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Asian Tribune is published by World Institute For Asian Studies|Powered by WIAS Vol. 12 No. 977

The Bereavement of British High Street

Hemantha Abeywardena writes from London…

The loss of one high street chain, when the nation is about to face the dreaded triple-dip recession, is very painful, if you think about the men and women who used to make a living by working for It, suddenly find themselves at the gates of a dark tunnel with no light in sight. So, it goes without saying, the loss of three of them in a week is truly catastrophic, no matter which economic yardstick that you use to measure the collective impact of it on the very core of the society.

It was Jessops, which used to sell photographic equipment in its high street shops that went into administration this week first. Just as the British were absorbing the shock, the next bad news – the saddest of them all - made headlines – the collapse of HMV, the well-known music giant. By the weekend, the third one was added to the depressing list – Blockbuster movie rental chain. With the disappearance of the three famous chains, nearly 10,000 people are forced to stare into the precipice of uncertainty at a very difficult time for the British retailers.

A series of household names in the British high street faced the wall in recent times, in addition to what we witnessed this week. Comet, JJB Sports, Clinton Cards, Ellie Louise, Ethel Austen, Peacocks, Past Times, Baratts, Habitat, The Officers Club, Adams are some from a relatively-long list that does not make a comfortable reading for any patriotic Briton. The fear now is about the inevitable prospect of the list of horror getting longer – and not its morphological opposite.

The downfall of HMV, the world-famous music retailer, left the British in a lurch with a distressing dilemma that calls for an intense soul searching. It had been a shop that was close to their hearts other than any other shop in the high street for generations in its 92-year-old history – up until about five years ago, simply because everyone loves music. It had the unique magnetism to attract people to its shop floor, even if the folks in question did not have a burning desire to buy a cassette, cd or dvd from the high street shop. More often than not, those who walked in, hardly walked out empty-handed – while buying a hard copy, thanks to the irresistible temptation to browse through elegantly organized shelves.

Its fate, however, was decided by the very consumers who shunned the giant in favour of online retailers like Amazon and digital hulks like iTunes for convenience, substantial discounts, more choice and above all, 24-hour shopping experience. Although, we feel sentimental about its demise, we are obstinately reluctant to associate ourselves with the unintended consequences due to choice we make in our shopping habits.
Retail analysts blame the end of high street giants on bad management and outdated business models. They say that the high street chains underestimated the success of online stores such as Amazon, eBay, iTunes, to name but a few. The truth, however, is most of these big chains did have technically-sound online businesses, although they were not as innovative as big American brands.

They, however, could not compete with the latter on price – the most important aspect of retail trade, as far as an average consumer is concerned – while maintaining hundreds of shops and the corresponding range of overheads. The retailers tried their best while knowing very well they were losing the battle as the playing field was nowhere near being level. The online giants, meanwhile, cashed in on the very factors by running their business from a few mega warehouses while maximizing the use of technology to attract the customers in droves.

When the well-known online retailers offered the customers the role of seller too – while remaining a buyer – the high street chains realized that it was the last straw. In order to fight back, they tried to win back the customers to their traditional business, i.e. the high street shops, with the introduction of a series of cosmetic measures in the form of feeble advertising, change in outlook of the shops, change of motto, loyalty cards and of course, many offers, but to no avail. As the recession deepened, the struggling retail giants realized that the survival in the high street was entering the last crucial phase.

We had been in a similar situation in the early 90s, when supermarkets started expanding at the expense of small shops. During that period, there were organized protests by people in certain areas to save the local shops – butchers, grocers, fruiters, and even the post office branches. In the end, supermarkets had their way and customers slowly changed their loyalty swapped their loyalty around - and embraced them in the end while being drowned in endless benefits. Although, supermarkets are not under threat at present in the presence of online-retail boom, they are aware of the looming threat, a distant one, unless they are prepared to respond to customer-sentiments at the right time.

All in all, what we see is the inevitable progress of mankind, which most of us clinch quite slowly – and reluctantly. The folks, who swore by Shakespeare not to abandon their typewriters in favour of word-processors at the outset of the era of PC, know all too well the price to pay for taking such a grand stand against a technological progress - having realized the fact that that unguarded-sentimentalism and efficiency are two sides of the same coin.

- Asian Tribune -

The Bereavement of British High Street
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