STREET OF SHAME

When it suits some, the Brexit factor is certainly a convenient one. It’s surfaced as an excuse of late in a handy round of pass-the-buck that covers a few questionable tracks. Local councillors and business leaders in Staffordshire haven’t blamed the decline and fall of their high-streets on the sunshine, the moonlight, the good times or even the boogie, but on the Brexit. Unhelpful city centre parking facilities, extortionate rents for shop premises, out-of-town retail parks and internet shopping all pale next to the Brexit factor – at least according to the good burghers of Burslem in Stoke-on-Trent; there’s also the small issue of the demise of the town’s world-famous industry, one that enabled places like Burslem to thrive and prosper, and how it hasn’t been replaced. But blame it on the Brexit.

We’ve seen this before, of course. Britain’s traditional heavy industries – whether the mines, steelworks, or the potteries – employed the communities that sprang up around them; when the industries died, the communities died with them. What’s left behind is a sorry shadow of what once was, and Burslem is officially the country’s premier ghost town when it comes to commerce; the shop vacancy rate there is thrice the national average of 12.2%, standing at a dismal 31.5%. One in three empty shops does not a busy town centre make, and Burslem is home to 11,000 people who are being so poorly served that they drive to neighbouring Newcastle-under-Lyme or Stoke itself rather than circumnavigate the maze of double yellow lines or cough-up for an hour’s worth of parking if they actually find a space when they might only want a packet of fags.

The Local Data Company compiled their depressing survey by visiting 2,700 towns and cities and found a trail of abandonment that was hardly unique to Burslem; it just happened to be the worst. In fact, I have it on good authority (i.e. from someone who lives there) that our very own City of Culture – AKA Hull – has its fair share of boarded-up shop fronts that hardly exude the spirit of a bustling commercial hub, let alone a cultural one. This all predates Brexit, but Brexit will suffice as a reason when councillors are confronted by the casual neglect of town and city centres that stretches back years. There is now probably at least one generation that has never associated the shopping experience with the high-street; theirs has been shaped by the mall.

For the traditional high-street, the mall was a monster it couldn’t compete with. As the big name stores gradually vacated their cramped old premises and moved to expansive new locations in the mall, town centres slowly embarked upon an agonising descent into dereliction, losing the motorist as a customer and leaving the pedestrian shopper with an increasingly limited choice. The remaining high-street supermarkets resorted to desperate measures, expanding their value own-brands, loudly promoting the ‘Buy one, get one free’ special offers, and introducing the most contentious development of all – maximising the sale of cheap alcohol, something that helped fuel the craze for ‘binge-drinking’ and also undercut the already ailing local public house.

The cheap booze policy may have kept several supermarkets in business, but the high-street of the 21st Century, peppered with bargain basement pound-stores and charity shops, is a depressingly uninspiring location. Gone are many of the familiar old supermarkets and gone are the old all-purpose stores like Woolworth’s, whose once-unique selling points can now be found in a dozen different shops under the roof of the mall or in the retail park warehouse. At the dawn of the economic meltdown that the 2008 banking crisis spawned, dear old ‘Woolies’ went to the wall, the first in a series of high-street names to vanish from the landscape in a matter of weeks, including furniture giants MFI, bookstore chain Borders, and Zavvi, the short-lived record shop chain that had purchased the old Virgin stores – all of which left the high-street more decimated than ever. What replaced them hardly instilled the high-street shopper with confidence.

The multi-purpose nature of malls also dealt a blow to other long-standing town centre fixtures. Many old picture houses, having survived the popularity of television and home-video by the skin of their teeth, finally succumbed to the changing climate when massive multiplex cinemas began to establish themselves as key ingredients of the retail parks. These glaringly impersonal and aesthetically unappetising arenas of artifice were nevertheless the ideal environments to showcase the merchandise trailers masquerading as movies that Hollywood has invested in from the 90s onwards.

But throwing all retail eggs in one basket can have catastrophic consequences for the towns that gleefully discard their high-streets, as has already been shown across the Atlantic. There have been several cases in America where malls have actually closed their doors for good, becoming so-called ‘dead malls’, whether due to changes in the social demographic of the residential areas surrounding the mall or because the owners of the establishment have decided to relocate their operations elsewhere. When this occurs, a town that had allowed its former high-street to decay as all leading business had decamped to the mall is suddenly left without any notable shopping areas for its citizens; although this has yet to happen in the UK, the recession that descended upon Britain in the wake of 2008 suggests that such a devastating event is not beyond the realm of possibility, and looking at the ghost towns many British high-streets have become in recent years doesn’t auger well.

Perhaps hope for the high-street lies with those who have chosen to set-up shop in Britain from foreign climes; just as Asian immigrants saved the corner-shop from extinction in the 60s and 70s, maybe the migrants from Eastern Europe who have colonised some British high-streets with cafes and bistros that specialise in their own exotic cuisine point the way forward to a future in which the high-street can be reborn as a cornucopia of choice that even the mall can’t compete with. And why attempt to compete, anyway? Make the high-street a separate entity, a true alternative to the mall, and maybe it’ll build up a clientage unique to itself.

© The Editor

THE STATE OF THE MARKETS

supermarketA story related to me yesterday proved something of a belated realisation of how choice – that buzzword so beloved of the Thatcherite mindset – can actually kill competition rather than encourage it, narrowing the field as opposed to widening it. Supermarket staff collected the day’s newspapers into a bundle, ready for return to the distributor, and commented upon the fact that not a single copy had been sold all day. Now, one could view this as yet another sign of how Fleet Street’s physical produce is increasingly redundant in the face of online news-surfing, especially when a rapidly dominant generation have grown-up without the daily paper as part of the household furniture; or one could view it as a telling comment on the paucity of good, authoritative and expert journalism in an industry that has pensioned off its veteran scribes in favour of zero-hour interns who source their scoops from websites; or one could even suggest it was simply a quiet news day, wherein tiresome scaremongering over Brexit or freak weather conditions or the Duchess of Cambridge’s new dress just weren’t intriguing enough headlines to warrant a purchase.

However, perhaps context played its part as well. The supermarket as an emporium of everything can subconsciously place every item on the same uninspiring level, so that a newspaper is no more essential or important than a can of alcohol-free lager or a dishcloth or a Pot Noodle – all mass-produced packaged products on display in an indistinguishable parade of mediocrity. The illusion given – and one that was often regularly noted by those raised in Eastern Bloc Communist countries of old when they first shopped in the West – is a dazzling selection of choice that is done with the customer in mind. Every item is available in half-a-dozen different brands, for one thing. But it only takes a few cursory trips up and down the aisles for one’s senses to be battered into choice overload, so that each brand actually blurs into the next and the overall effect is counterproductive for the manufacturers.

The first supermarkets I remember were the old-school sort – Hillards, Fine Fair, Safeway – small, proto-convenience stores that essentially specialised in tinned food. If you wanted a newspaper, magazine or comic, you had to go to the newsagents; if you wanted to read something more substantial, you had to go to a bookshop; if you wanted something to listen to, you had to go to a record shop; if you wanted something to wear, you had to go to a department store; if you wanted booze, you had to go to the off-license; and if you wanted a pint of milk, you had to wait till the milkman deposited one on your doorstep in the morning.

By the 1970s, television advertising and the supermarket were established enough fixtures for a generation to have risen with precious little knowledge that their pre-eminence within the culture of the country was a relatively new development. A clear sign that the supermarket was going from strength-to-strength came when the high-street was regarded as an unfit environment for containing the ambition of newcomers to the brand, such as Asda, a company originating in Leeds. In the early 70s, Asda began to open a string of huge superstores or ‘hypermarkets’ away from the cramped clutter of the high-street and geographically isolated from the competition. Just as the high-street supermarkets had undercut the corner-shop, the new superstores undercut the high-street supermarkets by offering an even greater range of goods at even cheaper prices. The ‘hyper’ prefix to these awesome retail monoliths came from the fact that they combined the traditional food-based stock of the supermarket with the wider selection of a department store, creating venues that housed all of the average shopper’s needs – needs that had always necessitated a trip to numerous different shops in the past – within the confines of one huge multi-purpose establishment. They were effectively a king-size corner-shop.

Whereas shopping had once been a daily tour of the high-street for the housewife, the social changes that had taken place within British society in the 60s and 70s had spawned the need for a new kind of shopping that catered for these changes. The superstores being erected on out-of-town land some distance from the high-street meant many were only accessible by car, and as most cars were very much boy’s toys at the time, hubby’s participation was required. Thus was born the weekly family shop. A full week’s worth of shopping couldn’t be carted home on the bus in a couple of carrier bags as the daily shop had, so a car was necessary to transport the amount of goods back to where they could be consumed.

It took a while for the arrival of the British hypermarket to seriously damage the high-street; even in the 70s, car ownership was still relatively small, and those lower down the social scale remained dependent on a shopping trip that could be undertaken on foot or by public transport. For the time being, high-street supermarket chains retained their place at the heart of the community, the place they had stolen from the corner-shop. The deregulation that went hand-in-hand with privatisation in the second and third Thatcher Governments, however, had a beneficial effect on the high-street supermarkets in that it enabled them to remake and remodel themselves as small-scale versions of the hypermarkets, expanding the range of choice available so that even pedestrians or users of public transport could theoretically purchase the same variety of goods as the motorist.

What this sea-change in choice did for specialist shops that previously had a monopoly on goods that had been unavailable in accessible-on-foot supermarkets was nothing short of disastrous. There is one remaining newsagent in my neighbourhood, whereas I can list perhaps half-a-dozen supermarkets off the top of my head – everything from Proles paradise Aldi to the Snob’s retail Nirvana, Waitrose. And I cannot remember when I last saw a pint of milk on a doorstep.

By contrast with the friendly, chatty ambience of the sole surviving newsagents I use, the supermarkets I know have an impersonal, disorientating effect on me; standing in line for the check-out whilst a pensioner dithers over her lottery tickets can end up being an existential exercise in pondering the futility of life, the universe and everything; and while I appreciate that could just be me, I surely can’t be alone? The supermarkets are now so huge and so powerful that they can not only threaten dairy farmers with bankruptcy by demanding their produce be sold at such a low price that profit is minimal; they also contribute to the overall homogenisation of the physical shopping experience and minimise the opportunity to enjoy the personal touch that the specialist shop can still give the customer if they’re allowed to keep trading. But I realise the masses like the convenience; and if it’s convenient for them, it’s convenient for everyone. That’s choice.

© The Editor