Mark Casci: High street demise can’t just be blamed on the web

The high street in Hull.
The high street in Hull.
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The last time the UK high street reported a festive trading period as bad as the most recent one was 2008, and the world was in the grip of a financial crisis unseen in decades.

With seemingly every week bringing us the news of more closures in our town centres one could be forgiven for thinking of the world of the high street as a burning platform, as retailers increasingly panic into shrinking their estate to safeguard profit margins.

M&S on Standishgate will close later this year

M&S on Standishgate will close later this year

In the last few days, Santander and Marks & Spencer announced the closure of hundreds of high street outlets, and many more will unquestionably follow in the coming months.

Blaming online retail is the easy road to take when surmising the troubles of physical retailers but in reality the malaise began long before the arrival of ecommerce as a viable sector.

The excellent new book, Retail Therapy by Mark Pilkington, documents the complacency in the physical retail world in recent years.

The rampant march of an increasingly globalised world achieved much to destabilise the world, as we see now with Brexit, Trump etc, part of which allowed for the slashing of costs which might otherwise have kept retail expansion in some sort of check during the first decade of the 21st century.

Blaming changing consumer habits as an inevitable rising tide that will eclipse the high street’s model is shortsighted. Seven million people work in retail in this country, most of them women. Shrugging one’s shoulders and simply saying “times change” is letting them and millions more down.

Then, of course, there is the changing demographic of shoppers. Millions of people around the world have now grown up in a world where physical retail is time-consuming and pointless.

This generation takes its cue, not from the catwalk but from the web. Just this weekend, a gentleman named James Charles brought Birmingham to a standstill when 8,000 fans came out to see him.

I along, with most people reading this column, had never heard of Mr Charles until the incident. But he has an online audience of millions who hang on his every word on clothes and make-up. Those lining the streets too see him quite clearly are not interested in the old ways of marketing retail.

Indeed reports over the weekend speculate some online retailers are already preparing to launch “virtual mannequins”, online avatars based on users’ social media photographs, which will show you just how your new garment will look on your body.

Courses have been delivered to the likes of Amazon

Courses have been delivered to the likes of Amazon

Blaming changing consumer habits as an inevitable rising tide that will eclipse the high street’s model is shortsighted. Seven million people work in retail in this country, most of them women. Shrugging one’s shoulders and simply saying “times change” is letting them and millions more down.

Take too the elderly, for whom online retail is just simply not part of their world. Removing high street retail will leave them increasingly socially isolated and further spread the epidemic of loneliness that is engulfing our society.

Many blame local government for the high street’s problems. Parking charges and poor public transport are all inhibitors to taking a trip to town to do one’s shopping.

But these are symptoms rather than causes. Local councils have faced huge cuts from central government in the last decade and, with an economic downturn now looking more likely than not, the austerity agenda is far from over.

Responsibility lies with ourselves as consumers and with central Government. We can change our own behaviour but can we change that of Whitehall?

We must. Government must take urgent action to defend the high street, not just with operational assistance but with a genuine commitment to create a level playing field. Business rate requirements on physical retailers are one of the most clear and present dangers they face.

When compared with the tax laws governing online retail it is like looking at legislation from a different century, because it is.

A new charter for the high street, tying into the Industrial Strategy is one many consumer experts suggest as a remedy.

High streets are an economic lifeline to millions of families. They cannot become relics of a bygone era before all goods arrived into consumer’s lives via a brown cardboard box, lest we lose a vital part of our nation’s economic soul.