Saturday, January 29, 2011

Death of the High Street

The death of the UK's homogeneous High Streets has been promised for some time (and I'm in two minds whether I care or not), but it seems like it's happening before our eyes now on a daily basis with the recent demise of Woolworth's and HMV, Argos, GAME, JJB Sports, BHS and Clinton Cards looking like they're next in the firing line. Last month British retail sales suffered their worst December since 1998. The internet (and the snow!) was a big cause of this (not just online stores like Amazon but people downloading music, films, books, games etc), not to mention the big supermarkets now offering everything from car insurance to doctors, as well as food, clothes, electrical goods, books… in effect they're becoming mini-villages.

Cheap (to make), ugly, 'luxury' blocks of flats are springing up all over the place, almost overnight (much of the waterfront along the Thames have been ruined because of them – signs everywhere say no cycling or skateboarding allowed, even though they're on the waterfront, great for cycling along). Usually only affordable to young, affluent singles or couples (they're not really child-friendly, so where are all the families meant to go?), they have gyms, maybe a Carluccio's beneath them yet they feel devoid of life and character. Private, gated, no community, a wasteland – it's like what happened with council estates (but opposite – at least everyone's rich in these new blocks).

In the 1950s many council estates were built in the middle of nowhere with very little infrastructure such as public transport and shops, so people had to wait ages for the only bus to travel ages to get to the shops, or a tube station for work.

When (the former) we looked at a 'luxury' (ugly, cheaply made, tiny, ridiculously expensive) flat years ago in the middle of nowhere, near Kew, and asked where we were expected to get our newspaper and pint of milk, the reply was: 'The local retail park is about a mile away; M&S sell all that'. It's just not the same as walking to your local friendly newsagents; it seems so impersonal, not to mention a hassle having to drive to a supermarket just to get The Guardian.

So we'll all do our shopping at an ugly retail park in the middle of nowhere. The traditional high street will be for poor people, with half the shops boarded up, the other half consisting of betting shops (doing very well at the moment apparently) and Poundlands, 99p shops. (I've had a great idea for a new chain of shops; it's going to be huge: 98p shops… which reminds me – sort of – of when my NZ cousin came to visit and was very excited about a whole new way of shopping he'd heard about in the UK. I was intrigued and asked him more. 'It's called Argos', he said.)

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