Thursday, January 17, 2013

Boardwalk Expired

Every time I go through the TV listings and see Most Haunted, it makes me laugh. I think it's the use of the term 'most' that does me. It's a peculiar word and not one that I tend to think of as subjective, but I suppose it is. Like when a shop says something like Britain's Most Popular Retailer; I suppose you could prove it, but would you want to if someone suggested they were Britain's Most Popular Bum Juice Seller?

Several years ago, either in this blog or somewhere else, I was talking about retail and the death of it. Banging on about it not mattering that town centres are dying because the future is what I'm conveying this message through - the Internet. In ten years time, there won't be town or city centres like you remember them, they will be festooned with Mobile Phone shops, App Centres, Supermarkets, Coffee shops, Cafeterias, pubs, charity shops, speciality retailers targeting local cultures and banks - most of which will have a two year shelf life before they have to reinvent themselves. You might find bookies, arcades and a few niche market outlets, tucked away in even further afield back lanes than now, but in general, town centres will change like the seasons and retail parks may well become mass unit graveyards or developed into cheap affordable housing (and I can dream).

You know how motor car showrooms tend to dominate these out of town trading estates; dotted around the edges, hoping to pick up the passing trade with their £99 down and 0% finance deals, or their competitive deals and extended warranties? Well, I think even these are going to change as humanity becomes more and more dependent on their digital mobile devices. Electronically contact a dealership, arrange a test drive and from some small unit somewhere no one knows, an untrained salesman will send you the computer simulation of the car you want to test drive and then if you're happy you'll arrange to go and test drive it at a small and well advertised centre that takes up less room, while all the stock is kept in those massive warehouses you drive past every day and wonder why it's always got a To Let sign up on the side.

Retail as we know it (and that has changed drastically since our grandparents day) is metamorphosing in front of our eyes. There is so much you can order and get delivered and such a dwindling number of things that you actually have to look at, in the flesh, to decide whether you want it or not. There have been debates as to what our, totally generic, town and city centres will look like in 25 years time, well, probably nothing like they do now, and a lot more people will have moved back into towns. The growth industry will be courier and postal services that cater for the punter rather than offer a general delivery time and, of course, all of this will be played out on your tablet or handheld device.

The demise of both HMV and Blockbuster in recent days isn't that unexpected. When video shops were replaced by DVD rentals, I was one of the first to declare that at some point this new technology would be replaced by something even more compact and bijou (and that was back at the start of the 90s when downloads could be no bigger than 64k and that took you a week and cost you £200). The need for most shops is no longer a need, it's a luxury or even, arguably, a hindrance. I have done my Christmas shopping on line now for over 5 years. I can't remember the last time I went shopping (other than for food) apart from when I've needed something replacing. I'd have bought this PC, the Netbook and several other electronic goods in the house on line had I not wanted to get out of the house and do something old fashioned, like browse in real time.

Go out on a weekend to a retail park, or wander into the town centre and you might wonder what all the fuss is about. Yes, for every Woolworth, HMV or Our Price we lose, some entrepreneurial geeza will come along and sell you money, coffee, sim cards, dodgy jewellery or Slovakian chocolate covered goats testicles - at the moment - until the virtual reality can catch up and those Slovakian chocolate covered goats testicles suddenly become much cheaper on the 'net. The point is that there might be people going out, but are they shopping, or are they taking their kids out to show them a dying institution? Is this some subtle historical anthropological shift and the last generation that remembers 'proper shopping', like my generation remember Wagon Wheels as big as Desperate Dan's arse cheeks, are taking their kids to see it before the buildings become shells and Brantano goes the way of the dodo.

It is true that consumerism has destroyed society and is the root of all evil, but you have to admire the way it is mutating and that's either in a prophet-like way or just much earlier than it probably needed to. The planet is changing; fossil fuels will become scarcer and one of the first things that will change will be the way food is produced and shipped around. I'd hazard a guess and suggest to Jocasta and Quentin that they enjoy their Peruvian asparagus while they can because one day, probably before they die, it's going to become a thing of the past or it's going to be out of even their price range. Sorry Peru, but unless you want to subsidise the air fare then your world market is going to dwindle.

Food in particular is something that needs revolutionising in this country because of the way we have become so snobbish about what we eat and how we eat it, yet persist in stuffing our faces full of perfect, or perfectly bad, things that haven't been genetically modified, but if you looked at their uniformity you'd think they were. We live in a country where someone with an allotment can pull a gnarly, three-pronged parsnip out of the ground in February, covered in all kinds of shit, with worms writhing through it and look forward to taking it home, cleaning it, peeling it, cooking it and eating it and some chav wanker will be buying reconstituted chicken mcnuggets, prepared frozen mashed potatoes and value line tomato sauce, giving themselves a heart attack because they're actually physically scared to try anything that might be good for them! Food phobias? Food bollocks, more like. If these people had been fed properly by their lazy-arsed parents in the first place we wouldn't be in this mess. I blame Thatcher.

But I digress... Aside from the Amazon tax scandal and the retailers who have successfully shifted a big chunk of their business on-line, opening anything in a high street now is a crazy arsed scheme that needs massive amounts of factors to work. I saw something flicking through the myriad of shit on my cable TV that made me wince; 70% of new start restaurants and bistros fail inside two years. Of the 30% that are still standing after two years, only 15% of those will make it to 5 years; the period at which an establishment can call itself established (and then I'm guessing that doesn't take into account the unexpected?). Now, is that 15 in every 100, based on the initial 70%, or is that 15% of the 30% that remain, which would mean that for every 100 eateries opening about 4 people succeed... Do you know, that doesn't look that unreasonable.

Apparently, coffee shops are advised to change their decor and layout every 16 months, to give the impression of newness. Shop experts seem to think modern punters like shiny and new more than warm and comfortable and familiar. They might be right, but the pubs I frequent fall, mainly, in the latter category and despite now being in the over 50 camp, surely my quids are as valuable as some power-dressing businessperson with clitoral piercings and a metrosexual lifestyle (whatever that is). You know the kind, the people who are always using credit cards, have zero cash, ever, and an existence as hand to mouth as a Mumbai beggar.

I suppose I noticed the first changes in town centres when the plethora of travel agents started disappearing, leaving only local independents or a token Thomas Cook-styled shop more as corporate advertising than as practical economic appliance. And then the retailers started falling off the radar like shit from a cow's arse as certain goods became easier to buy on-line and get delivered than bother to drive into town, pay the extortionate car parking fees, shuffle around town beside a bunch of fuckwits just to get something you can order from that new mail order company Amazon and before you know it you've ordered £100's worth of stuff, you're not paying any postage and you'll receive them all by Monday afternoon. Fuck me, how good is that?

The problem is, I haven't got an answer, neither have you and nor has anyone else; that is why centres of urban conurbations, regardless of how much money is spent (or how generic they are made), are slowly changing and being replaced by some other kind of retail; need supplier; desire. If prostitution was legal, we'd have shops on high streets as brazen as those now defunct Blockbuster displays.

I heard a suggestion that empty shops and spaces should be offered to kids in communities to do things with, such as open community youth cafeterias, galleries or small theatres, using (what) local government funding and allowing them to develop as local community features before the subject of rent or rates are discussed - I like it that this couldn't be a wholly altruistic suggestion and that the eventuality of money always crops up. I don't think it would work because many urban communities will take advantage of something like that and criminals would be queueing up to make money from it; policing it would only add to costs the councils already want rid of.

The sad truth in modern Britain is that if ten great kids came to you with a brilliant idea for a gallery cum youth cafe, run to the highest of standards, with a percentage of profits going to the council, etc., someone would try to steal from it, sell drugs from it, wreck it, antagonise people in it, help to get it a bad name; do anything they can to make it theirs and alienate it from the rest of society therefore making it unacceptable or impractical to do it. So scrub that idea, Dave. I mean, I want to be optimistic about this, but I have worked on the front-line, with some of the most disadvantaged kids.

The thing is, this isn't a political thing. The high streets of the world have been slowly changing since the massive moves forward in electronic goods and gadgets. MacMillan probably was extremely right when he said we'd never had it so good. Yet every generation learns that karma has a way of affecting most peoples lives whether they believe in it or not and for all the riches there's always a few rags (apart from maybe Dave and George) and this is why shopping is still evolving. Pound shops are popular at the moment and they do spring up all over the place. Short term rent deals; tonnes of cheap shit to be sold as quickly as possible for the minimum profit - it's all really about turnover nowadays anyhow - and then move on to the next town or idea. It's a bit like selling dodgy goods out of the back of a wagon, but legitimately.

I think the irony is that in maybe 100 years when fossil fuels really begin to become cost prohibitive, we will start to see the return of local shops and town centres, because mail order companies and delivery and couriers will be facing higher transportation costs, so it could be a situation where everything that has been around will come around again.

If there was a way in which you could possibly make money from this situation it would be by being able to sell goods locally that have been produced/grown/manufactured locally; or at least create a dispatch depot that could supply local businesses with local requirements at a price that means it is as cost effective as flying something in from South America. But now I'm delving into areas I really know nothing about.

The big immediate worry is the human cost of the failure of the high street and that is where politics enters the fray. There have been 6,000+ people assigned to the dole queues this week and only a small percentage of those will be back in work quickly and purely because of the uncertainty on the high streets of the UK. Many will end up working for a supermarket chain or entering a different area of retail, on less money and fewer prospects. The current government pinned a lot of the recovery's hopes on the private sector stepping in and filling the void they created. The problem is the private sector needs the money and the confidence to do it and as retail continues to slip around like an old person on an unsalted path that confidence isn't there.

Any corporate asset stripper will look at the Blockbuster or HMV chains and baulk at lack of salvage there. No entrepreneurial investor is going to look at CDs or DVDs and think, 'hmm, I can make a killing there' and there isn't likely to be some independent store rising phoenix like from the ashes like we saw with some branches of Woolworths or Do It All. People sometimes need a new broom, they probably don't need an old Nikki Minaj record or the latest Adam Sandler flop...

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