The great British high-street, to many, has been a staple part of life. I can’t possibly comprehend the amount of times I’ve heard or used the phrase ‘going into town’, over generations it’s become a cultural norm. However, year after year, the rise of internet shopping has continuously left ‘town’ in the dust, and with this years Boxing Day sales estimating that the average footfall is down by 3.1% it has become sadly obvious that the high street as we know it have not even a thread to cling to.
The past two decades have been mired in a slow and steady decline in high street retailers, from dwarves to titans none are safe. Such big brands that now occupy the mortuary include Woolworths (with its high street presence defunct since 2009), Blockbuster (2013), BHS (2016), Toys “R” Us (2018) and many more. Recent news also indicates that HMV, the nation’s last real music retailer, is on its last legs after entering administration for the second time in six years.
However, these closures aren’t inexplicable, in anything these five giants had all been facing an uphill struggle against the fruits of a digital world. BHS, Toys “R” Us and Woolworths, with the latter mammoth retailer spending another six years trying to claw its way into relevance before ultimately succumbing to its wounds in 2015, began facing hard competition from sites like eBay and Amazon. Blockbuster received a hearty kick in the groin following the rise of film/TV streaming sites like Hulu and Netflix. And HMV (as well as the music industry as a whole) is in a losing battle against music streaming apps like Spotify and Deezer as well as through internet piracy.
Additionally, the loss of the high street is due to prove a bigger issue for the little man rather than big business, all these retailers jointly resulted in tens-of-thousands of job losses. And in a time when jobs are seemingly scarcer than ever it would seem like losing the high street in its entirety would be a gloomy prospect. And it’s a shame to, as I mentioned before the high street is a part of British culture, when Woolworths finally breathed its last breath the nation had quintessentially lost a retailer that made up the fabric of the high street itself.
And yes, they aren’t ready to utter their last hurrah quite so soon, with the US import of Black Friday and other special incentives have drawn the great British bargain hunters in and slowed their demise. Yet, as previously mentioned, even these are in decline, and with some retailers slashing prices by a staggering 70% it’s unlikely that any real profitable magnitude is being made. The owner of House of Fraser and Sports Direct, Mike Ashley, said that it had been “worst November in living memory” earlier this year.
But, to say that the high street will die and never return isn’t necessarily true, and in these recent years the institution is taking evolutionary steps in another direction. As I alluded earlier, the culture of ‘going into town’ is one that is ingrained into the public’s consciousnesses, it’s not uncommon to visit the high street just for the sake of visiting the high street. And as the big retailers are on their way out, the rise of cafes, coffee shops, tattoo parlours, hair-dressers and even vape shops have gone from only strength to strength as people get out of their houses and head into town for near exclusively experience-based outing. Coffee shops have a predicted 26% growth by 2020, on average two vape shops are opening everyday and hair and beauty salon spending has gone up 19% (female) and 26% (male respectively). So, for some, the future is optimistic, and the gargantuan consequences the internet has provided were only an inevitability in leading to the downfall of many retailers. So, its more a case of adapt or die with many businesses, and some have pulled this off (with many big-brand clothiers successfully making the transition from high street to online retailer). This was just going to happen sooner or later. Perhaps the high street in twenty years’ time will instead be a bitter struggle between the dominance between McDonalds’ and Starbucks’ as life changes, maybe not for the better but probably not for the worse either.