Image description: A row of shops, with a Christmas tree in the middle.
Will I shed a tear for Debenhams, the department store that has withstood total collapse for so long? The store opened first in 1778, withstanding wars, depressions, the invention of modern life, and even my working there as a Christmas Temp, despite knowing nothing about clothes or retail and point-blank refusing to sell old ladies store cards. Now, it has finally given up the ghost. I say ‘finally’, because the worries of the full-time staff of the beleaguered brand were well-established in 2018, and they’ve had very little positive news to improve the mood since.
The news that the final potential bidder has pulled out has put 12,000 jobs on the line. Arcadia has also crumpled this week, risking a further 13,000. The deaths of these high street giants offer little hope for the councillors up and down the country trying to protect their business-rates revenue.
The coronavirus pandemic might well be the final death knell of what used to be a booming centre of commerce.
Big gangs of teenagers trooping up and down the high street, the lines of buggies with red-faced toddlers clutching sticky sweets to shut them up, the throngs of ladies at lunch with hundreds of bags walking slowly up the road; why bother, when you can order online? Why bother, when you are literally forced to stay at home?
When there are no more threats of lockdown or tiers (or tears, if you’re as frustrated as me) and we can finally turn back and say that the pandemic is over, attention will undoubtedly turn to the economy, and to which bits of it we’ve managed to salvage, and the bits that we haven’t. The high street was always going to be one of the main casualties of the virus; already struggling before the pandemic, and then totally stripped of its consumer base. Tax rate cuts and loans will smooth over some cracks, but the foundations were already wonky. Is it time to give up on the high street?
Shopping behaviours have changed. It’s clear that people are unlikely to return to the shops in even the same numbers as before, and online retailers are only getting faster and more efficient. The Pretty Little Thing sale sparked anger about the environmental impact of fast fashion, and the treatment of the creators of the clothes, but the flash sale is an excellent example of how much easier it is for online retailers to adapt. Having a sale in a physical shop is useless unless people come to buy things. It also requires more practical set-up – price stickers need to be changed and racks need to be moved, all of which requires staff and typically over time. An online retailer clicks a few buttons; et voila! Trending on Twitter.
Other practical concerns have left the big high street names struggling. An inability to restock as quickly as online stores because items have to be physically put out on the shop floor, the effort required to go into town and then the tortuous bus journey back – online shopping is less effort and time, and because it’s become a necessity in recent months, the high street will have to persuade people to come back. And that’s going to be difficult, given how much I love sitting on my sofa in sweatpants, and how much I hate large shops that are always overheated and blasting Ariana Grande.
The high street needs rebranding. We no longer have to go there for our shopping, so when we do, we demand an experience. In Oxford, the pedestrianisation of several central streets is on the table. The Rest Area on Broad Street, although a little bit like a playpen for small children, is popular. The high street must become a space to socialise, rather than a place to shop.
The high street needs rebranding. We no longer have to go there for our shopping, so when we do, we demand an experience.
The renewal of centres could be substantial if we learn to let go of the names that we are used to. We could transform the former commercial space into low-cost residential housing, or we could build more spaces for human connection, because that’s what we want from our high streets now. Even Westgate, that bastion of materialism, has, during the latest lockdown, become somewhere to simply sit and chat, usually with another Pret coffee.
Take the idea of a garden bridge, and instead make it a garden city. Green streets, with few cars and buses, and places to sit and socialise. Take the opportunity to develop and modernise our town centres and to make modern life more sustainable. Make town centres hubs of activity, and bring people back into them. Some might complain that there’s yet another coffee shop, but it’s what there is demand for. And there could never be enough pubs.
There are a myriad of ways to get people out and about again with a little imagination, but a trip to Debenhams has not been an enticing prospect for quite a while. So I’ll probably remain dry-eyed. And grateful I never have to spend six hours in the fitting rooms again.