Thirty Thousand Streets

Monday, January 12, 2009

Future Shock

I was chatting to someone in the kitchen at a party, the other Saturday, when the subject of Woolworths came up, and I wondered out loud, whether there actually will, y'know, be any high street shops, in ten years time.

I said it more for dramatic effect than out of any certainty, as I'm sure there probably will be, but still...

These are, rather obviously, tough times to run a business, and no business more so than one involving an actual, physical venue as a shop-front (as opposed to a virtual one). I've lost count of the number of independently owned, interesting small businesses – such as restaurants and shops – that have fallen victim to spiralling overheads, most notably rent. (From what I have heard, this was also the issue that put pay to all the record shops on that once jewel in Bristol's independent shopping crown, Park Street).

As dust was scattered on Woolworth's coffin, voices could be heard expressing regret at its passing. Some even noting the irony that if Woolworth's had been as busy in the last few years as it was in it's final hours, it may not have had to close. I am simultaneously bemused by the sentimentality expressed here, and the fallaciousness of the statement. They saying goes "they never really miss you till you're dead or you're gone", and I would certainly argue that insofar as buying practices go, people were only nominally aware of Woolworths as a shopping destination whilst it was in supposedly rude health. And of course the liquidation prices that drew the crowds in the end would, presumably, have been unsustainable in the long term.

And while we're on the subject of unsustainable business models, let us not forget that part of Woolies plight originated from the fact that it made 90% of its profits in the six weeks before Christmas (which suggests to me that it would only take one particularly fell Winter to put pay to their uniquely tawdry world of averagely priced gewgaws and niknaks). (Yet another surprising revelation to a layman such as myself is the fact that many of these larger, supposedly profitable retailers, have an inherent reliance on readily available credit to pay suppliers: the minute that stops, the wheels come off.)

We all mourn the passing of institutions such as Post Offices, local cinemas etc. whose presence we tend to take for granted, but ultimately we as the consumers have, however involuntarily, voted with our feet or (by proxy of favouring shopping on the internet) our fingers. It is, presumably free market economics that have allowed business to flourish in this country and make it the global player it is. Government intervention – as some have claimed was a viable solution to Woolies plight – is only another way of paying for something we evidently do not care much for. The question is, I suppose, do we want high street shops, in ten years time? Because it seems to me, perhaps the only retailers equipped to weather the storm might be those with enough financial clout to achieve enonomys of scale, or who own property outright and are hence not beholden to spiraling rent from landlords

Perhaps, in the future (say, 2020?), all we'll do is work, then come home – maybe we'll even all work from home, by then. There won't be anywhere to go in the evening because all the pubs and bars and clubs have been turned into luxury flats or demolished to make room for new train lines. No, instead we'll just get drunk on supermarket-bought, loss-leader Stella, whilst hunched over a flickering screen, ordering DVDs off Amazon. It'll be like 1984 but with Facebook. By then local government will have capitulated to the seemingly inevitable and turned the centres of all our cities into huge coffee shops. There'll be concessions for the high street retailers, all of whom will be Phillip Green.

But it's just progress, I guess.

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