Jayne Dowle: Our empty high streets are heading for an all-time low this Christmas

People should shop local - and keep the faith - this Christmas, advises columnist Jayne Dowle. Do you agree?
People should shop local - and keep the faith - this Christmas, advises columnist Jayne Dowle. Do you agree?
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ARE you still running around doing your Christmas shopping? Spare a thought for the great British high street. It’s having a terrible season so far, and retailers are hoping for a last-minute boost to bring a better outlook for the New Year.

Big names have been suffering their worst pre-Christmas sales for a decade, with industry sources reporting that takings in some major stores are down by 5.2 per cent in comparison to previous years.

I’m not saying that popping into Boots or Superdrug (other high street stores are available) to buy a couple of bottles of bubble bath and a chocolate orange will transform the entire retail landscape, but every little helps.

We’re used to doom and gloom from the retail sector, but this year there is something different in the air. And not just the artificial scent of pine needles wafting through the air conditioning to encourage us to part with our cash.

There’s a sense, backed up by anecdotes from industry figures, traders and shoppers alike, that the gentle shift in consumer attitudes and priorities taking place for several years is now turning into an unstoppable avalanche.

There are two main reasons for this. Lack of disposable income and the rejection of local high streets and town centres as the first port of call for shoppers. The multiple attractions of leisure destination shopping malls pull what custom is left away, and the internet offers hyper-convenient shopping without having to leave the house.

There’s something particularly poignant about this time of year when local councils attempt to raise spirits with Christmas lights and special events. It’s a sad sight indeed to see a string of lit-up stars being battered in the wind, highlighting only the faces of bored shop assistants with no-one to serve. Ask anyone who works in a card store, perfume boutique or a chocolate shop how busy they have been this December and they will raise their eyes to heaven.

Unfortunately there is no guardian angel waiting in the wings.

British Retail Consortium director-general Helen Dickinson says real consumer spending power has been on a downward trend in the past year, as the “acceleration” in inflation has caused shoppers to become ever more cautious.

As a shopper myself, and one who stands about listening in queues rather a lot, I’d add to that. Stagnating wages, benefit cuts and the crackdown on credit all have a part to play in this year’s rather dejected Christmas scene.

New research from Scottish Friendly and the Social Market Foundation reveals that more than half of households in Yorkshire are making significant financial sacrifices in order to buy Christmas gifts.

Many of those with children are relying on expensive credit to fund their purchases, while some families are delaying rent, mortgage or household bill payments. It doesn’t exactly bode well for a happy New Year, does it?

There will be hard lessons to learn come January. And not just for parents who succumb to the hype and feel compelled to buy a mound of unaffordable presents for their offspring. If our town centres are to survive we all have to take a long, hard look at our habits.

Everyone has a part to play in this particular Nativity play. In town centre politics everyone blames everyone else. It’s the shoppers’ fault for deserting local traders in favour of the internet and mall. Or it’s the traders’ fault for failing to move with the times. Or it’s the local council’s fault for not offering free parking 24/7. The list of approbation is longer than my daughter’s letter to Father Christmas, which she emailed to me for convenience.

And too often, there is a total lack of joined-up thinking between all the elements that go towards a thriving retail hub. People need a reason to visit a town. If one by one those reasons are removed, they won’t come. It’s simple common sense, not clever retail theory.

I’ll point to the recent decision taken by banking giant RBS to close 259 high street branches, including 197 NatWest outlets, across the country, with 11 of them in Yorkshire. This proves – above all – that if we don’t use it, we lose it.

RBS says that online banking and the use of apps has revolutionised the way we deal with money. In the past three years, branch visits have dropped by 40 per cent and mobile transactions have increased by 73 per cent.

Close a local bank and there’s uproar. Close one shop, then another, then another and most people just shrug their shoulders and keep shuffling on. This defeatist attitude has to stop. Our high streets and town centres deserve to do the best they can under very trying circumstances.

I say it’s time to stop the infighting and pull together. There should be a national town centres task force set up in the New Year, backed by the Government, with heavyweight industry figures involved from all sectors. Not just retail, but commercial, corporate and banking too.

And meanwhile, we can all do our bit to make things better. This week, shop local and keep the faith.