x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

A nation of shopkeepers closes its doors on the high street

The day Amazon can fit a 60-foot ocean-going cruiser into your letterbox is the day street level retail becomes obsolete. It may be closer than you think.

I've been reading with envy this week about the World Luxury Expo, being staged at the Burj Al Arab in Dubai. Surely the planet's most opulent marketplace, items available for purchase include Fabergé eggs, $10 million (Dh37 million) yachts and even a jewel-encrusted pen.

If a wistful smile flitters across my features as I imagine wandering among the aisles with my credit card in hand, you must forgive me. For here in the UK, we're facing the imminent prospect of having nowhere left to shop at all. Nevermind Fabergé and yachts, if things continue, Britons soon won't be able to purchase anything more extravagant than a pint of milk.

It was Napoleon Bonaparte who famously dismissed the English as "a nation of shopkeepers". Yet if the remark was supposed to be disparaging, it had the opposite effect: Brits have always prided ourselves on the traditional high street, with the variety of businesses that each contribute to the commercial and social cohesion of the community.

But now many of the household names that once made up the fabric of town centres are collapsing faster than faulty picnic chairs. First to go was Clintons, the greeting-card company, which last summer declared insolvency and the closure of 345 outlets. Comet, the audio and TV giant, soon followed suit, as did the clothing retailer JJB Sports.

Now, with the new year not yet three weeks old, more major chains have collapsed, including Jessops, the camera retailers (187 stores), and Blockbuster, the movie rental chain (528 stores).

The biggest casualty in this grim commercial roll call, however, has to be HMV. One of the nation's most recognisable brands, with its famous logo of a Jack Russell terrier peering at an ancient gramophone, Britain's pre-eminent music and DVD chain was recently voted one of the 10 best-loved brands in the UK.

But the internet cannot be denied, and shoppers now download their favourite tunes and movies straight to their computers. HMV failed to cope with changing trends, and now all 235 stores have closed with the loss of 4,500 jobs.

While the global recession has obviously been a contributing factor, it's not difficult to see the reason for this tsunami: namely, the nation's love affair with online shopping, and in particular Amazon. Like the mighty Brazilian river, this giant of online retail is threatening to swamp everything in its path.

With its head offices registered in the tiny European state of Luxembourg, the company pays relatively little corporate tax. Instead of costly premises, it conducts its business from a few distribution warehouses (called, with chilling prescience, "fulfilment centres").

Indeed, the inequality between online businesses and those still struggling in the high street was illustrated at the weekend when I visited HMV in central London. With closure imminent, prices at the flagship store on Oxford Street were slashed. When I spotted a DVD box set of a popular drama series reduced from £55 to £45 (Dh320 to Dh260), it seemed too good a bargain to refuse.

Yet a quick check online via my BlackBerry showed Amazon was selling the same set for £35. Needless to say, I left the shop empty-handed.

And therein lies the problem. With such a lopsided playing field, high-street retailers simply cannot compete. They may be able to offer a unique shopping experience, but the proprietor of our small local bookshop in north London summed up the difficulties: she told me that she often spends time helping customers to select the right book, only for them to blithely announce that they are going home to order it online. No wonder that a recent survey predicted that all of the nation's bookshops will have disappeared by 2015.

Indeed, this week the British Retail Consortium claimed that one in every nine high-street premises is now empty; and with 140 other well-known chain stores rumoured to be in deep financial trouble, that ratio will surely rise.

Of course, there'll always be a few things that can't be delivered in a van - such as a yacht for instance. But I wouldn't bank on it remaining that way. I can't quite imagine how Amazon will fit a 60-foot ocean-going cruiser into your letterbox, but of one thing you can be sure: somewhere, someone will be trying to figure it out.

 

Michael Simkins is an actor and writer based in London

On Twitter: @michael_simkins