Middle England carries on shopping

WELL-DRESSED and purposeful, the people wandering through the pedestrianised heart of Basingstoke are typical of a new breed of sophisticated shopper which is far more interested in a good-quality buy than a bargain.

Young professional women spill out into the central shopping lanes at lunchtime and sift through the latest styles in the middle-market clothing stores that dominate the town. Couples study the latest digital offerings in Dixons. Housewives pause to look at jewellery.

According to estate agents Hillier Parker, Basingstoke is the archetypal town of middle Britain. If the economic downturn is going to hit the high street anywhere - as executives at Marks & Spencer claimed it had when they sought to explain the company's first fall in profits in 10 years - it should be here. Yet this Hampshire town appears, so far at least, to be the place of the choosy consumer. People are still spending - but with a lot more care.

The number of shopping visits in April was about 1.2 million and, according to Paul Littlehales, who manages an area of sheltered shops called The Malls, has continued to grow. People are spending their money with the emphasis on "wants" rather than "needs", he says, and as shopping becomes more of a leisure activity, "the quality of what they are buying is increasing".

Competition between towns to attract shoppers intensifies in this sort of climate, which is why the pounds 250m being ploughed into a makeover of New Market Square, adjacent to the existing shopping area, is so important to Basingstoke's future prosperity. It has already attracted two key anchor stores, Debenhams and Bhs. The plan is to attract good-quality shops. "We wouldn't entertain a cheaper peration coming in now," Mr Littlehales says.

The discerning shopper is hungry for labels such as Jigsaw and Gap. Kelly Baxter, a 21-year-old recruitment consultant, says shops have a tendency to stock the "end of ranges" rather than the most up-to- date styles. Other buyers look forward to seeing bigger shops in the town and more "quality" goods.

According to women shoppers, M&S has a lot of work to do in regaining their confidence. Luxury looks are popular but, says Zoe Skinner, a 23- year-old secretary, there is a lack of choice for younger women and the jeans are "very old-fashioned".

Fiftysomethings Sandra Cooke and Val Sullivan were critical of the store's "narrow range" and "ugly" clothes. "We walked in and came straight out again," Mrs Cooke said. "The styles don't seem to change from year to year."

The fashion chain Next, however, brought in a new buyer after its summer shift to more up-to-the minute fashions failed to win custom. The autumn and winter move back to casuals and sportswear has gone down better with shoppers all over the country.

For Sean Seabrook, a 32-year-old meteorologist, it is the only shop that offers good-quality, fashionable goods.

Dixons, the electrical-goods store, is in the fortunate position of being set to capitalise on the range of digital goods now coming on to the market, because of its central positioning on the high street.

People in Basingstoke said they would visit Dixons as part of a high- street trawl for the best-value goods and saw the chain as a market leader.

New "lifestyle" lines of coloured and unusually shaped electronic equipment are also helping to hold sales steady. "I'll go for anything yellow and green and funky," said Jodie Haggerty, a 19-year-old call-centre manager. "I trust the name and there is a wide selection of goods here."

Despite talk of recession, shoppers are sticking with what they define as the "quality" of the Boots brand over that of Superdrug, which they saw as "cheaper" and "more downmarket".

Superdrug has lately shifted its focus to health and beauty products, while Boots, Britain's sixth-largest retailer, has held its own after worries that the main supermarkets were encroaching on its territory. It has introduced a loyalty card and experimented with dentistry and doctor's surgeries.

"The Boots gift selection is excellent and the kitchenware is really good," said 24-year-old student Xara Price.

H Samuel, the jewellery chain currently struggling at the lower end of the market, is criticised by shoppers for its "unfashionableness" and "uninspiring" range.

H Samuel is under pressure from catalogue showrooms such as Argos, which is revamping its brochures with a more stylish presentation.

"I would like to see it offer a more solid, less flimsy range," said 45-year-old Wendy Beagley.

Her feelings were echoed by information-technology consultant Liaquat Khan, 27. "The look of the watches is a bit old fashioned," he said. "This chain has looked the same for years and it could do with bringing its image up to date."

If the impressions of shoppers in Basingstoke accurately reflect the broad shift in fortunes of the major high-street retailers, then the stores with the most cause for concern will be those that are not responding to the growing clamour for "quality". "Pile 'em high and sell 'em cheap" is the Sixties shopping slogan that has finally bitten the dust.

THE UPS AND DOWNS OF THE HIGH STREET

Argos Pre tax profits up 2.1 per cent in 1997 as company continues to open new stores while sticking with competitive pricing policy and modernising its catalogue.

Boots Sales fell in October after a steady half year rise with profits up 3.5 per cent to pounds 251m. Has fought off supermarket encroachment by capitalising on strength of brand.

Dixons Profits increased from pounds 200m in April 1997 to pounds 219m in 1998. Well placed to benefit from the explosion in digital technologies but facing increased price competition.

Superdrug Sales rose 9.4 per cent in 1997 as the strategic shift towards health and beauty continued to pay off. A slight dip in profits was put down to new investment.

Dorothy Perkins Retail profits up by 39.4 per cent to 21.6m in 1997. Enhanced its image by using models Helena Christensen and Yasmin Le Bon.

Marks & Spencer Fall in profits of 23 per cent to pounds 348m for the first six months of 1998 blamed on global economic slowdown and high cost of expansion programme but City analysts talked of complacency.

River Island Pre-tax profits down nearly

pounds 5m to pounds 32.79m in 1997 as Britain's largest private fashion chain stalls.

H Samuel Bracing itself for downturn in consumer spending despite current refurbishment programme.

Next Profits fell sharply in the six months to July 1998 from pounds 70m to pounds 50m after basic staples were dropped in favour of clothes that proved too fashionable to sell.

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