Automatic doors that open and close when we enter and exit shops are so commonplace now that it’s easy to forget what a novelty they once were. The first such doors I ever encountered were in the mid-70s and in Huddersfield, of all places. I remember stepping in and out of the premises over and over again just to experience the sensation which seemed to me straight out of the USSS Enterprise. The shop in question was British Home Stores. A year or two later, a brand new ‘shopping precinct’ (as they used to be called) emerged on Boar Lane in Leeds, complete with a bizarre plastic tube housing an outdoor escalator that again seemed to have arrived directly from a sci-fi show. The main shop at the forefront of this futuristic retail behemoth was British Home Stores. One of my first forays into it revealed they even had a record department. Those were, indeed, the days.
The news that BHS – as the business gradually became known (acronyms are so ‘street’) – is to go cap in hand to the Receiver, with the potential loss of 11,000 jobs, is a reminder that George Osborne’s LTER (that’s Long Term Economic Recovery to those of you not ‘street’ enough) hasn’t been much use to the traditional residents of the city centre high-street. On Gideon’s watch, the likes of Comet, Clintons and JJB Sports (all 2012), Blockbuster Video (2013) and Phones 4u (2014) have all disappeared, joining the likes of Virgin (2007) and Woolworths (2008), which vanished while Gordon Brown was moving his furniture from No.11 to No.10. The past decade has seen a radical facelift of the high-street, one in which most of the chain-stores to have superseded the old mainstays are either endless, interchangeable coffee shops or the discount and pound stores.
The rapid rise of the latter is symptomatic of an age wherein people want to pay, at best, as little as possible for anything or, at worst, nothing at all. A glance at thirty or forty-year-old ads for long-gone department stores that are easily located online can be surprisingly revelatory in that so many goods, from food and clothing to electronic accessories, tend to be more expensive than they are today or more or less the same price. In the 60s and 70s it was to be expected that the customer paid handsomely for quality – whether a pair of slacks or a colour telly – because the purchase would be an investment in something that was intended to last for years rather than months. The ascendancy of the designer label in the 80s again placed emphasis on the quality of the item, even if the item itself was secondary to the label in importance.
If there is a key difference between the increasing cost of living since the financial crash of 2008 and the economic crisis of the mid-70s it’s the fact that during the Three Day-Week era, prices rose in unison across the board while wages stalled. Today, whereas the charges of energy suppliers are even greater in relative terms than they were in 1973/74, the overall cost of essentials such as food and clothing has actually fallen. The likes of Waitrose may have cornered the market in selling a largely expensive range of edibles, though the customer prepared (or able) to pay is actually paying for something worth eating. Ever since the pioneering no-frills cheap foodstuffs of Netto in the 90s – 10p for a tin of spaghetti! – those in the lower-income bracket have had a far wider range of choice than back in the era of Fine Fare, Hillards and Safeway; what that choice entails, however, may or may not be linked to the truth that we are a far fatter nation than we were forty years ago.
The concept of the hand-me-down, whereby each child inherits the former outfit of its elder sibling, arose from times when new clothes were expensive and any wear and tear was patched-up and stitched-up to extend the lifespan of the ensemble as much as possible. These days, with the proliferation of stores selling cheap gear and an abundance of charity shops, the necessity of making do and mending has been reduced to near-extinction in all but the very poorest of households. Thanks to Asian sweatshops unburdened by silly things like worker’s rights, trade unions and a fixed eight-hour working day, an entire wardrobe can now be purchased on a regular basis at an affordable price; when it inevitably begins to fall apart, the low cost of replacing it renders the sewing box redundant.
Many of these factors have played a part in the impending collapse of British Home Stores, not to mention the dubious business dealings of the company’s fat cat owners and shareholders helping themselves to upwards of £586 million of profits in recent years, according to the latest revelations. That many middle-aged shoppers have relied on BHS, as they do Marks & Spencer, when so many of the cheaper high-street upstarts primarily target a younger customer base, has been viewed by many as a reason for its rather fusty and old-fashioned image; the thought that older consumers might have a favoured retail outlet that ‘the kids’ avoid is indeed an utterly hideous notion, and we can’t have that on our bargain basement boulevards.
© The Editor
11 thoughts on “CHIRPY CHIRPY CHEAP STREET”
The retail landscape is an ever-shifting one – within my lifetime it has moved through phases of corner shops, local supermarkets, out-of-town hypermarkets, shopping malls, discount stores, on-line etc. BHS occupied a position where it became squeezed from all sides whilst, at the same time, occupying physical space mostly in high-cost high streets where the best spenders no longer visit.
The fact that BHS spent its final years in the hands of a sly commercial manipulator, a retail asset-stripper of our time, has negative effects on its employees and pensioners (and thus the tax-payers too) but, in truth, it would have happened anyway because, like Woolworth’s before it, BHS was a business out of its time. Mrs Mudplugger, a prodigious spender of note, cannot recall buying anything from BHS for the last 20 years or more – QED.
There used to be blacksmiths aplenty in every town and tiny village, but the world changed, their customers moved on and they all ceased trading, apart from a few cult specialists – that’s what happens in retail, you make hay while your sun shines, but dark clouds can gather anytime, occasionally bringing shocks of rumbling thunder. It’s called progress.
My sympathies lie with the employees and pensioners, none whatsoever with the recent opportunistic owners who have pillaged it shamelessly through its predictable death-throes.
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BHS is a ‘mum shop’ from my viewpoint (mother being in her seventies), yet mater is equally fond of the pound shop and the discount Primark-type enterprise too, which in itself is a sign of the times. I seem to recall penning a post about the change from corner shop to shopping centre to mall to retail park back in a former life, so I do accept there is a certain inevitability about these things.
As someone who moved to London in the 70s, in my view the rot set in when British Home Stores removed the lavishly-stocked cheese counter from its Oxford Circus store (the one you walked through on a rainy day to go from Oxford Circus tube to John Lewis next door without getting wet). Many’s the pre-Wallace & Gromit slab of Wensleydale I’ve enjoyed from that place, not forgetting the keenly priced mature Cheddar, Red Leicester, Stilton and so on.
A branch of Waitrose has since appeared in the basement of the adjacent John Lewis, and while it unquestionably offers much more range and a more gourmet proposition than BHS ever did, it is just not the same experience somehow. Have we lost our taste for the simple things?
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Gawd, I’m not going to recognise the UK high-street the next time I see it – I’m still mourning the loss of Woolworths, albeit as a reference point rather than a shop I’d often visit.
I was never clear as to what BHS was selling – nylon bedsheets as opposed to M&S’ cotton, I suppose.
Pet, you’ll remember that behemoth of the Leeds retail-industry, C&A; driving to the big city with family to get lost amongst its endless aisles was such a strong memory for me that I felt a bit sad when it disappeared – for good, I imagined.
It was a shock, therefore, to see a shopper with a pristine C&A plaggy bag a couple of years ago – it lives!!! I’d fancied it was a UK-firm that went belly up, oblivious to its euro-credentials.
I’m going to tell myself that somewhere there still is that high-street of my youth: C&A in a downmarket department store battle with British Home Stores, Woolies with its nickable pick ‘n’ mix sweets, and a weekly trip to the utterly dreary Hillards supermarket… Ah!
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I was in Amsterdam last week and was surprised to see C and A alive and kicking there, just down from the shops selling cannabis seeds and “truffles” (as magic mushrooms are apparently labelled now), and around the corner from another store with an amazing display of sex toys in the window… That;s obviously where the British High Street has gone wrong… put the crap shops next to what people really want, and they will get trade from those off their heads or with a “guilty pleasure” they need to hide in a legit bag….
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I’m now wondering if my wide-eyed staring at the famed carrier-bag might not have made its owner uncomfortable! What WERE they hiding in there?!?
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Confession time – my everyday light jacket, worn pretty much every day, winter or summer, came from C&A around 1970 – I remember paying 25 shillings for it (£1.25 for younger readers), so it can’t have been after February 1971. 46 years on and it still looks as fresh as the first day, wonderfully versatile, so comfortable and practical, despite being a standing joke amongst family and friends. Mrs Mudplugger hates it with a venom, but she now knows that it would be grounds for divorce if I ever find it in the bin (yet again).
It’s 15 years now since C&A shut up shop in Britain, but they’ve continued to prosper in their home ground of mainland Europe. Maybe they’d heard about Brexit and correctly predicted the result so far in advance, I sure hope so. I’ll happily trot over to Amsterdam if I ever need another jacket, even pay a premium for then being a non-EU citizen, such would be my delight.
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There’s something comforting in knowing the Man at C&A lives on!
Apparently, Virgin Megastores live on in the Far East. I remember them becoming ‘Zavvi’ in the late 2000s, which didn’t last long. No wonder I used to refer to the revamped stores as ‘Spazzi’.
I suppose on paper BHS was one of those old-fashioned all-purpose emporiums ala Grace Brothers. Certainly, the fact that I recall them selling LPs early on (it was the first place I remember seeing ‘Who Are You’ by The Who, strangely enough) suggests it initially wanted to be all things to all people. Over the years, I suppose management cut away the least profitable aspects and focused on the core element of what actually sold, though I too was never entirely sure what that was in a shop I hadn’t visited since the mid-80s. As for Hillards, I can only recall their own-brand biscuits and their logo!
I accompanied my wife on a visit to a retail park in a local town. She wanted to look at some carpet for the living room and while we were there we decided to look in the brand shiny new BHS next door. It was housed in a big barn of a retail shed rather than a bricks and mortar high street location and as I looked around I could see that this was a store without a future. The mix of stock was baffling- I mean- up-market choccies and champers next to soft furnishing that wasn’t a patch on Dunelm’s and a lighting department that was inferior to B&Q.
I spent a lifetime in retail and it was clear to me that the store was doomed. The overheads were too high, footfall too low, and if you sold everything on display it still wouldn’t cover the costs of opening. Just like Woolworths, Comet and many others before it had lost its way and there was no way back. People are happy to browse the shops and look at the goods, but they go online and buy them cheaper (and they get home delivery included in the price)
The high street in my town is full of phone shops, charity shops, coffee shops, betting shops. It costs a fortune to park in town and the out of town sites are free. People shop where it’s easy to park.
Remember when we went window shopping? Not any more. The shops are shuttered or locked away in malls- or both. The shops are open when people are at work but close when we finish work.
Retail as we know it is dead.
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