Leading Article: Consumers will profit from the rise and fall of our high-street titans

THIS IS the week that the country finally woke up to the crisis in our high streets. There have been disappointing company results, fears of increased competition, and rumours of takeovers. Familiar names such as M&S, Sainsbury and Boots continue to turn in poor share performances. Yet no one should be surprised; even a cursory trawl round the aisles at these old favourites reveals a general dowdiness and a lacklustre line of goods that would dispirit the most nostalgic customer.

But few are nostalgic these days. Are the clothes at M&S a little drab? Try the new Gap. Or pop into the new-look Tesco - it sells computers these days alongside the fresh food, and can even help you with your banking. It is a commonplace that the speed of change in every field is ever greater. Successful companies must continually reinvent themselves. M&S stole a march on their competitors a few years ago with their move into ready- made dinners; but they failed to follow that up with more innovation. The result has been stagnation.

It is true in every field of human endeavour that those who rest on their laurels are soon outpaced by the young and fleet, but retail shopping is an even crueller world for those who would seek to rely on a stable, reliable pattern. Once the formula was simple. "Pile 'em high and sell 'em cheap" was all you needed to know. But that truism belonged to the world before fashion. With the growth in disposable income shopping is no longer a dull necessity; it is almost a competitive sport.

Jeans are no longer just jeans; they are Armanis or Calvin Kleins (and even then the cut and fabric must be exactly right). Once you had to be wealthy in order to be a snob about where you bought your clothes, and the fancy label was kept discreetly under cover. Now, the dictates of fashion decree that the labels of your clothing blare out from pocket and shirt-front, and few are the souls who wish that label to be "St Michael".

There are several commercial responses to the changing place of shopping in modern life. One is to combine the mania for fashionable names with the age-old human desire for a bargain. This is the trail blazed in America by Filene's Basement of Boston and now taken up with great success by Matalan, the retail sensation in the north of England. Wal-Mart, the much- spoken-about Arkansas-based retail giant that is poised to invade Europe, has an intriguing variation on this theme; their stores are an Aladdin's emporium of every kind of retail product, all jumbled together, at rock- bottom prices. The apparent randomness of the assortment acts as a stimulus to examining what's on offer.

Another path, taken by shops in high-rent areas such as Manhattan's Fifth Avenue and London's Bond Street, is to make shopping itself a luxurious day out. The same trick is performed, at varying price levels, in shopping malls throughout the country. Now that the Internet must be added to the mix, it is apparent that home shopping, with its fast and easy comparisons of price and availability, will make new inroads into the high street.

But there is no reason to fear for British shopkeepers in this high-speed, competitive world. Just look at the excitement over Knutsford, the shell company formed by Archie Norman, of Asda fame, and a few buddies. The mere hint that they might bid for M&S or Sainsbury launched a stock-market bubble that took Knutsford shares to astronomical heights.

Whatever happens, all of this ferment can only add to the joy of shopping. M&S and Sainsbury may disappear, but only their shareholders need lament. The goods will go on getting delivered, and on present trends those goods are likely to be cheaper, better and more fun.

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