Leading Article: The conundrum of British retailing

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The Independent Culture
WHAT ARE you going to do today? Chances are you will spend at least some time in a supermarket or shopping mall and that, pleasurable though you may find these modern retail experiences, you will have lost a little of your self-confidence to go and really spend your money because of niggling worries about the future. So it is unsurprising that British retailers have been feeling a little sorry for themselves lately. Travails at stores such as MFI, DFS and Carpetright have been loudly echoed at Marks & Spencer and Sainsbury's. True, they all have their own, sometimes unconvincing, excuses - of poor weather, the death of Diana, "succession" problems in the boardroom, "ambitious" expansion plans or whatever - for the "bloodbath on the high street". But there are some grounds for thinking that our shopkeepers themselves could be doing a little more to staunch the haemorrhage of consumer enthusiasm for their goods.

The claim that the British are a nation of shopkeepers is rather threadbare nowadays, and one must look across the Atlantic to find the nation that revels in consumerism. This weekend millions of Americans will make a swift recovery from their Thanksgiving festivities and start their Christmas shopping. On average, each American will spend over $1,000 on Christmas gifts. This is not just a question of Americans being more generous and richer than we are, nor just a reflection of their astonishing confidence in their economy and the ease with which they have brushed aside the squalls of the late summer.

There is an additional factor contributing to this boom. Unlike in this country, American retailers go out of their way to make sure that customers spend as much of their money as possible. For one thing, they operate on much lower margins than our shops do, and price-fixing is less prevalent. For another, it's not just a few "have a nice days" that make the American retail experience special; shoppers are lent buggies for their babies, they are given valets to park their cars. Shopping, and spending, is fun, in a way that we have not quite managed, for all our pretensions to the American way of consumption.

British chain stores and mall operators would do well to examine the techniques of the Americans. But there is a much bigger revolution that would bring a once-and-for-all - and substantial - boost to trade in British retailing. It's called competition.

The conundrum of British retailing, in everything from cars to compact discs to groceries, is that we are both one of the most open markets in the world and yet also one of the most restricted, in the sense that price competition seems not to exist. Prices are startlingly uniform across shops. A jar of tomato ketchup will cost exactly the same in Sainsbury's as in Asda or Tesco. A camcorder or a kettle will be the same price in Dixons as it is in Harrods. A Volkswagen or a Volvo will also set you back much the same whichever dealer you visit - and far more than they would most continental Europeans.

What can be done? It is unrealistic to expect our shopkeepers to act. Things are too cosy for them. We could wait for the Government. The Office of Fair Trading's investigation into the supermarkets may yet breach the wall of (apparent) price-fixing and monopolistic practices. Or we could try and use our consumer power, although, when markets seem to be in such strangleholds, it is hard to be optimistic about this. We should insist that no, we're not going to pay 25 per cent more than the Germans for our food or the Belgians for our fridges. Perhaps, then, if retailers find their trade deserting them or the clamour so loud that they refuse to capitulate to manufacturers' pricing demands, we might find the prices in our shops falling to the levels of elsewhere in Europe and America. In the meantime, have a nice day.