Tuesday, 15 January 2013

The end of the High Street?

The news, for those who work there, of the demise of HMV and Jessops is appalling.  There's also a knee-jerk tendency to blame this on the Coalition, rather than flawed business strategies and the creeping homogenisation of shopping and our town centres.  From Inverness to Penzance the march of the same national chain brands and the consolidation of property ownership has resulted in a significant reduction of consumer choice, and where the marketing and business analysts have tried to impose a UK-wide model that assumes a lowest common denominator.

This would have worked, if people were not becoming both more aware of what they are buying and able to source the non-essential from the internet (albeit tainted by tax evasion).  My own recent experience of Jessops is that they were both more expensive than specialist camera shops and much less knowledgeable or helpful - clearly the staff were targeted at pushing particular brands, deals and flexible commission rather than advise or discuss what would have been a significant purchase.  At the medium- to high-end they were undercut and outplayed by specialists, at the low end the internet was not only cheaper but a much less stressful experience.

HMV has been a part of my existence for much longer - and sentimentally I have often tried to buy CDs and DVDs there rather than from the internet as a physical browse often leads to other discoveries.  Yet with pricing all over the place (promotions often very good value but obscurities and back catalogue massively expensive) and a reduction in both range and stock levels of most specialist music and independent releases, too many experiences of discussing or reading about something and then looking to HMV have been disappointments - and once let down it is much easier to order online than make another visit to a shop.  Not having enough knowledge or specialist staff has also been a killer - the expansion in store numbers has opened mediocre, under-resourced branches where finding anything is a lottery.

Where Osborne has interacted, he has been a catalyst.  The decline in consumer spending power will have affected both of these casualties, and will have accelerated given the need to maximise the benefit from reduced discretionary expenditure.

Ar the same time, the creation of the urban "night-time economy" has bid up rents and, paradoxically, reduced the attractiveness of town centres for anyone in the daytime not particularly impressed with vertical drinking establishments and their associated paraphernalia.  In a recession, retailers closing are unlikely to be replaced by diverse alternatives, instead it will be coffee shops, pound shops, charity shops and, if you're really lucky, pawnbrokers.  Local councils, hamstrung both by a Stalinist central government which emasculates their planning powers, and by their own lack of able representatives and administrators, are happy to talk about "regeneration" while watching the life sucked out of their towns and cities.

Is there cause for optimism?  Paradoxically, there may be.  The mass market may be better served by the internet - and with effective logistics it may even reduce its environmental impact.  The removal of chains which provide pale imitations of smaller, independent shops may encourage the growth of firms whose marketing consists of knowing their customers and providing something beyond the level of sulky indifference that many centralised behemoths have continued to push in the name of squeezing margins.  Even smaller branches of Waterstones, since the HMV sale, have begun to recover some of the quirkiness that was the basis of their 1980s success, and to promote communal browsing rather than the anomie that is surfing Amazon.

Real localism is needed, and real diversity.  There is no inevitability that town centres will die, and there is no inevitability that shops will be destroyed by the internet.  The lessons of expanded, over-geared and unfocused chains should be learned - they are not the need to retreat but the need to offer something indefinable, and something that cannot therefore be quantified by the bean counters.  When a  visit to a shop is something less than a chore and a frequent disappointment, then it can claim to be a success.

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