Wednesday, 16 January 2013

High Street Not Dead, Just Resting

The failure of HMV has produced a wave of nostalgia about 7-inch singles and given another airing to the lament for the death of the high street. Even those who celebrate the creative destruction of capitalism can't help confusing administration with the loss of life. The personification of the high street, and the search for its killers, has been a persistent trope for some years now. We mourn the passing of a shop like that of an aged relative (an incontinent and senile relative, in the case of Woolworths). We individualise it, focusing on a specific branch, even though what we are often mourning is the end of a corporate chain, a form of shop that we simultaneously criticise as soulless when it elbows out independents. Recent TV series, such as The Paradise and Mr. Selfridge, have allowed us to combine nostalgia for pre-chain shops of character (i.e. exclusive and not open to the hoi-polloi) with the modern sentiment of shops as mini-communities with an identity and culture of their own (more Championship Vinyl than Grace Brothers).

Over the last 50 years, shops gradually became the locus of sentimental community as the older sites of communal action were emptied or undermined. Before the 1960s, when music and clothes shops became "counter-cultural", department stores were where you went to escape your community - to be exposed to possibilities beyond your immediate horizon. The hollowing-out of places of community applied to both traditional and hierarchical forms, such as churches and pubs (the class distinction between lounge and public bars), as well as autonomous and progressive forms, such as public libraries and social clubs. While these still live on, social interaction has been relegated as cash transactions have come to the fore. The primary activity of pubs used to be talking, not drinking. The introduction of juke-boxes, one-armed bandits and then food all served to make talk secondary to spending money. It is no coincidence that beer became stronger over the last 50 years, with lagers displacing bitter and mild, as higher alcohol stimulates impulse buying. Ironically, some brewers are now watering down their beer as austerity (and nostalgia for "authentic" ales) pushes people back to lower strength and cheaper drinks.

Proposals to save the high street are uniformly nostalgic, unrealistic and patronising. They tend to advocate either niche (i.e. expensive, middle-class) vendors, retail as a (middle-class) leisure experience (arthouse cinemas and authentic coffee shops), or the introduction of social functions such as health centres (nostalgia for the golden age of the welfare state). Wayne Hemmingway wants empty shops given over to quirky startups, as if everywhere could become Camden Market, while Richard Sennett and others want vibrant mixed-use high streets with creches, day-care centres and pop-up art galleries. No one is pushing for fast food outlets or bookies, or welcoming the growth in charity shops. Apart from the obvious class bias, these "free enterprise" and "pro-social" positions also share a common view of the high street as a good in itself, as if its preservation was to be welcomed by any means. The village green preservation society has given way to the high street taskforce.

This ignores the reality of what a high street is. It's a concentration of shops, and shops are just a concentration of products. The high street exists simply because it was the most efficient means of bringing buyers and goods together, much as market squares were the most efficient means in an earlier era when all goods were either perishable or had to be easily transportable at the end of each day. The high street is the result of the introduction of canning and railways in the 19th century, which made bulk purchasing by retailers attractive and necessitated on-site storage. Its modern incarnation is the result of widespread car ownership and the shift of bulk purchases to out-of-town retail parks and supermarkets. Its current transformation is the result of the Internet and the commodity deflation brought about by globalisation (which further advantaged superstores and home delivery). The high street will become more dispersed and more fragmented, because there is still convenience in a physical store but less desire to travel distance to reach it. The high street will cease to be a feature of the town or borough and become a feature of the neighbourhood. The replacement of main street with multiple suburban malls and convenience stores is well-advanced in the US and elsewhere. Britain will be no different.

The nostalgia for older forms of shopping focuses on incidental detail, the resonant smells and eccentric assistants, and ignores this base reality. Despite the foregrounding of the "retail experience", and the propaganda of luxurious cornucopia, shops were just stores. Literally places to store goods. Supermarkets, for all their air of modernity, replicate the form and organisation of the factory, with your amble down the aisles (the same route every week) a production line. You are the labour that pushes round the trolley, loads it with goods, transfers it to bags and transports it by car or bus. Increasingly you man the checkout. It is no secret that online delivery and click-and-collect are problematic because they transfer the cost of this labour (estimated at £15-20 a load) back onto the supermarket. Inflation at the till is only partly down to higher commodity prices. Supermarkets need to maintain margins as they transition towards the pure warehousing of "dark stores", where costs can be recouped by sacrificing the customer space. It is likely that robots will shortly replace the human "pickers", with the supermarket then nothing more than a sorting centre for the flow of goods from suppliers to customers. As presence technology improves (i.e. the virtual fitting room), this model will extend to clothes and other goods. Already today, you'd be hard pressed to spot the difference inside the fulfilment centres of Tesco, Amazon and Royal Mail.

When we sigh about the slow death of the high street we're actually lamenting the disappearance of common spaces where different classes mixed. The social significance of Woolies in its heyday was that it was used by doctor's wives and dockers, who'd also use the same public transport to get there and back. The modern utopia of mixed-use, of yummy mummies sipping cappuccinos next to OAPs keeping warm in a daycare centre, is an attempt to recreate that shared experience and social solidarity. The flaw in the plan is that the coffee shops will gravitate towards the "better" end of the street, while the daycare centre will be shunted round the corner. The map of the future high street will reflect the realities of property segregation as much as the change in the means of production, distribution and exchange.

1 comment:

  1. I don't lament the death of the High Street. Over the last 30 years or so we have been duped into a culture summed up by the inane concept of "Retail Therapy". Its not so much that I need therapy for the trauma of having to open my wallet, but simply that I hate the act of shopping - except perhaps food shopping - and see nothing therapeutic in spending money you have worked hard to earn, to buy things you really don't need!

    The kind of mindset typified by the idea of "Retail Therapy" is of course one that Capital needed workers to absorb during that period, because as manufacturing industry disappeared, the economy became based on retail jobs, and services selling products actually made in China, and bought on credit, as people used bubbled up house prices to get themselves deeper and deeper into debt.

    The government talk about a rebalancing of the economy, but in reality are doing everything to hinder it. They are propping up the bubbled up house prices, through various scams and unsustainable interest rates. They are propping up inefficient capital with low interest rates and low wages, and then moan about Capital moving out of the High Street, where far too much of it has been accumulated.

    Even without the Internet replacing many shops, there is far too many of them. They mushroomed in that environment of massive debt, and will simply wither as people deleverage. One bloke on Newsnight last night tagged it too. High Street rents will have to collapse along with other property prices and rents, and the banks will have to take a big haircut.

    Something like 150 retailers are on the brink of going bust (Blockbuster who I thought had already gone is the next today). According to R3, these are just a few of the 160,000 zombie companies on the verge of extinction.