Death or rebirth of the high street?

Jessops, the UK national camera chain closed it’s doors for the final time on Friday night. It’s a sad passing. 1500 people had a job at the beginning of the week and by the end of the week, they were all unemployed. Awful news to receive at the beginning of the New Year. Hopefully, the staff will quickly find new jobs.

I was in the New Oxford Street store last week. The staff were clearly unaware of the problems of the main company. Opposite Jessops is another closed shop, Jacob’s. Another ill-fated camera chain that collapsed in October. Before Christmas, Comet, the national electronics chain also collapsed. HMV, the high street music store, has a month-long sale on in an attempt to raise some much needed cash. If it doesn’t raise enough money, it looks like it will also collapse and when it does there will be no high street music chain left.

All of this is sad news. A large proportion of our economy is based around the service sector. Something like 20% of our GDP comes from retail. 10% of the UK workforce are employed in retail. 40% of youngsters are also employed in retail. Nearly 30% of all corporation taxes comes from this sector. It’s important to the country. Although the large supermarket chains account for a significant proportion of all these figures, with many of our towns and cities designed around our retail centres, if they die, it will almost certainly create social problems.

With £3 billion spent on Amazon UK every year and supermarkets continuing to expand, it’s obvious who’s killing these large chains.

But is the death of the big stores really that bad?

When I was growing up there were many small record shops, book shops, camera stores, computer games stores, electronic shops etc. They’re all gone. But it wasn’t the internet that killed them. It was these very chains we’re now bemoaning the death of. I think there were about half a dozen record shops of different sizes. Did these big chains offer me more choice? I don’t think they did.

I go to lots of gigs each year (over 70 last year). If I hear an interesting support band I can guarantee that even if they’re signed to a label, I will not find their music in my local HMV. I’ll find dozens of copies of the latest Nicki Minaj album, but very little in terms of new music. I have to go to iTunes or Amazon to find them (or free from the band’s website if they’re unsigned). If music is their business, why are they so useless at supporting new music?

I’ve bought lots of stuff from Jessops but they’ve long forgotten who they were. A decade ago, Jessops were brilliant. You could buy a camera and if in the first two weeks you decided it wasn’t right for you, you could take it back and get 100% of your money back. They realised that cameras (especially top-end) are complex and to make an instant decision is difficult. They even allowed me to pay the difference when a new camera model came out a month after I’d bought the old version. But when the digital camera market exploded, Jessops started to chase the bottom-end of the market and forgot that their business was based around the expertise. In the end there was little difference between them and any other shop. Compared to Jessops, my local camera shop, Digital Depot, are simply brilliant. They employ expert staff. They have charged cameras that you can play with and make the effort to help. They keep an eye on Internet prices so are usually as competitive as Amazon. They offer a level of service big shops have long since forgotten. I’ve often paid a little bit extra to buy something from them rather than saving myself a few pounds to buy it from Amazon. (and now that I know that Amazon don’t pay any corporation tax, this will probably increase).

So maybe the future of our high street isn’t ‘big is better’, but smaller is better. Where service makes the difference. So maybe Amazon is doing us a favour. Maybe we’ll get back our old record shops that used to push new music, camera shops with staff who know the top-end products and clothing shops that stock clothes that are different from the shop next door. Hopefully in a decade’s time we’ll look back and thank Amazon for their help in turning our town centres into places buzzing full of local shops offering expertise and personalised service and chain stores will be a footnote in history.