I’LL give you two versions of the future. One is a bustling historic high street full of people browsing the specialist stores and independent retailers, sipping coffee and smiling at each other as they go about their business.
The other is an individual staring out of their bedroom window, waiting for a drone to drop their latest purchase. In the background, on a plasma screen, a virtual shop assistant spits out robotic advice.
Which would you prefer? I think I know the answer. Unfortunately, we are all in danger of sleep-walking into a shopping nightmare. A major new report predicts that high street retailers could be consigned to history by 2050. Instead of going out to choose our purchases, we will stay at home and shopping will come to us. And our town centres will stand as dusty ruins, populated only by wild dogs and rats, who will make their homes in Top Shop and Marks & Spencer.
Okay. I made that last bit up. You can see where this is heading though. The Future of Shopping report is bullish about the effect the latest technology will have on our retail habits. Co-author Russell Freeman argues that augmented reality, virtual reality, drone delivery and artificial intelligence will completely change the way we shop. “It’s an exciting time,” he says.
I’m glad he thinks so. If I was an independent retailer, my heart would sink. It’s Small Business Saturday on December 3, but what force can this worthy event hold in the face of delivery drones and virtual shop assistants?
The aim of the initiative, as always, is to encourage us all to choose small, local businesses for shopping and services where ever and whenever we can. Unfortunately, human nature being what it is, too often we take the easy option and hop online, or drive to the nearest mega-mall instead of making the time to source what we need closer to home.
Let this report be a warning to us all. If we don’t use it, we lose it. For too long now those who bemoan the fate of our high streets have pointed the finger of blame at only one source – us. We ordinary shoppers who have apparently deserted the town centre in favour of the warm shopping mall and easy online transactions are constantly prevailed upon to change our preferences.
Hardly ever mentioned are the factors driving our collective behaviour. There is so much money to be made by major retailers on a constant mission to “improve” our shopping experience. You only have to go online for five minutes to be bombarded by competitors offering free delivery, free returns and free gifts. It’s only a matter of time before the most enterprising ones throw in a free diet-plan and lifestyle coach to complete the offer.
Campaigns such as Small Business Saturday can shout as loud as they like, but their voices are overwhelmed by massive, aggressive global forces. What chance has a small gift shop in Barnsley, say, against the mighty power of Amazon?
In response, the big shopping malls are going all-out to beat the online competition. Meadowhall, just a few miles down the motorway from where I live, is opening until 10pm every night in the countdown to Christmas. If you choose to shop there at that time of night, good luck. Don’t forget to spare a thought for the retail assistants who won’t be getting home until past midnight. Ditto the supermarket workers prevailed upon to work the clock around all year round.
And let’s not forget that Government has a role to play. National and local. I have yet to hear a minister or shadow minister make a proper understanding case in favour of supporting the thousands of small retailers struggling to make a living in our communities.
Local government has apparently no power over the greedy commercial rents asked by landlords, and every power to inflict punitive parking regimes which deter people from coming into town because it costs money before a purchase is even made.
It takes a strong-minded shopper to make a stand against all of this and vow to shop local instead of succumbing to the siren call of keyboard and mall. None of us are perfect. I order all kinds of things online and complain every weekend because the supermarket closes at 4pm on a Sunday. However, I do make a concerted effort to buy as much as I can in Barnsley town centre and use other local businesses for everything from printing to ordering flowers. I urge you to try your best too. If we don’t change our ways, we’ll all end up sitting in our bedrooms waiting for the drone to arrive.