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HUER'S CALL by Mike Sagar-Fenton: High Street decline is the price of internet shopping

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: January 21, 2013

Comments (1)

"I'll meet you outside the shop." That's a village saying, but it may not be long before we hear it in town centres too. The (only) shop.

Economic forecasters predicted a gradual decline of the High Street, but the process has been a slow, invisible undermining followed by a sudden avalanche of highly visible catastrophes.

Now blank sheets of glass blind the street, joining up, creating dead walls in the sunlight and creepy silent labyrinths in malls, poked in the eye from one direction and stabbed in the back from the other. Shopping was once rated our favourite leisure activity. Now it's a lonely walk on the wild side. So whose fault is that?

The hard answer is: nobody's. No one asks anyone to set up shop. No one owes shopkeepers a living. They set out their stalls in the market place like any barrow boy, and if they can't put stuff on the shelf you want and can afford, it's their tough luck. The market place favours those who duck and dodge to where the money is, but discards its failures without a tear.

It's been a difficult ride to get here. In this quick world we seem to have lost the notion of cause and effect, but the irresponsible greed of financial institutions in the early 2000s is only now working its way down to ground level.

The money vaporised in that black hole left a vacuum – it's now sucking in every bit of cash it can find, and it knows all about our bank accounts, savings, credit facilities, pay-days, handbags, purses and pockets. It's stacking up the prices of everyday essentials and aggravating less obvious drains like rents, insurance and benefits. So there's much less cash available for that brightly-lit fantasy world.

Shopkeepers get little sympathy – I used to be one – and I think I know why. If a customer puts a tenner in your hand they believe they're £10 poorer and you're £10 richer. They don't know or care about staff, rates, rents, stock, utilities, VAT, advertising, insurance, bank loans, blah blah, which can mean (or, in a Cornish winter, definitely means) you could be paying out £15 for every £10 you take.

Those costs don't sleep, they don't care about seasonal adjustments, they grind along whatever comes through the door. And in the final irony, the ultimate coup-de-grace comes from the same hidden offices which gambled away your wealth in the first place.

But the fault, if you accept there is a fault, is shared by someone a great deal closer to home. You. Me. All our family and friends.

All right, I'll excuse those good folks who would rather go to town, park up, schlep through the rain to the shop and pay more than they need in order to buy something they could purchase by a click of a mouse at the kitchen table, but they're a tiny cohort. Young people don't even think twice. Older ones twang with pangs of guilt but we do it anyway.

We know the shops are gasping. We know the money will go to some multinational which pays less tax than its cleaners. We ponder about the lack of community we're creating, the loss of the shopping street buzz, the indolence and isolation of home shopping. We know our convenience comes at the cost of the fun element of looking around, using our senses of smell and touch, the random factor, a chance meeting, or just the stimulation of a change of scene. But we do it anyway.

What's going to happen to the high street? The market will speak and it won't all be bad news. I'm full of sympathy for the hapless staff, out of a job again.

But I'm not sorry for the landlords, most of whom have no connection to my town but have used their financial clout to shove the rents up to where local businesses can't reach. I'm not sorry for the multiple stores who've been willing to pay them, selling the same stuff wherever you go and making all town centres look the same. As they domino, manufacturers will still need to get their stuff out there, and local entrepreneurs will still be willing to put up with the long hours and poor money just to be independent of the Job Centre.

Malls may wither and die, but individual shops may have a chance to come in from the fringes. It won't be pretty, but the marketplace is as old as civilisation and we'll always need it.

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  • EricW9  |  January 21 2013, 4:40PM

    There's much to agree with here, but there is much that can, and is, being done to raise awareness of the key role high streets and independent merchants play. In the USA, many communities are overcoming challenges from chains and online giants through Independent Business Alliances. See http://tinyurl.com/y3wp4uw for the hub of these efforts.

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