by Michael Clifford
I remember in my early years turning to the back of the Exchange and Mart trade magazine and looking at the bankrupt stocks listed. This page was easy to find as it always had a big black cross on the top of the page. This was the really cheap stuff and many bargains were to be had. Now the equivalent of these bankrupt stocks are all around us in our high streets.
I look at ‘Pound Shops’, ’99p Shops’ and ‘B&Ms’ and other similar cut-to-the-bone places. I am surrounded by their products: bright colour plastic products, toys, colouring books, cheap posters, floppy notebooks that have no cardboard underlay to write on, fattening crisp products and chocolates by the shelf-load (Toblerone and Kitkat everywhere), cheap gardening tools, barbecue gloves, star wars batons, pens and paper (fluorescent pink and green everywhere), Matchbox Toy type cars, brittle looking tools and aisles of food such as Wheataflakes and Lucozade. In many cases branded goods are at considerably discounted prices. Some people, children, like magpies, have to own anything that is colourful or shiny. Are these cheap products ‘end of date’ or ‘end of line’ or fakes? Or a combination thereof?
I see a schizophrenic high street, with pound shops and charity shops and tat everywhere, yet I also see a series of shops or a shopping mall where everything is about ‘style’ and all the prices are exorbitantly pushed in the other direction. In one shop a t-shirt is £2 and in the next shop the same t-shirt is £25. Bizarre. I am no fan of ‘style’ shops but why on earth do retail planners think it is a good idea to put stylish shopping malls in the middle of the Blackpool Golden Mile of Seaside tat? They usually protect their so called quality and style shops with walls. To build a retail mall in the middle of a retail ‘tat’ area is analogous of the snobbery of the rich gated community within the sink estate.
What is happening? As the pound sinks with inflation does all our merchandise crash with deflation? The price of something is related to how much people want it, and how much it costs to produce. Can I really write that it is the discriminating who want this over produced rubbish? This is the 90′s car boot sale, packaged and moved indoors over a decade later. For me the car boot is preferable, at least you get the odd surprise bargain.
The shops that appeal to men (if I may be so bold) in town centres are usually technical shops, like camera shops, electronic shops, hi-fi shops, computer shops and serious music shops. Yet many of these if they have not closed down, have moved to the centre of provincial cities (or the outer bi-pass shopping mall) and it takes a train journey and maybe a bus journey to inspect the technical goods a man seeks. It’s the internet for men’s toys now, boys. I suppose at least we have one positive example and that is J.D. Wetherspoon’s. It maybe another example of this bargain basement, pile-it-high-sell-it-cheap, ‘end of sell by date’ approach, but at least they provide some quality.
Money is being lost from the retail sector in town centres. It is devaluing and it is getting harder and harder to make profit. The global internet and the hypermarkets are now taking all those profits that used to go to the local ‘downtown’. The decline of the town centre started in the US and – like some migrating tree disease – has come to Europe. Money is always the problem. And for the pauper shopper, the old pawn shops have been modernised to be now called Cash Converters or Cash Generators or similar. Local micro-loan shops are on the increase. As town centres weaken, communities thin out, pubs close with many now turning into small supermarkets.
We had lots of BBC programmes about the 'Queen of the High Street', Mary Portas giving her advice on her TV series ('for free' she said on a Radio 4 documentary but now she admits she was paid £500,000 by Channel 4) to revive shopping centres and about how to raise shops profile and profits, but one celebrity cannot solve the enormous problems that underlie. One problem is that web shopping has the ultimate economic cosh to destroy town centres – massive price reduction. (What it doesn’t have is ‘hands on’, the buyer is remote from the product). Another problem is the specialist hypermarket cut-to-the-bone wholesaler where ‘hands on’ is not a problem (and only slightly more expensive than the web). The third major problem is the over hiking of shop rents. (The owners of these shops will be smiling on the other side of their faces when the whole town centre show is over). And then of course there is the lack of footfall brought on through apathy and limited availability in a town centre. If footfall and prospective shop renters continually reduce over the years (as they likely will), which chain, I wonder, will be the last to leave the sinking ship?
The High street not only has these pound type shops, evidence of massive deflation of price and the result of the over production of junk, but it also has the strange phenomenon of charity shops. These seem acceptable to everyone because they claim to be for a good cause. Shops such as Scope, Heartland, Heart Foundation, Help the Aged, Age Concern, Fire Ambulance, Mind etc., are peopled by volunteers, and apparently thrive on second hand goods. But do they? Aren’t many of the products for sale new? How does this work? Who makes these products? Where does the profit actually go? Some people have suggested that some of these shops could be a front for slave labour and a smart way to avoid business tax.
The problem of ‘downtown’ is the illness of the world yet the world refuses to swallow the curative medicine. The rapid escalation of continual overproduction of products (and the ever increasing need to turn over trade) will destroy the world. As Dragon’s Den, Alan Sugar and countless design courses keep telling humans to design more rubbish, the more we will drown in a shoddy sea of rubbish. How many designer chairs, or gadgets which boil an egg do we need?? Choice was a word made fashionable around the time of Tony Blair, now it's a dirty word. We don’t want infinite choice! We don’t want 3400 lawnmovers to have to chose between. We want a couple of quality products that work, products that last for decades. That would be good ethical design but it’s totally opposed to capitalism’s wasteful and utterly doomed model. It doesn’t take a quantam computer to work that out. In today’s world the compulsion to ownership is an obsession that is killing the earth.
So what are the facts about retail. In 2012 UK retail sales were over £311 billion, so retail is not exactly doomed, but it's difficult to know what percentage of that profit is from the town centres of small towns as opposed to the cities. Official statistics say that more than a third of consumer spending goes through shops. The value of internet retail sales in 2012 was £29 billion, accounting for around 9% of total retail sales.
The cheque cashing and payday loan shops are up 20%. Pound shops are up 13%. Charity Shops are up 3.6%. Betting shops are up 3.3% and coffee shops are up 3.4%. Card and poster shops, computer games, womens clothes shops, recruitment agencies, general clothing, health food and products and banks and financial are all falling in that order.
Mike Jervis, insolvency partner and retail specialist said in 2012, “… We saw more retail chains go into insolvency than ever before. The failed chains generally shared two problems – too many stores and too little activity in the shops and online. If underperforming retailers are to avoid becoming part of these statistics for next year, their shopping baskets should contain an acute knowledge of their customers and their customers' needs."
What used to be the recycling of toy detritus for sale at a Sunday morning car boot (which would swallow the kid’s pocket money) is now on sale in many shops in your beloved town centre. Quality shops have been migrating, flying off to the web, to a big dedicated store in a city, onto the hypermarket on the town bypass, or into oblivion, singing their swan song as they go.
When the world is full of crap, when the majority of houses, garages, sheds and lofts are full of the detritus of over production, where do we put the next thing we buy, or our kids buy? No wonder our amazing capitalist system has been putting on television programmes that tell us to clear out houses. They want us to clear out our houses so we can fill them up again – buy, buy, buy. Consumerism is becoming insane. The prime leisure activity of the British must be by now the pursuit of the shopping process (they’ve been brainwashed enough), yet they are no longer discriminating about what they need or what they buy. There is a strange hypnosis going on: when they go out shopping they have to BUY something as a confirmation they have engaged in the ‘process’; it confirms and completes the ‘holy’ ritual.
But the ultimate capitalist solution to this problem is war. When war goes on then everything is destroyed and it all needs to be replaced – and that’s where we are heading so that the cogs and wheels of the capitalist production system can go round in a circle to the beginning and start again.