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Napoleon famously dismissed England as a nation of shopkeepers. If present trends continue, an invading French imperial army could march down every English high street from Dover to Carlisle and encounter nothing but tumbleweed. What the recession failed to kill, the internet is mopping up. Instead of a thriving thoroughfare of British boutiquiers , a modern-day Bonaparte would find charity shops, betting shops and "everything for a pound" emporiums. One in seven shops in the U.K. lies empty, and the attrition is not confined to the high street. Out-of-town centres are being deserted by consumers who prefer fibre-optic highways to car parks, leaving 16 per cent of mall units gathering dust, nationwide.
The blood on the high street is causing a political storm, with sniping and backbiting among high-profile British retailers over who is to blame. An inquiry into the future of high-street retailing by Mary Portas, famed for putting high-end retailer Harvey Nichols on the global fashion map, provoked a frenzy of condemnation from chain-store owners for being too sentimental about neighborhoods and too critical of malls. Local shopkeepers complained about avaricious, rack-renting landlords, some chain-store owners call for a tax on Amazon et al, and everyone agreed that property taxes are too high.
The latter problem is the only one on which the government could quickly act, but the Treasury promptly quashed any suggestion of a tax holiday for struggling high streets. The unfortunate reality is that Britain is experiencing a structural shift: the British are the world's biggest online shoppers. Early and enthusiastic adopters, internet penetration is now at about 12 per cent in the U.K. and the high street now accounts for less than half of all consumer spending.
The retailing body count will continue to rise, says the Local Data Company, a retail research firm, which predicts that 13 per cent of the U.K.'s shops could go out of business within five years, caught in a vice between high rents and property taxes, and abandoned by consumers staring at their iPhones. Market forces will eventually cause rents to crash and high streets and malls will be redeveloped, but the real question is, what will happen to shopping? Old malls are already being torn down – one dreary venue in Reading, scheduled for demolition, was temporarily transformed into a zombie-shoot-em-up theme park (a tribute to Dawn of the Dead). That alone gives us a hint of what is wrong with most shops – they are horribly dull.
Consider what works: shops that become cafes, theme parks and bazaars. Apple, the retailer's nemesis, uses the high street not to sell (although it does a fair amount of that) but to erect temples to celebrate its cult technology. Most of its products are sold online or in various electronics emporia; the Apple stores are there to create buzz. If Mary Portas has annoyed big retail by dissing malls, she is probably right. During the last two decades, the Wal-Marts, Loblaws and Tescos bludgeoned consumers with all the cheap food, clothes and stuff they could possibly want. But they forgot that consumers want shopping to be fun, social, an adventure, a bazaar – an experience they simply can't get online. The high street will be back.
Carl Mortished is a contributor to ROB Insight, the business commentary service available to Globe Unlimited subscribers. Click here for more of his Insights.