SO this is how the private sector rides to the rescue of the British economy. His company profits have dropped by 40 per cent, so Sir Philip Green, boss of the Arcadia Group, announces he is closing at least 250 stores. Your local BHS, Topshop, Topman, Burton and Evans could disappear for ever. For someone who was asked by David Cameron to advise the Government on efficiency savings, it’s not bad going.
Sir Philip Green is minted. The man lives in Monaco and his fortune is estimated at more than £4bn. If he really wanted to, he could take a hit of several big millions and not even have to think about selling a yacht.
But you don’t end up living in Monaco with a fortune of more than £4bn without learning a thing or two about business. He knows that the High Street has never been under so much pressure. And even with all that business acumen and years of retailing experience behind him, there is nothing he can do about this current economic downturn. He has to make a cold decision, and if that means thousands of jobs lost and another nail in the coffin of British fashion, why, what does he really care?
I doubt his wife buys her gear in Evans. In fact, I don’t know anybody who buys their gear in Evans any more. This is the point, and this is why we can’t just throw our Topshop knickers in the air and start dancing on the grave of the High Street.
It’s just not good enough to dismiss it all as inevitable and stand back and watch our retail industry die. Our shopping habits were changing before the recession sent them into revolution. And we have to keep talking and keep discussing and keep making retailers aware of what we expect. Otherwise, in 20 years, our grandchildren won’t know what a High Street was.
As far as I can see, no-one, not even the sainted “High Street Saviour” Mary Portas has been prepared to do this from all angles. I await her forthcoming report on how to rescue the retail industry with interest, but I hope it acknowledges the fact that most of us have no money to spend, and even when we do have it, we are not going to be spending it on hand-made scented candles and artisan bread.
So, as contribution to the debate, I’d just like to point out that for me the biggest problem is that so much of what’s for sale in shops is rubbish, and overpriced rubbish at that. I think in his stony heart of hearts, Sir Philip Green knows this only too well. If you have ever attempted to find a hoodie for a bloke in Topman, you will know what I mean. A plain, black, decent quality, sensibly-priced hoodie. And not only-in-a-size Small-and-no-we-don’t-have-any-more-in-the-back.
I often stand in such a shop as Topman in a daze, look around at the sheer amount of stuff, and wonder what it is all for, and who will ever buy it all. The more choice we have, the more confusing and ultimately unsatisfying the experience of shopping is.
I know this is not Sir Philip’s responsibility, but just look at Marks & Spencer which also recently posted record losses. I have my own issues with what is deemed by M&S designers as suitable womenswear for 40-somethings who can still see their own feet.
But we’re talking basics here. What can be simpler than venturing out to acquire three plain white and three plain black T-shirts for my husband? A grey-and-pink polo shirt, that’s fine. If you want to look like a golfer. But plain T-shirts? In November? In M&S? More chance of the snow that apparently all British clothing retailers were pinning their hopes upon to shift the piles of winter gear they have stockpiled.
When I returned hopelessly empty-handed from my shopping trip, my husband went straight to M&S online and two days later a neat package containing six plain black and white T-shirts arrived. Was there really any point at all in me leaving the house?
Well, unless you count the lukewarm cup of coffee in the café, no, there wasn’t. Like millions of other consumers who do their shopping online, I might as well have saved three hours and the petrol and stayed at the kitchen table.
This brings me to the real point. We can’t just say to ourselves, that’s it, the end, and watch the High Street disappear under the tide of internet surf. It is defeatist to conclude that the British consumer has disappeared, and also, to be honest, it is wrong. Even though our budgets are tight, we still enjoy the process of buying stuff.
It’s just that we are pickier and less amenable and frankly less gullible than we once were. It might not help their profit margins overnight, but retailers must face this and adjust what they offer. This is not communist China. We’re not expecting state-sponsored department stores. But a bit of retailer responsibility could be just the thing to save our shops.