Will online giants be the new face of our High Streets?
I grew up in a small market town in Lincolnshire during the 1970s and 1980s.
My memories of the town centre are a window onto a different world. If you wanted meat, you had a choice of at least seven butchers’ shops. For bread and cakes there were three bakeries. Three or four greengrocers’ stores kept you supplied with fruit and veg, while the excellent fishmonger attracted customers from far and wide. Then there was an old-school tobacconist, independent clothing stores and a wonderful sort of emporium that sold both toys and bicycles, as well as offering bike repairs from a tiny counter round the side of the building.
The only supermarkets were a tiny branch of Tesco on the High Street, plus a similarly small branch of the Co-op. If you wanted to go to a big supermarket, you had to travel to the nearest city and go to Sainsbury’s.
In the 80s, that began to change as the larger supermarkets came to town. First there was a small one called The International. Then there was Rainbow, which was owned by the Co-op. Then Morrison’s opened a large, purpose-built store. We all flocked to them, happy to buy our food in one place and at a lower price.
Before long, most of the butchers’ shops closed. So did the bakeries, greengrocers and fishmonger. In their place, unless my memory is playing tricks, came charity shops, estate agents and branches of clothing chains.
I left the town in the 1990s. But if you go back there today, you’ll find a place that has headed relentlessly upmarket. In place of the traditional greengrocer, you’ll find expensive delicatessens. Instead of an old-school baker, you’ll find places selling artisanal bread. In other words, quality produce has returned to the High Street – but these days you need to be a lot better off to afford it.
Of course, this is a slightly misty-eyed and simplistic analysis, but there’s more than a nugget of truth in it. I also wonder if there’s a lesson in it for us today.
I say this because one of the most interesting trends at the moment is for online retailers to open bricks and mortar stores. Amazon has already opened ‘clicks and mortar’ shops in the UK and it’s said the company intends to unveil food shops too. Over in the US, online brands such as Casper (mattresses), Allbirds (shoes) and Bonobos (men’s clothes) have all branched out into physical stores – and plenty of other brands are set to follow.
All this is happening at a time when traditional high store retailers are struggling, largely because of competition from online sellers with much lower overheads. We’ve already seen lots of brands disappear from our streets altogether – Maplin, Toys ‘R’ Us, Staples, BHS, Comet, Borders, Woolworths. The list goes on.
Despite all this, people love going to shops. The problem comes when they browse for goods in the High Street, only to go home and buy them cheaper from a different retailer online.
Given this backdrop, it makes perfect sense for the online retailers to open physical stores. Their bricks-and-mortar competitors are slowly disappearing, so why not open High Street showrooms that complement their online offering?
The big problem will come when companies come to dominate both our town centres and online. A vital strand of competition will have gone, so there’ll be less impetus for them to keep prices as low as they were before.
And like in the market town I grew up in, it’s quite possible that our High Streets will come full circle and offer us the quality and range of goods that we were once used to. I just think we’ll have to pay more for them.
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