Why high street chains are like Arab Dictators

Over the last few weeks more high street chains have announced that they are in trouble. Thorntons, Habitat and JJB Sports are closing stores, HMV has sold Waterstones and Oddbins has gone under. We are told that we should feel sad about this but wasn’t it the chain stores that ruined our High Streets in the first place?

Other than the obvious human cost of up to 10,000 people losing their jobs, I feel no regret at all at the demise of the chain store. In a spectacular display of shopkeeping karma, they have reaped what they sowed and in an irony worthy of any Elizabethan playwright, they have been brought to their knees by the supermarkets and the internet for the very reasons they systematically put tens of thousands of independent retailers out of business at the end of the last century: wider product choice, lower prices and superior logistical infrastructures.

And so why should we feel nostalgic about Waterstones and HMV when they and their co-conspirators more or less annihilated independent bookshops and our record stores? And the worse thing is the inference that it’s our fault for not spending enough money in these profit-obsessed faceless corporate entities.

In 2005 the NEF published Clone Town Britain, a paper evidencing how as a result of the infestation of chain stores, high streets up and down the country are now virtually indistinguishable from one another. Cambridge is cited as the worst offender, with only nine variety of shops in the city centre and high instances of multiples of retailers. It is for this reason I find city breaks in Britain depressing – every town centre is exactly the same and there is no longer any joy in holiday shopping.

For years chain stores have been dictating what we can buy, when and how. They intentionally limit choice by only selling their most profitable items, because profit is their only driving force. Remember Blockbusters? Remember how frustrating it was that they started to only offer the top twenty videos and perhaps a couple of random older ones? Well, look what happened to them.

It seems we have now had enough of our purchasing choices being limited by corporate logistics and profit margins. In the same way that the combined will of the people has overthrown numerous Middle Eastern dictatorships so far this year, so the chain stores are dropping like flies as a result of our search for democracy of choice on the internet and in the supermarkets. High street chains offer neither the expertise and localism of independent retailers, nor the eclecticism and competition of the internet and so is it any wonder we are shopping elsewhere?

Just like the more stubborn dictators most of the chains are clinging on to their power, at least for now. It is of course in their interest to propagate stories of doom and gloom and foretelling the death of the high street but research reported in the Guardian this week shows that local retailers are benefiting from chain stores closing, snapping up bargain rents on empty shops and the retailers who embrace the superior offering of the internet are doing alright. And so the green shoots of democracy continue to grow. Long live the revolution.

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  1. Ah, but which ones are mere Mubaraks and which one takes the prized name of Muanmar Gaddafi? Also, surprised you managed to miss the trick of comparing the stoic resistance of the independents to Gandhi. ;) Good piece. Must get back on with mine – once I’ve finished with all the other strands of my life that seem to have come unravelled this month!

    • Hey thanks for comment.

      Well not really Gandhi as it’s a post about 2011 but Gaddafi I think is House of Fraser in Cirencester, belligerently hanging on regardless of how rubbish people think it is and relying on consumers lack of knowledge of the outside world. I can only assume their dearth of goods from the 21st century are as a result of a trade embargo. What other excuse do they have for still selling Great Plains?

      And yes get back to blogging!

  2. I’m interested in the fact that Cambridge has been cited as the worst offender of shoving independents out of the city centre as I come from Cambridge. It is true that you struggle to find them in the city centre and you have to be a resident with a bit of nous to hunt them down but I’ve also found that those that do exist in Cambridge have a very loyal customer base and people care deeply about them. A little way out of the city centre is Mill Road, a long street with an eclectic mix of independent shops of all natures which recently fell to the opening of a Tesco Express, despite outrage and campaigns from local people. The building of a swanky new shopping mall filled with designer shops has really pushed diversity out of the centre (and made rent prices rocket) and there is much less of the folksy, hippy culture that used to be so unique about Cambridge. In this case I think town planning has been it’s downfall. As consumers, not only do we need to be aware of where we shop and put our money but we need to consider carefully what our councils are doing to encourage local business in our areas.

  3. I think you’re making a really good point actually!
    I too live in Cambridge, and I find it so depressing to go shopping here now. It’s the same shops wherever you go, whether you go to Grand Arcade or Grafton Centre, same sh*t different location lol.

    I would probably say that Next has the biggest empire in Cambridge; at one point I remember them having 4 shops within a mile or so of each other, it was insane!

    From a non-native Brit point of view, people envisage England to be full of quaint little villages and cities with kooky little shops of eclecticities, and yet if I was to go to Cambridge, Peterborough, Milton Keynes, it’s all the same! Incredibly frustrating in a way.

    I, too, have near-enough boycotted the high street, and go for bargains online. But I think one of the biggest fundamental problems about Cambridge is that the rents are extortionate due to being owned by Cambridge University, so not only does a retailer have to pay the lease, but also rent to the uni.
    I recently saw a sign up at a local, very successful, interior design company, who had been told by the university that they wouldn’t be ALLOWED to renew their lease, as the university only let retailers have a maximum of a 10 year lease. Whether that’s true or not I’m not sure, but what it has caused is a BIG problem in Cambridge, with the city centre being filled to the brim with overly expensive shops, and then the outskirts becoming like a ghost town.

    I can, however, agree that Mill Road is an exception to this, I would love to see more diversity similar to Mill Road around Cambridge in the future :)

  4. Hello Suzzy & Olivia, thank you so much for commenting.

    I can’t comment on Cambridge, I keep trying to go there for a weekend away but can never find availability in a decent affordable hotel (i.e. Hotel du Vin). Suggestions welcome!

    i think that’s really interesting that the planning department seem to have had a hand in this. You would think they would be considering what local people want and doing their absolute best to protect local businesses. Clearly not so. I think in France supermarkets are restricted and can’t just open where they like as chains seem to be able to do here.

    There is a really pretty pavement-cafe type part of Cheltenham called Montpellier which used to be full of bars and was a nightmare on a Saturday night with drunk people everywhere. A few years ago the Council put a restriction on them opening and would only allow family-friendly places to open. At first this was great, cue italian delis, boutique shops etc but now it has become overrun by Ask, Strada and all the usual suspects, Pizza Express and Zizzi being a stone’s throw away. Really sad to see. Why can’t Councils grant permission based on the number of outlets the retailer has? That’d sort it out.

    I was inspired to write this post after a visit to Columbia Market in London a few weeks ago. This thriving flower market is flanked by a huge number of independent home ware shops, garden shops, haberdashers, coffee shops and bakeries. There isn’t a single Starbucks, Costa, Boots or any of the other offenders. The place was rammed and it was so nice to see. It shows that it can be done.

  5. Pingback: Columbia Road flower market « Insideology

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