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.