Where have all the shoppers gone? This is the question which perplexes the high street. Shoppers look like they still exist: the shops are full of people and surveys suggest that footfall remains high. But retail sales in January fell by 0.6%, so whatever the shoppers are doing, it isn’t shopping.
Lots of them will be too broke, of course. Post-Christmas, credit card bills arrive, and plenty of people are too worried by job insecurity to go splurging. But there is another reason, and that is that the high street has become a difficult place to spend money.
Of all the shops whose fates have taken a grim turn this year — Blockbusters, Jessops, HMV, Republic — I can’t remember when I last spent money in one. I bought a James Bond box-set in HMV in October: that was probably it. I’ve bought CDs, games and films since, but I’ve had to buy them online, because I haven’t been able to find what I want in store.
As for Blockbuster, I haven’t been in a branch since I finished working for them in 1998. The smell of stale popcorn haunts me still. And while I would like to be able to tell you what kind of clothes Republic sell, we’ll have to simply assume that they are for young people. I had never registered their existence till their demise was reported on the news.
The councils which were bunged a whack of cash to rejuvenate their high streets by Mary Portas (well, by us, but she’s on TV, so she gets to decide who gets it) have spent virtually none of the ear-marked funds. Except, confusingly, Dartford Council, who tanked £1160 on hiring a bloke in a Peppa Pig costume. Would that make you dig out your wallet? Me either.
It’s time for high street shops to face up to market forces. They’ve angled themselves at young shoppers, but young people have very little money at the moment. The people who do have money are sitting at home, spending it guiltily online, because the trip into town is too often a trek past irrelevant shops. And occasionally, a man in a pig suit.