Charlotte Salomon is Deputy Chairman Membership for Saffron Walden Conservatives.
The early 1990s saw the department store living out its heyday – staunchly built on prime locations, and engulfing large chunks of the high street with rows of fashion and home retailers tucked in either side. Impervious to the economic climate and mail-order competition, these goliath chains built a trust with the British public. Some retailers had been trading for over a century, but it was the economic growth during the 1970s and 80s that brought luxury goods into every home.
The high street was a British institution designed for our convenience – the ultimate home of retail stacked wall to wall with everything we could and couldn’t imagine. Christmas adverts didn’t show products; instead, they featured smiling families skipping in and out of high street stores with fistfuls of luxury shopping bags. Shopping was social: it was a place to meet and browse the cases of diamond-encrusted watches and gold identity jewellery, and admire window galleries as well as run everyday household errands. It was a retail love affair, and the public handed over more and more of their disposable incomes.
I remember what it was like to be a child in Bollingbrokes and Wenleys on Chelmsford high street, looking at fine hand-painted figurines in glass cabinets labelled ‘look don’t touch’, and running my fingers over weighty, embroidered couture draped over unsettling headless mannequins. Pathways stretched out in every direction, pulling one in with selective signage than never led you to an exit. And before conglomerate coffee chains conquered the world, there was the department store café, where we’d sit with teacakes and I’d remind my parents about the toy department on the top floor.
The rise of big retail wasn’t without casualties. Small local was no longer price competitive, nor was it conveniently stocked and, as the years moved forward, small businesses vanished from the high street without audible protest. We didn’t care, we had our stuff – and besides, that’s business for you, right? The shoppers had spoken and voted with footfall – but here’s where big retail made its first mistake. Consumers gave them power; they could take it away. The second mistake was thinking that small retail had gone away permanently. Like the dinosaurs, it was the smaller, nimbler breeds that survived the asteroid – and by asteroid, I mean the internet.
The first secure retail transaction over the internet happened in 1994. Soon after, Amazon.com launched its online shopping site in America. Initially an online bookstore, it quickly expanded into, well, everything— as it established separate websites in Canada, the United Kingdom, Germany, France, Italy, Japan, and China. With the rise of Amazon and Ebay eating away at our own market, British brick-and-mortar retailers were forced to expand their online operations. Large supermarket retailers such as Tesco and Asda used their warehouse model and adapted it online. But it was a slow, incremental process, whereas small businesses or individual sellers could operate more freely across the online marketplace.
E-commerce changed the rules, and it had the added capability to adapt in real-time to changing trend and progress. Towards the end of the last century, high streets were marketed towards housewives, but this profile is becoming obsolete; more women are working today than ever before, and parents now have the stress-saving option of buying their children’s toys, high-chairs and furniture online, without the perils of walking them though the winding aisles of a toy store. You wouldn’t walk around John Lewis asking other customers which washing machine they’d recommend – but, online, you can do exactly that. Today, Britain has the biggest percentage of online shopping of any major developed economy: we the British have spoken, and we want convenience.
Colossal retailers began to fall, starting with Woolworths in 2009 and, since then, things have only become bleaker, as stores across the UK open their doors on borrowed time and borrowed money. By the end of this year, 71,602 stores will have closed and an additional 31,000 stores are predicted to close by the end of 2022. Ten years ago, online retail held less than eight per cent of the retail market. Today, it’s claimed that this figure has risen to 18 per cent, with a net-worth almost £67 billion.
In a recent interview, Archie Norman, now the chairman of M&S, said that the business was on a ‘burning platform’ and that unless the company changes ‘in decades to come there will be no M&S.’ But what if we can’t save our high street? What if we shouldn’t? Large chains still have the option to sell assets, close scores of stores and some retailers might even consider mergers. But on their current business models they will eventually meet their expiry date. Like a David Attenborough film crew observing some poor feral creature’s last moments, maybe we should just watch, and let our high streets die.
The age of the impulse buy has gone. The high streets and councils took advantage of customers and, in cases like BHS, they betrayed their employees during its controversial collapse. Eleven thousand jobs were lost, leaving a pension deficit assessed at £571 million. Small business has returned in local areas, offering niche, fresh unique products and organic produce, and customers are supporting their local shops and eateries once again. New business is small business, and shouldn’t that make us happy?
Extortionate business rates have left our high street a skeleton of what they once were, soullessly housing temporary pop-up shops, charities and coffee chains: the consumer is running out of reasons to drive into town. Councils charge anywhere between £1- £4.50 an hour for parking, pushing the costs of visiting a high street into double figures. They have also introduced reg-plate parking systems, forcing customers to type in their cars’ registration to prevent that age-old tradition of ticket-sharing. And large fines hang over car park users, reinforced by attendants ready to slap a fine on your windscreen if you stay a moment past your estimated time. The alternative? More choice and free delivery.
The same big-retail firms that once seized business from small-local ones are now crying out for a fairer system, and the Conservatives are toying with the idea that they could deliver it; Philip Hammond has said he will consider tax changes, taxing online businesses to ensure that there is a more level playing field. “We want to make sure that the high street remains resilient and that we also make sure that taxation is fair between businesses doing business the traditional way and those doing business online,” he has said.
Whatever post-Brexit tax we manage to enforce on online retail giants, it will not save our high streets. The Government needs to get in front of the high street crisis and acknowledge that Britain’s shopping habits are always evolving. To extend our high streets’ life expectancy, it should reduce business rates and councils should abolish extortionate parking charges. Big-retail will need a new model to survive online – something it hasn’t achieved in over 20 years of e-commerce: so they may never adapt. Long-term, we need to mull over the future for many high street properties and, amdist a housing shortage, grant planning consents for change of use.