Coffee House

The changing high street

15 January 2013

I’ll confess to receiving the news of HMV going into administration with a heavy heart. Along with Woolworths, JJB Sports, Clinton Cards, Game, and Borders, it’s clear that most of the shops from my childhood are disappearing from the High Street.

Some of these structural changes have been caused by the economic downturn and benign changes in consumer habits, but the more enduring factor remains the ascendency of the internet. The Centre for Retail Research estimates that online sales accounted for 13.2 per cent of all retail sales last year. That’s an increase of 14 per cent on the previous year, and the highest figure for any European country. As increasing numbers of us start shopping with portable devices (such as tablets or smartphones) that figure is likely to rise even further.

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Bricks and mortar retailers simply can’t compete with the likes of online giants like Amazon and iTunes. Indeed, Amazon is now exploring ways to offer same day delivery as standard, a move that will surely see off the likes of Waterstones, WH Smith, and many more.

A report by PWC and the Local Data Company shows that store closures averaged 20 per day last year. The key losers have been toy shops, clothes shops, jewellers, card shops and furniture stores. Meanwhile, convenience food stores, charity shops, pawnbrokers, betting stores, and (worryingly) payday loans companies, are all thriving.

That change is even more grim when put in context. Affluent areas are seeing a return of independent retailers for whom price competition is not an immediate concern. Instead, they offer artisan or luxury products their customers are prepared to pay a premium for. This suggests a widening social gap between more prosperous and disadvantaged areas.

The modern High Street has come to resemble an awkward relative whose eccentricities are enshrined in fond family legend, but indulged only rarely now. Over to you, Coffee Housers: what do you expect the High Street to look like in ten or twenty years? And will you miss the traditional retailers?

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  • Teacher

    Online sales must and new shopping patterns must certainly account for some of the fall off in high street sales but they have been suffering for some time from other problems. Upward rent reviews, high business rates, the need for licences and inspections for various (increasingly specious) reasons and the war on the motorist resulting in fewer and more highly priced parking spaces have all taken their toll.

    A couple of real examples, The Lyme Regis high street has lost ‘The Georgian Tearoom’ to Costa and ‘Acorn’ gift and household goods store to W.H. Smith, Woolworth’s having given way to Tesco’s some while since. Nobody I know wanted more chain stores on this beautiful, traditional shopping street but the locals could not afford to trade there. Secondly, my local small shopping parade in Farnham Common lost its half hour free parking which has hit local traders. The extra money was wasted on re-surfacing the car park unnecessarily and putting a new money collection machine, again, not needed.


  • Daniel Maris

    This makes a change from the everyday story of the Sharia folk I suppose…or is the point that here are displayed the evils of usury?

  • Paul W

    Just remember when you found petrol cheaper at Tesco and the like. Now you go miles before seeing a small petrol station. Now you queue at the same Tesco. It is anyone’s guess whether we are getting good value.

    Just remember when you could get vegetables and meat in just 2 minutes walk. Now you drive to Tesco to buy their petrol to drive to Tesco to buy their vegetables and meat. The list goes on – shoes, clothes, records etc.

    Just remember when certain tax dodging on-line “booksellers” and their ilk have cornered the market for just about everything, we will have very few retailers paying corporation tax and guess who will have to pay to make up the tax loss – us while some nasty little tax haven gets above their share of revenue.

    Just remember – this is the future and it is very bleak indeed.

    But everything will be cheaper – won’t it?

  • Ron Todd

    Any shop selling stuff that young people can download for free is going to have problems.

    • LEngland

      Or, even that OLD people can download free of charge.

  • 2trueblue

    In the end we will pay the price for the high street demise. We will have no where to go to look at what we are actually buying.


    You know a store is going bust when it no longer knows what it is. W.H. Smith is a prime example. Just what is it trying to be? It doesn’t do any of those things very well. Woolworths was a zombie store for some time before it closed. It also no longer knew what it was.

    Walking past HMV today. Is it any wonder it has gone bust. But it seems that the press doesn’t want to ask the more complicated questions about what the management did wrong and how the management failed to respond to changes.

    If you want to be a very wide ranging DVD store then you need to stock huge numbers of obscure films in case someone wants one. But if most of those are never going to be bought then you have huge stock costs to worry about, and the staff required to keep lots of little boxes tidy. A smaller shop with just the best selling DVDs and some sort of easy to use kiosk where any video could be available next day in store, or even better, a deal with some of the rights owners of the old stock to allow a DVD with a cover etc to be produced there and then in the store. That would have reduced costs and made HMV more able to deal with the internet.

    Last week I watched ‘I was Monty’s double’ on TV. It’s £7 at Amazon, next day delivery. And £7 at the HMV site with 24 hour delivery. So why not have this made much of in the store so that most low selling DVDs could be purchased in store, using very easy to use consoles, and then delivered to the store or to a person’s home the next day? Why try to carry so much stock in store?

    • Austin Barry

      Also, unless you were a teenage headbanger, the loud moronic ‘music’ blasting in HMV stores probably repelled more people than it attracted.

      There was the sense that the spotty shop assistant with the lank hair, tattoos and body piercings had chosen the music to distract from the agony of his budget-rate Prince Albert.

      • Simon Fay

        I’m sorry HMV is in such dire straits but it does often feel like a cross between Tesco’s and a rave – not somewhere I like to linger,other than to see what odds’n’ends are in their latest capricious under-a-fiver sales.

        • Wilhelm

          It’s a place for student slackers.

          • Daniel Maris

            What’s the matter? Don’t they stock the Horst Wessel Song?

      • williamblakesghost

        Oh dear somebody’s mummy didn’t breastfeed them.

        I thought ‘squares’ had died out in the 1950’s? What’s it like to be an anachronism?

        • salieri

          There’s nothing square about wanting to enter a shop without suffering ear-damage. Ask the Noise Abatament Society whether it’s an anachronism, or whether it would even have been needed in the 1950s.

  • Tom Tom

    Rents + Business Rates are key drivers. If a small shop needs to clear £50,000pa to cover rent and rates it means you have to shift a lot of merchandise with 20% VAT before you ever cover wage costs and Cashflow must be a real joy as suppliers curtail credit. Far better to have a big warehouse in a rural area with a Website and not bother with High Street or Mall presence. It is all so damned simple. The only places cluttering up the High Street today are mobile phone shops and estate agencies with pawn brokers.

    HMV was very badly run as is Waterstones as is W H Smith. W H Smith – you can smell the carpets from outside their stores threadbare as they are. The quality of service in chain shops is pitiful, but the family-owned shops cannot survive without help – but Councils do not control Business Rates or Rents and Councils have destroyed many town centres over the past 40 years – Bradford being a perfect example.

    • Simon Fay

      WH Smiths has got to be next in line, sadly.

      • Tom Tom

        Yes but Kate Swann will have her millions

  • jazz6o6

    I never go near a high street if I can help it. Full of chain stores or what you call ‘traditional retailers’.
    The high streets should be reclaimed for residence, small business and pedestrians, and I don’t doubt that or something very similar is what will happen.
    Local authorities won’t like it of course because they won’t be able to charge extortionate business rates.


      Many years ago I considered opening a war games shop in Maidstone (a proper old fashioned one, not just Warhammer). But even for a tiny shop up a side road the rent and rates were so high that it seemed impossible to imagine how any trader could be viable, let alone a niche one.

      I don’t understand why there is not a great effort to re-introduce small independent stores into the High Street. Why not a genuine green-grocer, a master baker, some art galleries and antique centres. All using up spaces that are either empty or filled with fly-by-night businesses. If the High Street was a unique experience it would and will survive. If it just has exactly the same shops and exactly the same stock as every other town then it will not deserve to survive.

    • Olaf

      What is the incentive to open small businesses in the middle of town? The issues of parking/transport will still endure. With no parking spaces in town how will you get to buy your food? Supermarkets might not deliver if parking restrictions are very harsh and buses are not going to run to depots for you to collect the inevitable missed deliveries.There are lots of loose ends with the way things are going now.

  • wrinkledweasel

    Cottage industry has returned as a result of our revolution, but it is
    more a function of our economy than of lifestyle choice. We can simply
    have more of what we want because in relative terms, our disposable
    income is considerable. The choices are legion and our way of life has
    become a confusing search for the best holiday on Trip Advisor or the
    best Tablet on Cnet. The jumper that Sophie Grabol wears in The Killing
    was originally hand-knitted in the Faroe Isles and for all I know, still
    is, but the company that sells it, Gudrun and Gudrun is now a
    world-wide enterprise. It’s an example of some incredible changes in the
    way one person with a pair of knitting needles has effectively tapped
    into a global market.

    What are the lessons to be learned from the demise of shops such as
    Jessops and HMV? Well, obviously, don’t invest in a product that is
    vulnerable to technological advance on the scale we are experiencing at
    the moment. In a way, these stores are like the music hall acts who
    toured the same 20 minute spot for their whole careers, or at least a
    few seasons, doing the same jokes or tricks or whatever. In the old
    days, you went into the hardware store and bought a toaster. Or you
    ordered a telephone from BT. Or you bought your knickers from Marks and
    Spencer. In those days, you got toasters made by Morphy Richards and the
    phone was the same phone everyone had because only BT let you have one.

    Strangely, only Marks and Spencer seem to have hung on to the knicker
    monopoly and perhaps that is why you might still see them, in one shape
    or form, for some years to come.

    As for the future, it may well find a clue in the past since the
    technology revolution has torn down the fences and monopolies of old,
    perhaps signalling the beginning of a return to some of the better
    aspects of the old ways of life;

    Now this sweet vision of my boyish hours
    Free as spring clouds and wild as summer flowers
    Is faded all – a hope that blossomed free,
    And hath been once, no more shall ever be
    Inclosure came and trampled on the grave
    Of labour’s rights and left the poor a slave
    And memory’s pride ere want to wealth did bow
    Is both the shadow and the substance now
    The sheep and cows were free to range as then
    Where change might prompt nor felt the bonds of men
    Cows went and came, with evening morn and night,
    To the wild pasture as their common right
    And sheep, unfolded with the rising sun
    Heard the swains shout and felt their freedom won
    John Clare.

    • Tom Tom

      Jessops was a series of Management Buyouts and therefore leveraged. Zavvi in 2008 was a clear warning to HMV. The demerger of EMI in 1998 was really the signal that it was over as Thorn-EMI conglomerate tried to auction itself off – what happened – Kenwood ended up with De Longhi and Thorn Lighting is Zumtobel of Austria and EMI is now part of Sony and Universal after Terra Firma Private Equity failed miserably. That is how a British business turned into a conglomerate by an Austrian Jewish entrepreneur Jules Thorn ended up being destroyed by third-rate British management with people like Colin Southgate and Eric Nicoli screwed up the business back in the late 1990s…………..

      • wrinkledweasel

        Coincidentally, both my children worked as record shop sales assistants sometime ago. My daughter worked for Zavvi and watched as the whole thing melted down and my son worked for HMV. Working at HMV was like a sweatshop if he is to be believed: long hours, no security, sackings and a general feeling that you were there to be exploited until you couldn’t stand it anymore. Both of them stuck it out to the bitter end, or at least until they were able to get work somewhere else.

        The real losers in this are the little old ladies who bought their grandchildren record tokens for Christmas. If I had a voucher from HMV I would simply walk into the store, wave my voucher and walk out with goods to the value of it. I would like to see them stop me.

    • Teacher

      Lovely. Many thanks for this – and apposite too.

  • Russell

    Now let me see….. I need to get a new laptop….Do I go into town, drive around for ages trying to find a car space, park in a council car park for pounds and look in a couple of shops to see what’s on offer OR…Go online from home and read tons of reviews from ‘experts’ and consumers, find the laptop I need and carry out a price search finding the cheapest supplier, saving £hundreds over high street prices?

    Same with DVD’s, CD’s, Camera’s, Household goods such as fridges, freezers, TV’s, Hi-Fi’s, in fact almost anything apart from clothes (and even consumable clothes such as socks, underpants, shirts etc. can be bought on-line for less fuss and cheaper).

    It is no surprise many high street shops have gone out of business and many more will do the same.

    • Tom Tom

      So true. There is simply no stock. Even John Lewis is more and more like M&S with average quality and high prices and they have a limited display of optical and electronics dominated by acres of TV sets

    • Austin Barry

      And, of course, on-line stores are looter proof – a consideration which, I suspect, will become more important, particularly in our major cities.

      • Rhoda Klapp

        Looters, shoplifters, gangs coming in and threatening the staff into giving them stuff. The staff just taking stuff. Or not charging their mates. A man from the council saying your A-frame is a danger but it won’t be if you pay for a licence..or your signage isn’t in keeping with the historical something or other and you must change it at your own expense and then they will decide if the new version is OK.

      • Wilhelm

        David Attenborough who has spent his whole life in the jungle, gawping, at the mating habits of baboons ( odd fellow, what ever gets you off, I suppose ) should do a documentary on the strange disappearance of the White Anglo Saxon Protestant from our towns and cities.

        • Wilhelm

          Also, getting on public transport now is a life and death business, you could get stabbed or strangled, by our basketball playing community.

          • Teacher

            ‘A man who, beyond the age of 26, finds himself on a bus can count himself as a failure.’Attrib, Margaret Thatcher.

            • dalai guevara

              Jeez, more societal bull excrement. This might apply in your borough, but not in the First World. I suggest you travel more, join Portillo on his international rail journeys perhaps to understand that public transport (which rail is) can be an enjoyable experience.

              • Teacher

                See above…just being facetious. Of course I use public transport! My husband’s grandfather was a BR way inspector. My daughter commutes to work every day on the train.

                • dalai guevara

                  you have made a good point with regard to how our society thinks.

            • Daniel Maris

              Just the sort of petit bourgeois sentiment one might expect from her.
              All those drug taking, philandering, roasting, gambling, Beano-reading, game-playing premier league footballers must be successes in life because they own a car.

              • Teacher

                I wasn’t actually being serious here…

            • Rhoda Klapp

              I was on the same bus as Jeremy Paxman, once.

          • dalai guevara

            Are you on a day pass when they let you out?

            What do you know about ballers? I have recently played something like the Lithuanian National student team, also Malaysian and Chinese only opponents. Indeed they are all very dangerous…but not for reasons you suggest.

    • Sue Ward

      You obviously got a good deal on apostrophes! 😉

  • DWWolds

    Another factor is that we simply have too many retail outlets. Here in the East Midlands we originally had the Victoria and Broad Marsh Centres in Nottingham and the Shires in Leicester. The Victoria Centre was up-dated and Leicester followed, turning the Shires into High Cross. Somewhere along the line Downtown near Grantham and the Leicester Forest Park out of town outlet on the A46 were opened. After that the came the Westfield Centre in Derby.

    Even without the recession, people only have so much money to spend so it is not surprising that the Nottingham Broad Marsh Centre is on its uppers and there is a debate over what to do what to do with it.

    • Tom Tom

      Downtown is good though – and the garden centre – made something of Grantham at last……Downtown is a better store than you will find in Yorkshire

  • Rhoda Klapp

    Those who don’t know the economics of retail may be unaware that the top 10% of takings contain pretty much all the profit. If that goes, you are in immediate cash flow crisis. You still have to pay rent, rates, staff. You have no flexibility on prices, and you are buying as smartly as you can already, from wholesalers who like to be paid.

    Every time the landlord wants an upward-only rent review, or business rates go up, or the bloody council find another way to frustrate your footfall or charge you for some licence or ‘service’, you need to take more money. The hgh street as we know it is doomed. I surmise that it is irreversible.

    • echo34

      Insanely, the more councils charge for licences, car parking, etc. the less their take will be as local shopping areas disappear.

      A slow, painful death for any such local authorityand the community it claims to serve.

    • dalai guevara

      Any of the shops that have been seen to be in trouble have one thing in common – they are not attractive. Not attractive to the price-conscious, whilst at the same time not attractive to those who demand an ‘experience’.

      In the particular case of HMV, I am not sad in the slightest (does anyone really miss Woolies?) – the independent retailers I continue to support will benefit greatly from this demise and will thus continue to add to the diversity of the high street.

  • Olaf

    A fixation by local authorities on driving out customers in cars by high parking charges, trick cameras plus the price of fuel reduces foot fall in towns and cities from everyone that doesn’t work or live in the area. It now costs double the postage prices to drive and park near a shop. Sky high rates and other taxes then force up the price of high street goods so people look elsewhere. It’s not rocket science but stills seems beyond the ken of those in power or is part of the plan anyway.

    • Framer

      Absolutely. A huge reduction in parking restrictions in shopping areas (and cost) plus a total ban on any out of town or greenfield shopping centres are the only measures that will stop Hight Streets becoming totally blighted. That and fair tax arrangements for global internet retailers.

      • Rhoda Klapp

        Framer, tell me you have never looked at some product with a model number or ISBN in a shop then googled it to find the best price. That internet retailer is not able to offer it cheaper because of dodgy tax arrangements but because of low overheads. Because of not keeping stock at all. The economics are unbeatable. We probably have to let the high street go, if the council won’t save it by means of making high street shopping a far more pleasant experience.

        Having said that, my local town allows three hours free parking. It is a nice place to shop, although not large.

        • Tom Tom

          Funniest thing i found was Currys telling me it would take 2 weeks to get a product in stock when i simply told them to order it online and get it next day


            Tom Tom. Same experience. My son wanted a Nexus 7 for Christmas. We went to Currys and they had none. Panic! Went online and had one available next day in the same Currys. But the salesman made no mention that was possible, and could have taken our money on that basis in the store.

            I would buy more books from Waterstones than I do if they improved their selection, drove down their prices, and allowed next day collection of almost any book.

            As it is, I pay once a year to have free next day delivery with Amazon, the prices are low and the stock of books I want is generally available. I have some ideas about improving niche sales at Waterstones but after a lot of trying it seems impossible to get hold of anyone who would matter.

            • laurence

              I stopped buying books in Waterstones around the time the philosophy section was decimated to make more room for new-age, happy-clappy, cod psychology, horse puckie. That and Alain de Botton.

              • salieri

                … and now the wall-to-wall pop music. I wrote to Waterstones to ask why it was no longer possible to browse in silence, as book-buyers have always done, and was told by some illiterate ‘team leader’ that consumers prefer ambient noise. What patent rubbish.

    • Teacher

      There is a very short street in Uxbridge, about a hundred metres long, which made a million pound in parking fines in a year! And I learnt to my cost that tiny parking spaces in one of the car parks, almost too small to park anything bigger than a ‘shopping trolley’ vehicle, are used to fine anyone who parks on one of the confining lines by centimetres. I never go there now.

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