Mind the gap

The rapid implosion of an A-Z of retailers this year is unnerving: Adams, Dolcis, MFI, MK One, the Officers Club, Olan Mills, the Pier, Rosebys, Stead and Simpson, USCWhittards of Chelsea, Woolworths, and what used to be Virgin Megastores but is now apparently  Zavvi.   (These links take you to screenshots of their websites as of 29th December 2008). The case of Zavvi is particularly interesting because it was severely damaged when Woolworths’ wholesale arm could no longer supply it with CDs and DVDs.  

What is different about this retail recession is – if you’ll pardon the pun – the wholesale nature of it.  Each of these failures leaves boarded up premises in hundreds or even thousands of towns.  The shock is palpable when giants of the high street fold, but of course it isn’t necesarily worse than the death-by-a-thousand-cuts of individual local traders going under.  But it is certainly more unnerving.  

The video below shows how Walmart took over the US between 1962 and 2007, but all our retailers have been expanding in similar ways in the last 20 years in the UK.

Imagine those lights going out in reverse order.  No, I don’t want to think about it either.

The Telegraph‘s headline says one in 10 shops will stand empty, but in the text it speculates it could be as much as 15% of retail floor space, and the Times today discusses the different ways that administrators are salvaging something – anything – from the various wreckages.  Me, I wouldn’t want anything to do with a retail business right now.  Online, maybe.  Retail, no.

What is really scary is how much of the boarded up space in high streets, shopping centres and retail parks will never be viable as retail premises again.  When consumer spending finally revives, it’ll be online.    I can see one possible future in which our former market towns pleasant places to live, if wise town planners give planning permission for shops to revert back to dwellings and make residents’ parking safe and cheap.  But there really is nothing you can do with an out of town shopping centre, not even turn it back to the agricultural land it was 15 years ago.  These videos of the Trafford Centre, Bluewater and Lakeside Thurrock from the excellent BBC series Britain from Above hint at the scale of this problem.

Vodpod videos no longer available.

I tried googling for images of missing teeth, because that is the obvious metaphor but all I found was endless photos of cute kids, interspersed with ads for dental practices.  Instead, I’ll leave you with a screenshot of Woolworth’s website from the 29th December:

Woolworth's web site - 29 December 2008

Woolworth's web site - 29 December 2008

And I don’t really have a conclusion.  What conclusion is there?  As Napoleon said, we are a nation of shopkeepers.

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5 responses to “Mind the gap

  1. The really scary one I heard was a rumour that Dixons/Currys/PCWorld is on the skids. If that behemoth goes down – and there’s no particular reason why it shouldn’t, their customer service is dire and their prices are ridiculous – then there’ll basically only be one national household electricals retailer left (Comet), which will be weird on a number of levels.

    You have to wonder where all the redundant shop assistants will go. These people are not blessed with many transferable skills, unfortunately. I think we’re in for another seismic shift in the employment patterns of the nation, like the one in the eighties and nineties which saw the end of most manufacturing industry. The interesting thing is, this time, it’s service industries getting it in the neck. Manufacturing, such as it is, isn’t much affected, because what’s left is so niche, comparatively. It’s luxury service industries that can’t cope with even a small downturn in demand.

    I wonder what the landscape will look like when I retire…

  2. Ipswich has three Costas (two cafes, one concession in Smiths), two Subways, a Nero and a Starbucks. You can walk past all of them in under 10 minutes, but you have to go out of town for decent cushion covers. Launderettes? 4 that I know of.

    That’s the future of town centres I think. Coffee, Bagel, Beer (breakfast, lunch, dinner). As online sales grow demand for distribution centres could fill up the retail spaces on the outskirts, or maybe more Centre Parcs-like places will turn up for people who can’t afford/don’t want to go abroad.

  3. I was in Currys this evening. I simply wanted some DVD-R’s. I found a good pack at a good price and then stood at the counter in the centre…making, I thought eye-contact with two young 20-somethings in Curry uniforms standing by the door resting their near-obese bodies on the wall. I am CERTAIN they must have seen me.

    I waited and then got the watch out for the minute countdown…it passed so I left the DVD’s on the counter and went up to them: ‘Do you two work here?’..’Um, yes?’ ‘Well, I have been standing by the counter for 3minutes.’ ‘Oh, we didn’t see you.’ The ‘boy’ headed towards the counter as I headed towards the door.

    I did go to Comet though and got a great deal so thanks Currys!!

    The main problem with any business at the moment is the banks aren’t lending the cash they normally do to shops and hence the shops can’t afford the products.

    A family member of mine who runs a business couldn’t even withdraw their own cash from their in credit bank account for a bit as the bank refused to give it to him.

    Oh and of course, shopping holds no enjoyment for me due to the identi-kit shops.I think I buy less than I used to due to this.

  4. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve had a similar experience in Currys/PCWorld.

    I find it all the more amazing because over 20 years ago I WORKED in Dixons/Currys. Back then, the idea was that as a customer entered the store, you made eye contact if possible. If not, you made damn sure that if they hadn’t physically picked something up and made for the till within 30 seconds, you bimbled over and said “Can I help you?” or similar. Any slacking from such polite harassment would result in an immediate reprimand from the manager. At busy periods we were expected to juggle two or three customers at a time. It’s true there was the occasional customer who would angrily respond along the lines of “if I want help I’ll ask”, but really, they were 0.1%, if that. Most people were happy to know you were available if they needed you.

    Nowadays, Currys staff appear, to me, to have been deliberately trained to actively avoid customers. I’ve recently had two experiences where I’ve asked a member of staff a question, and they’ve muttered something unintelligible and simply walked off. I know from personal experience that staff training is poor or non-existent, so I put the blame firmly on management. The managers of these stores are hiring idiots and allowing them to behave like idiots. And yet, bizarrely, I have the opposite experience in Comet, and more importantly have CONSISTENTLY noticed the difference for the best part of a decade. How two shops in such similar businesses can be so startlingly different in their approach to customer service amazes me. How Currys are still in business on this basis amazes me even more. Maybe they won’t be soon.

  5. Meanwhile, it gets worse. I’ve just discovered that Starbucks are soon to occupy the premises in Ipswich previously known as the Great White Horse hotel. This was the establishment where Dickens stayed, and namechecked it in The Pickwick Papers (Ch. XXI, apparently). It used to host a comedy night, where I got to see Reginald D. Hunter doing the circuit. Ross Noble performed there not long before he hit the stratosphere. Now it’s to become another Starbucks on a junction occupied on the diagonal opposite by… Costas no. 2. There are more coffee shops than public toilets in Ipswich.

    Meanwhile, Woolworths/Adams/Zavvi gone. Officers Club closing down, slowly.

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