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David Porter » Articles at Suite 101 » Shopping Store-Wars Are Part of Our Social and Economic Fabric

Shopping Store-Wars Are Part of Our Social and Economic Fabric

As Christmas retailing and footfall figures show high streets losing ground to cyberspace and technology in the battle for shoppers, a stock-take is timely. This article first published on Suite 101 on 14 December 2011. It is even more pertinent today.

Two hundred years ago, Napoleon derided the English as ‘a nation of shopkeepers’. He borrowed the phrase from Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations (1776), but it struck a chord, becoming a badge of honour.

More recently, focus has shifted: we are now more a nation of shoppers, with shopping promoted as ‘therapy’ at one level, and almost a ‘religion’ at another. The clamour to allow all-Sunday shopping is evidence of that.

However, we’re not shopping traditionally. The recession and the internet continue to change our shopping habits. Many fear that these twin unavoidables have dealt a death blow to the high street. The Office for National Statistics believes £1 in every £10 of all spend in Britain, now goes online.

However, there are three further hammer blows to tradition. The rise of shopping chains at the expense of local (family) retailers, and the age of super-malls and out of town retail parks have been responses to economics over the past fifty years, while the growth of supermarkets that sell almost everything as well as food has been relentless.

Today around 40% (and falling) of retail spend is done in real shops, while a growing 60% is out of town and online. Supermarkets offering services like opticians, healthcare, banking and even house selling, mean old-style shopping is gone for good and existing centres have a ‘clone-like’ quality, identical across the land town by town.

Queen of Shops

Retail expert and shopping media guru Mary Portas was commissioned by Prime Minister Cameron to report on the state of British high streets and arrive at recommendations to revitalise town centres, as around twenty high street shops every day shut for good.

After months of consideration and active travel about shops as she does continuously and taking into account the August 2011 riots in some English cities, she came up with 28 ideas to boost retailers and attract customers.

She focussed on the social benefits flowing from successful market hubs, ‘once we invest in and create social capital in the heart of our communities, economic capital will follow’. Lively, dynamic, exciting high streets give a ‘sense of belonging and trust in a community’.

Her recommendations included: improve management of High Streets with new strategic, visionary and strongly operational ‘town teams’; make town centre parking affordable; create a ‘town centre first’ approach to planning and regulation; impose disincentives on landlords who leave shops empty; provide inclusion of the High Street in neighbourhood planning and a new National Market Day.

Councils in the main criticised it (they ‘should have been consulted’), some businesses said it didn’t go far enough, while Stephen Robertson, director general of the British Retail Consortium wanted a ‘rich mix of retailing, not striking dividing lines between big names and independents, or town centre and others.’

The Daily Mail reported Portas said Britain has too many shops and more must close to make others viable. She warned there was no way back to traditional streets of ‘butcher, baker, greengrocer and fishmonger’. This report was not about nostalgia.

The nature of today’s shops is also far removed from previous generations, with more charity outlets, value/discount stores and fast-food takeaways among the one-in-ten properties now empty.

Technology Changes Everything

More people enjoy the convenience of online shopping without getting into town seeking expensive and limited parking spaces. Out of town shopping centres usually have plentiful free parking which gives them an advantage over the high street.

With fewer people working, more are at home to receive parcels, and even return of goods has got easier. So, the benefits of cyber-buying begin to stack up.

Retailers complain that their high street shops, costly to maintain, rent, heat and fill with staff, are showrooms for internet companies. See something in a real shop, try it on, make a choice, then order it online from home. Technology assists that process.

‘Augmented reality’ is an idea originating from sci-fi that is taking off and revolutionising the retail marketplace. For example, a ‘virtual tailor’ measures a customer from a home web camera and compares results with databases of people of near-size, shape, skin colour, height, hair and limbs to suggest clothes to buy.

Customers sees the clothes on their own body image onscreen; no need to traipse to town to try on. The advertising industry is calling it ‘like shopping with a friend’ which should avoid ‘fashion disasters’ and reduce returned items.

Shop windows can use the same technology. Selfridges in London ran an experiment putting virtual watches onto customers’ wrists as they stood outside the store. It improved sales at that point by 85%.

Tescos are piloting a scheme whereby shoppers standing in front of a screen pass a barcode over the camera and see themselves ‘wearing’ clothes of interest. Soon, maybe, empty store shelves will be filled with virtual goods that people can browse in person, scan in and collect on departure.

People will see goods targetted to their known tastes as advertising gets ever more personal. Adidas and Kraft are not alone in trialling facial recognition technology to aim ads on hoardings at individuals as they walk past. The use of personalised prompts, hints, reminders in shops as people look at displays is no different from computers directing specific ads at people browsing.

The Future

Big superstores and corner shops, open-all-hours type outlets will continue to be in demand all year round and make up the diversity of retailing. If the high street is made do-able, affordable and pleasurable, more like entertainment, people will invest in it.

If new technologies are used to enhance shopping experiences, people will spend more time and money. If smaller retailers co-operate together in localities or specialisations, their presence will increase.

There’ll always be shopping; people need things. The future of retailing lies in the hands of entrepreneurs, technology-developers and the social need for human beings to communicate with each other in the flesh.


  • BBC News, Mary Portas unveils report into High Street revival, 13th December 2011. Web 14 December 2011.
  • The Daily Mail, Sean Poulter, High streets hit ‘crisis point’, 14 December 2011. Web 14 December 2011.
  • MailBigFile, Augmented Reality Changes Shopping Virtually Forever, 28 November 2011. Web 14 December 2011.

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