Manchester Matters: RIP Market Street?

Posted on February 3, 2013


The recent news of the collapse into administration of Jessops, HMV and Blockbuster within the space of a week refocuses the question of exactly how much longer the high street can survive. At one point the lynchpin of a town with its local shops for local people, big chain stores set up shop squashing these independent stores underfoot. Now those big chains are collapsing off a cliff leaving a trail of unused gift cards in its wake.

Despite development to Manchester’s Arndale Centre, many feel that the glossier Trafford Centre offers more, although visitor numbers between the two are closer than you’d think (38m for the Arndale vs. 35m for the Trafford Centre in 2011). But development of these out of town shopping centres can be devastating to towns. Stockport’s Peel Centre, despite its proximity to the high street, caters for almost everything you can think of without having to set foot in the town. Meanwhile, in the place of the empty shops on Merseyway are a raft of cash-for-gold, discount and loan stores that suck out the soul of their surroundings.

Retail queen Mary Portas led an independent review into the state of the British High Street in 2011. Her findings included recommendations designed to bring back the community feel to the high street. But even her report overlooked the impact of store loyalty cards and needless hassling you get purchasing in store. Want a paper from WHSmith – do you want half price chocolate with that? I overheard one cashier intone onto a string of shoppers that their purchase had ‘entitled’ them to a voucher to redeem on an online shop. Whilst this sponsorship model might be one way to keep stores alive, the completely lifeless method of communicating it leaves a lot to be desired. It is far harder to shut up a cashier than click a red cross on a computer screen.

But, is online shopping as big a problem as thought? The whole model of consumerism has changed and critically, the high street failed to adapt its model accordingly. Taking Amazon as an example, I know one independent bookshop who simply didn’t have the strength to fight in view of what they, somewhat ironically, considered to be the “fairer” party to the consumer.

Collapsed bookshop Borders tried to buck this trend with its cosmopolitan offering combining Starbucks with books. Instead it turned into a glorified library-cum-department store as it set up concessionary outlets for computer games and gifts. But their attempt to draw in customers was pitched at the wrong level. More and more Waterstones stores have successfully diversified with in-store signings, book groups and other events to get a community of people into stores – this combined with ditching the 3 for 2 offer, and genuinely being competitive on launch titles has keep them afloat – for now.

Online movie services have obviously been a problem for ailing movie rental retailer Blockbuster who have faced stiff competition from Lovefilm and Netflix who allow access to Blockbuster’s trade from the comfort of your armchair. Similarly, the advent of Spotify and iTunes has also crippled HMV’s music business. (See right for an example of HMV’s “fair pricing” policy). Both have been very costly for the shops concerned. HMV Fair Pricing

Click-and-collect services have become the de-facto standard for how the modern shopper expects to shop. John Lewis has ploughed much of its efforts into bringing online and real worlds closer together. There is a certain sense of satisfaction of knowing that I can pick up most products from my local Waitrose (though we’re not all lucky to have one five minutes away admittedly).

So, is the Government to blame? The Portas review hasn’t revolutionised the high street yet and seems to have been largely unactioned by the Government in crucially important areas such as the lack of parking, business rates and control over out-of-town developments. These desperately need to be addressed to encourage independent retailers to take a gamble in the recession.

Is the apathy of the shopper to blame then? The high street once stood as a symbol of the community. But with the move away from high streets in towns to out of town shopping centres, the central soul and link from retailer to consumer has been lost. How many of you have a one-to-one relationship with the butcher in the supermarket, or the cashier in HMV? I’m as guilty as anyone else. Numerous Amazon-branded packages have dropped through my letterbox and I’ve gleefully descended into the hell of a “firesale” to grab an illicit closing-down bargain from a store that I probably wouldn’t have been in for several months previously. Bet you’re just as guilty too.

This doesn’t answer another key question of the value of retailer expertise. Customers looked to HMV for their knowledge about their trade that seemed to disappear as time went on, and broadly speaking retail assistants became more and more ignorant of products. With the rise of internet discussion boards, Twitter and other outlets to share opinion, high street stores didn’t react to incorporate this wave of interest against products they sell. Coupled with the fact that supermarkets have bought with them convenience purchasing across a range of products, it was only a matter of time before purchase power switched. I can pick up the latest (and let’s be honest, some fairly niche) releases of music, DVD or book whilst getting my essentials.

The devaluing of goods has been another nail in the coffin. Within a short radius on Market Street, the same DVD can be bought for increasingly cheap prices from new and second-hand outlets such as HMV, That’s Entertainment and CEX. In the Hot UK Deals age where deals are voted ‘cold’ on the basis of being cheaper elsewhere, the drive to save just a few extra pennies is driving customers to shave every penny of their purchases. The second-hand computer games market has destabilised games developers – what has it done to book, DVD and music wholesalers and producers?

Of course, something that is overlooked is this is not a particularly British phenomenon. Stores in America have also been hit hard. Staples, Macy’s, Sears and Kmart have all closed stores in the US in the last year. But for the British high street, it was crucially too slow or afraid to react to a movement that has left it slumbering under an attack on several fronts. I suspect this wasn’t a war that couldn’t have been won. Within a generation, it is likely that reams of shops will be replaced with flats, or offices. Already, they are talking about living on the high street. We’re all to blame in some way shape or form for the dissolution of yet another institution.

For further reading, The Guardian wrote a very interesting article on shopper’s reactions in Manchester recently that’s worth a read for views from the street.