my mother on London's Oxford Street. I believe that this was not in the war itself but in the austerity and shortages after the war. The trade was certainly illegal because the barrow boys dodged round the nearest corner when they saw a policeman coming. Yet although the police knew where they were they had dodged to, they seldom followed them. This could have been because barrow boys only dealt in what were little more than trinkets. They did a good trade and were well customised by the public.
The end of Retail Price Maintenance
Retail Price Maintenance was discontinued in 1964 spelling the end of the Black Market. Prices dropped, but it did mean that we had to shop around for the best bargains.