I went to a high street. I tried to do my bit. But could I find anything to buy?

It’s time for high street shops to face up to market forces

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Where have all the shoppers gone?

This is the question which perplexes the British high street. Shoppers look like they still exist: the shops are full of people and surveys suggest that footfall remains high. But  the retail sales in January fell by 0.6 per cent, so whatever the shoppers are doing, it isn’t shopping.

Lots of them will be too broke, of course. Post-Christmas, credit card bills arrive, and plenty of people are too worried by job insecurity to go splurging. But there is another reason, and that is that the high street has become a difficult place to spend money.

Of all the shops whose fates have taken a grim turn this year – Blockbusters, Jessops, HMV, Republic – I can’t remember when I last spent money in one of them. I bought a James Bond boxset in HMV in October: that was probably it. I’ve bought CDs, games and films since, but I’ve had to buy them online, because I haven’t been able to find what I want in store.

As for Blockbuster, I haven’t been in a branch since I finished working for them in 1998. The smell of stale popcorn haunts me still. And while I would like to be able to tell you what kind of clothes Republic sells, we’ll have to simply assume that they are for young people. I had never registered their existence till their demise was reported on the news.

The councils which were bunged a whack of cash to rejuvenate their high streets by Mary Portas (well, by us, but she’s on TV, so she gets to decide who gets it) have spent virtually none of the earmarked funds. Except, confusingly, Dartford Council, which tanked £1,160 on hiring a bloke in a Peppa Pig costume. Would that make you dig out your wallet?

It’s time for high street shops to face up to market forces. They’ve angled themselves at young shoppers, but young people have very little money at the moment. The people who do have money are sitting at home, spending it guiltily online, because the trip into town is too often a trek past irrelevant shops. And, occasionally, a man in a pig suit.

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