There seems to be a constant discussion ongoing about the state of the British high street. The celebrity expert Mary Portas produced a report for the Government a while back on how to improve the situation that was subsequently supported and attacked in roughly equal measure.
There are tales, and not just north of Watford, of gradually emptying high streets, leaving behind innumerable boarded up premises, cut-price stores and betting shops.
Urban wastelands, in other words – Stanley Kubrick’s 1971 movie of Anthony Burgess’s A Clockwork Orange come to fruition in real life.
With some trepidation, last year I began dipping my toe into the minefield of online shopping. Being of a certain age, I am extremely nervous about putting out my financial or other personal details to any web organisation, which is why I have always avoided online banking services.
That said, having signed up to the likes of Amazon – in that case, to buy books that seem to be complicated or impossible to order from high street bookshops such as Waterstone’s – I have been mightily impressed.
To be able to visit a website, seek out a book, ‘collect it, place it in a basket and pay for it’ … all in about three minutes … and then receive it, delivered direct to your home, within 36 hours (regularly updated on its progress via email in the meantime) is a shopping experience infinitely superior to the numbing slog involved in venturing out into town, finding somewhere to pay to park, walking to any designated shop – and then, as likely as not, discovering that they haven’t got what you wanted in the first place.
Now I’ve mastered it, and despite my residual reservations about the fact that Amazon seem to know my credit card details better than I do, I’m beginning to wonder why anyone ever bothers to go physical shopping anymore.
Especially when the high street chains constantly shoot themselves in the foot.
Take WH Smiths, for example. My local version seems to spend its time trying to find new ways of hacking off what its corporate management has plainly decided is the most annoying element of its daily existence (the customers).
You can never find a shop assistant to ask for help with a purchase – they’ve tried to become more efficient (and presumably reduce administrative costs) by getting rid of all but the barest minimum required to operate a retail outfit.
The same drive for profitability has meant two things as shoppers attempt to pay.
Firstly, they’ve introduced a ‘self check-out’ area, designed to speed things up and reduce costs, but which actually has the opposite effect. Only about one in six customers wishes to use it, with the result that the shop has to assign a member of staff to stand around trying to encourage shoppers to do so.
Secondly, in parallel, they’ve reduced the number of people manning the check-out tills. There are four of them, but these days only one is manned.
As a result, there is invariably a long, snake-like, queue zig-zagging back into the store and it takes about ten minutes to get served. A bit off-putting, when all you wish to buy is a magazine. Now, whenever I have cause to visit WH Smiths, the first thing I do is go over see how long the check-out queue is. If it consists of more than seven people, I immediately turn on my heel and walk straight out into the street again.
No wonder the British high street is going to hell in a hand cart.