Thursday, 17 January 2013

Britain’s changing high street

Lulled into and lolled out of a dark Christmas, January slid into view behind the scenes, the skies giving no clue as to the new colour of the year. But now, mid-way, we are smacked out of our glittery jumpers by minus temperatures, crystal piercing skies, and the news of one high street behemoth after another lying down by the bleached bones of Woolworths, eyes rolling, one last snort of steam from its nostrils, killed like in a bad sci-fi movie from that unseen virus – online.

Poor His Master’s Voice. For ninety-two years that little dog sat, ear cocked, listening intently to a gramophone. It never was upgraded to displaying a boom-box on its shoulder, never listened via gigantic headphones to walkmans, didn’t progress to being a digital projection of a cartoon dog street-dancing to an iPod. Like its logo, HMV also just sat, *squatted on every high street, usually on the dust-blown ashes of an independent record shop, belligerently happy with its position as ‘top dog’ for music, until it glanced around in shock and realised its customers were all shopping elsewhere.

But HMV was handy, especially once you waded through the racks of over-priced band t-shirts. I liked seeing what box-sets were on offer. A voucher from HMV was the stock Christmas present staple for all the blokes in my family (thankfully not this year – that honour has now been awarded to Costa vouchers since we are all hopelessly addicted to caffeine.) But what did I actually buy from HMV stores? Earphones. The odd film for £3. And occasionally there would be something to buy that I’d have no idea about unless I wandered the shop – such as the London on Film DVDs. But in recent years wandering the shop was not exactly a pleasure. The aisles were cramped. The fixtures and fittings dark. The music too loud. DVDs stacked on the floor, bunched on tables. The store started to resemble a chain pub over-run by a bring and buy sale, haunted by the ghost of Dixons staring down from the flat-screen televisions.

Blockbuster also gasped a final breath this week. Back in the day, we had a little local ‘Video City’. I used to don my rollerskates (quads), noisily whoosh down the pavement, and clunkily tip toe on the rubber stoppers all around the shop, trying to find something to watch that had actually been released in the last three years. Finding a new film was rarer than a Dodo feather. You had to put your name down on a list. Then along came Blockbuster. So bright! So much choice! Lots of sweets! My allegiance swiftly transferred, along with the rest of the community, and stayed throughout the transition from school to college to University. But then I found less time to watch films. Videos were cheap to buy. DVDs came down in price... especially if they were bought online.

HMV and Blockbuster should have put their heads together. They should’ve gone for a walk around the neighbourhood, popped into the latest trendy club, taken a casual stroll around an Apple store, recognised which way the wind was blowing. Unfortunately the online world is fairly stealthy. The activity is not heard. Yet those virtual shopping baskets are still being filled, and the invisible cash register is silently adding up for somebody.

It’s incredibly sad for the people who have lost their jobs. It always is. But perhaps this will be seen, one day, as a good thing for the high street. Maybe it will usher in an age of hand-made, of independents, of locally sourced, of craft. Maybe each high street will eventually become unique to its area again – a place people want to visit. The majority of people still like to go out and potter around. Shops should look at the demographic and footfall passing their door and think what can entice them in. The Internet will always be a factor, but online has different strengths to offline, and businesses that work that out will be onto a winner.

*I know this should say 'squatting'. But here, I rather like 'squatted'. Squatting sounds transient, like the store will straighten its knees at any moment and stride off. Squatted, on the other hand, sounds like it's bulkily blocked down on the street and put down concrete anchors.


Kittie Howard said...

We're going through the same thing here in the States. Like you said, it's sad. However, your last paragraph said it all--perhaps there will be more shops of interest and fewer big box stores. They're boring, have absolutely no charm and turn shopping into more of an errand than an experience.

music obsessive said...

I've had problems with HMV for some time.
1) They killed all my favourite independents.
2) They doggedly refused to reduce their prices and were massively overpriced - even their sales were above Amazon prices!
3) They alienated people like me who buy at the fringes, not the mainstream, by considerably reducing their stock and trying to entice gadget buyers instead. Neither worked.

Even so, I'm still sad to see them go, if go they do. Where will I spend hours browsing now?

Dewena said...

I hope the small ones do study what they could do. I miss the mom & pop stores in in each little town. We at one time were one of them. There's nothing like someone who knows your name and what you like. And in our larger cities the corp owned stores are closing too. There are pockets of clustered village stores and they are nearly always crowded, but they're a destination point where we take our visitors from out of state, not to be found widespread.

I do hear your disappointment and frustration.

Jenny Beattie said...

I think it's sad. We'd keep a list through the year of old films or the arty titles that I could never find in Bangkok and then I'd go to the HMV on the Tott Ct Rd end of Oxford St when I was back in the UK.

I hope you're right about it making room for a revolution on the high street.

wannabe a writer said...

Hi Jayne

I agree, it is sad to see them go, and having been made redundant recently, I feel for the staff. but like you say, they were good to browse in, but how often did people actually purchase? The sad reality is that many people are streaming their films now, and the shops with their high street rents and wage bills just can't compete price-wise with the internet. The internet does has the same physical feel though so I think people to browse and then go home to purchase on line.


Maggie May said...

It is really sad to see all these large shops closing down. I haven't got over Woolworths yet and really miss that shop.
Everything seems to be pound shops now and one is very much the same as another.
Hope we don't lose anymore.
Maggie x

Nuts in May

snafu said...

Change is an on-going thing and it is still survival of the fittest. New technology makes new changes just imagine how many hotels went out of business because the more trendy ones installed one of those new-fangled Bell telephones and so got bookings on the spot and did not have to wait for the post. The man who made buggy whips soon went bust when the automobile came on the scene and so on. Keep up or die, but it is sad to see so many go at once. Leaving the question, why go into the high street when there is nothing interesting left to look at?

Debbie Coope said...

I hope it gives a boost to all those indie record shops out there. Our local ones are Jumbo and Crash. We did have a local highstreet one (Woolworths), but that went the same way.

Supermarkets killed the record store!