“Are you being served?” Those of us long enough in the tooth to have been watching the popular television series of that name in the 1970s will recall its depiction of a failing department store with a dysfunctional staff. Stuck in a 1950s time-warp the mythical Grace Bros. would never have survived in real life.
The old County Borough of Barnsley had a population of around 70,000 but on market days another 70,000 would descend on the town to shop at its famous market where most things were available and at competitive prices. We still have a market but on nothing like its original scale. Some of you will remember well-known shops such as Butterfields & Massie, Reynolds & Wadsworth and Benj. Harral now long gone with only the shells of their premises remaining.
It seems almost a daily occurrence when the news reports yet another retailer in difficulty. Famous names like House of Frazer and Mothercare forced to close branches to cut costs; Debenhams reporting an 85% reduction in pre-tax profits and Marks & Spencer progressing with plans to close a hundred stores by 2022. Some have been even less fortunate like Poundland and Maplin.
So what is behind these changes? It does not take a genius to see the correlation between retail store closures and the increase in online shopping. The travel agent, Thos. Cook, planning to close fifty shops will not surprise anyone who normally books holidays and flights online where it is easy to compare prices from different sellers. Carphone Warehouse planning to close ninety-two stores will also not come as a surprise considering the volume of mobile phones and accessories sold online through sites like Amazon and Ebay. So why has online shopping become so popular? Firstly because it is easy and one does not even need to go out in the rain, drive to the nearest town and pay for a parking space. Secondly, people now have busy lives working further away from home than we did in the past and with more available leisure activities so having the shopping delivered saves valuable time. All these changes are driven by customers making their own choices.
So what does the future hold for our high streets? It would be depressing if they were to be filled with charity shops, bookmakers and estate agents when only a more varied offer of shops, restaurants, cafés and so on will attract both regular shoppers and visitors alike. Ultimately this is down to businesses offering goods and services that people want at a price they are prepared to pay. Politicians can only help by not hindering and by creating a low-tax, low-regulation business-friendly environment. Now there is a challenge!
First published in the Barnsley Chronicle - Penistone Living July 2018