The high street as we know it is doomed, says Andersen Consulting, and traditional shops will survive only by changing their approach radically.
Big retailers are already rushing to sell goods and services through electronic home shopping services and networks like the Internet. Toys 'R' Us, Argos, and Eurostar are on line, and J Sainsbury has announced it will sell wine on the Net. Last week, Barclays Bank launched a "virtual shopping mall" which it says shoppers can "visit" using a computer and modem, making purchases by credit card.
Andersen has studied the effect of home shopping in the US, where it is widely used, and it has carried out market research in Britain. John Hollis, a partner in the firm, said: "We have surveyed people here and they confirm that for a range of items, where they trust the retailer, they would want to use home shopping for more than 20 per cent of their purchases. We have also surveyed leading retailers; obviously some of them contest the 20 per cent figure, but a significant number accept it."
Even if the figure were lower, many shops would go out of business. Boarded-up shop-fronts and charity stores (taking over from closed-down businesses) in town centres across Britain provide evidence of the impact of changes in shopping patterns in recent years, as business has migrated from smaller shops to supermarkets, and then from supermarkets to malls.
Mr Hollis said that by the turn of the century only four types of stores could survive in town centres. Retailers would either have to provide the largest range, like Toys 'R' Us, with its wide selection of products, or the cheapest, like the discount warehouse retailers.
Smaller high street shops would have to specialise in the most fashionable items or offer such a high level of service that shopping was easy and pleasurable or even entertaining.
"Your shop selling ordinary goods at average prices with indifferent service is not going to survive," Mr Hollis said.
"For bulky or routine shopping, which is not pleasurable, people are going to want it as painlessly as possible."
This weekend town centre managers admitted they faced serious problems and said they were beginning to fight back. They plan a national campaign to promote the high street, and today they are testing the water at Swadlincote in the East Midlands, with 5 per cent discounts and a fun day.
High street retailers are now co-ordinating their efforts to promote high street spending. A spokesman in Swale, Kent, admitted yesterday : "We know we have to change people's perception of shopping in the high street so they associate it with a pleasurable, social experience."
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