My daughter”s nightmare buying a bra online and why we”re mad to let the High Street go bust
How is your Christmas shopping More to the point, have you even entered a shop yet or do you plan to do so
Once upon a time, the great scramble through brightly lit seasonal streets amid rain and slush, groaning under a deadweight of boxes and carrier bags, was an annual rite of passage. But today a transformation is taking place.
More and more people do more and more shopping, at Christmas and at every other time, without handling the goods. They let their fingers do the walking, at a keyboard.
All of us will have cause to be sorry if we simply stand by, or rather log on, and watch the shops that have been a huge part of our society for centuries atrophy and die
Even those who leave the house are increasingly likely to drive to an out-of-town mall to spend their money, rather than brave the urban heartlands, struggling to find a place to park.
It is hard to overstate the impact this trend is having on the character of our towns and cities.
This week, in the High Street of one of the most prosperous towns in southern England, I met a store manager who said: ‘Yesterday was dire: the whole place was deserted. It was honestly scary.’
My sister and niece have a business manufacturing fashion accessories and, like almost everyone else, they report: ‘Online trading is terrific, but retail outlets are really struggling.’
My daughter, a young-ish working mother, says she does 85 per cent of her shopping online: ‘They deliver, save time and offer better deals.’
She realises she is contributing to the decline of a shopping world she values, but says: ‘I want to spend less, and that’s decisive.’
Mary Portas, retail expert and TV presenter of Mary Queen Of Shops, has just produced a report for the Government that shows the number of shops in market towns and town centres has fallen by 25,000 since the millennium. A further 9,000 are likely to go in the next three years.
One in ten sites on the average shopping street is empty.
‘Choice has left the High Street,’ she declares.
Meanwhile, the number of shops and supermarkets in out-of-town retail parks has grown by 1,800.
9,000 shops are likely to go in the next three years. One in ten sites on the average shopping street is empty
The commercial heart is being torn out of communities. In the small country town where I live, shop-fronts gape empty, while many of those that are left are struggling to pay rent and business rates that remain absurdly steep.
My wife tries to buy locally whenever she can, saying: ‘If we want to keep a bookshop here, we must jolly well buy our books from it.’
I get everything I can from the local ironmonger rather than scuttle off to Homebase in Newbury.
But it is no good fibbing: we buy almost all our food from Tesco and Waitrose, because they beat little shops on quality as well as price. And we do most big purchases online, including white goods.
Yet all of us will have cause to be sorry if we simply stand by, or rather log on, and watch the shops that have been a huge part of our society for centuries atrophy and die.
My wife made a quick checklist of reasons for sticking with real-life retailing, especially for clothes: you get ideas; you can see what other people are buying; and you can try things on, which means they are less likely to be returned.
My daughter agrees, saying that she recently bought a couple of bras online that don’t fit properly, and resents the hassle of posting them back.
There is no substitute for touching anything you intend to wear. It is much easier to get sizes right for children in real shops. Customers often need advice, especially about beauty products.
Those are practical arguments in favour of online shopping, but there are more for visiting the High Street.
What will it do to us as human beings if, beyond travelling alone in our cars, abandoning pubs in favour of drinking at home and relinquishing churches because we no longer do religion, we stop going to shops
Our waning sense of community will suffer a new blow as we retreat still further into private bubbles where we scarcely meet the rest of mankind except family, friends and workmates.
The best local shops are hubs of social life as well as mere places to buy things. I was once justly rebuked by our vicar for being in a rush when I nipped into the village store.
He said: ‘It’s meant to be a place to meet people and have a chat. If you’re in such a hurry, you miss a lot.’
I did not always buy in haste. For most of my life, I have not just liked shops, I have loved them.
In my misspent youth, I hung about for hours in a smart West End tailor’s because I fancied a girl who worked there.
Later, when I took her out, I asked why she had tried to dissuade me from buying ties and sweaters.
‘You didn’t look as if you could afford them,’ she said.
But like all shopaholics, overdraft limits never stopped me committing repeated retail hara-kiri.
Half a century ago, Harrods seemed no mere department store, but a place of worship.
My working mother had all our groceries delivered from its food hall, each item down to the humblest half-pound of butter neatly wrapped in grey paper and tied with string.
We met in its high-vaulted, marbled banking hall, my hair was cut in the barber’s shop, school uniforms came from the menswear department.
In the Fifties, its lifts were manned by attendants who called robotically at each stop ‘Third floor: toys, games, sports, outdoor pursuits,’ before twisting a handle to close the doors.
Many shops thrive for a generation or two, then fade or disappear.
The Army & Navy Stores in London’s Victoria, for instance, was a towering imperial institution, where proconsuls and district commissioners outfitted themselves for overseas service with portable baths, tents, firearms, fishing tackle and, for all I know, knobkerries (those African wooden sticks used as missiles).
The Army & Navy name vanished in 2005, but its spirit was gone long before that.
Mary Portas”s sensible High Street report makes recommendations that the Government should take seriously
As late as 1963, at Moss Bros in Covent Garden, I bought a khaki bush hat, with a buttoned-up side-brim, from a large stock in the hat department.
It cost 28/6d, and proved worth every penny during my subsequent backpacking travels for the curiosity it aroused among local people, reinforcing their conviction that every Englishman is potty.
Woolworths was a wonderful institution for children as much as for adults. In the Forties, its array of cheap wares, displayed in heaps on long counters divided by glass partitions, enabled even the humblest customer to enjoy a spending spree for a few shillings or even pence.
Even to my immature eye, Woolies never seemed at the forefront of contemporary design, its heavy stained-wood fittings set off against relentless cream-painted walls. But it was a place of enchantment for roaming and peeking.
Toy shops are almost extinct, displaced by great warehouses such as Toys R Us, but once every High Street had its own example.
Small boys pressed their faces against the window to gaze covetously at long ranks of miniature models of Britain’s soldiers, while little girls contemplated the dolls.
This season, by contrast, Hamleys has abolished the genderisation of its wares. The store says pompously that its focus groups declare that separate floors for boys’ and girls’ toys were unpopular with customers. I suppose my grandson will find himself getting a Barbie for Christmas, whether he fancies it or not.
But nostalgia for ailing or vanished retailers is foolish, because each generation discovers new shopping paradises.
Harrods nowadays looks more like a Middle Eastern souk than an English store — just the place to furnish a harem — but Selfridges has triumphantly reinvented itself.
My daughter eulogises The White Company, together with Zara and upmarket clothing and homeware store Anthropologie in London’s King’s Road.
A good shop, whether in the heart of London or in a small provincial town, makes its customers feel good; it gives us a thrill when we open its door, especially at this time of year.
John Lewis remains an evergreen for all generations, ‘a shining example of a great retail experience’ in a young mother’s words, which helps to explain its 10 per cent increase in the latest year-on-year trading figures.
Helpful, truthful shop assistants can win our loyalty for life. Most of the staff at Peter Jones, the group’s Sloane Square flagship, are models of their kind.
A few years ago, I was looking at fridges in Peter Jones and thinking of buying one with an ice-maker.
‘Don’t waste your money,’ said an avuncular middle-aged assistant.
‘They have to be plumbed in and they’re more trouble than they are worth. If you are having a party, just buy a bag of ice.’
That man did wonders for the store’s credibility, offering sensible advice even though he forfeited a sale. The next time he or a Peter Jones colleague tells me some household titbit is worth buying, I shall believe them.
Some shop assistants, of course, have still not got the message about the need to woo customers or to provide a real service. Some stores doggedly refuse to move with the times.
Mary Portas’s report says that more than a few have only themselves to blame for their ailing sales figures: they have simply failed to adapt.
A friend claims to find the online site Amazon more informed and user-friendly than many shop assistants, who can be amazingly offhand or even rude about answering simple questions.
Wandering through London’s West End this week, basking in the beauty of the lights and decorations, I found myself wondering how many passers-by were making real purchases. There is a lot of anecdotage about people using shops to inspect cameras, laptops, books and suchlike, then going home to buy them online.
Thus, do ever more retailers go bust, ever more High Streets stagnate and, indeed, die.
Mary Portas’s sensible High Street report makes recommendations that the Government should take seriously.
She urges a planning presumption in favour of shopping developments in urban centres rather than out-of-town.
She proposes encouraging budding shopkeepers by introducing a regular national market day and drastically reducing oppressive regulation in retailing — here, too, the dead hand of Health & Safety has much to answer for.
City centre parking charges need to be cut or abolished. She warns that High Streets are at ‘crisis point’, threatened with near-extinction unless they get help not only from government, but from us.
If shops are to survive we, their customers, must make a conscious effort to help, buying their goods even if sometimes it seems easier or a little cheaper to hit our screens at home.
Shops cannot compete with online prices because internet retailers do not pay city centre rents — nor fund the bright lights and glittering trees that delight us this week.
Of course, High Street shops are not charities. They must pay their way and offer customers what they want, at acceptable prices. But we shall miss them mightily if they perish.
This is the Christmas to rediscover the boundless fun of reality shopping in real shops.
Just thinking about it makes my old acquisitive instincts twitch. Must dash…to Selfridges.