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.


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.

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: QA Technician

£16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This leading manufacturer of re...

Recruitment Genius: Office Administrator

£20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Due to expansion, an experienced and hig...

SThree: Graduate Recruitment Resourcer

£20000 per annum + commission: SThree: Sthree have an exciting opportunity for...

Recruitment Genius: Plumbing & Heating / Bathroom Trade Counter Sales

£22000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This well established London ba...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

The masterminds behind the election

How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

Machine Gun America

The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

The ethics of pet food

Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?
How Tansy Davies turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

How a composer turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

Tansy Davies makes her operatic debut with a work about the attack on the Twin Towers. Despite the topic, she says it is a life-affirming piece
11 best bedside tables

11 best bedside tables

It could be the first thing you see in the morning, so make it work for you. We find night stands, tables and cabinets to wake up to
Italy vs England player ratings: Did Andros Townsend's goal see him beat Harry Kane and Wayne Rooney to top marks?

Italy vs England player ratings

Did Townsend's goal see him beat Kane and Rooney to top marks?
Danny Higginbotham: An underdog's tale of making the most of it

An underdog's tale of making the most of it

Danny Higginbotham on being let go by Manchester United, annoying Gordon Strachan, utilising his talents to the full at Stoke and plunging into the world of analysis
Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police

Steve Bunce: Inside Boxing

Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police
No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat