Saturday 27 December 2008
Deborah Orr: The grim state of the high street has turned into a spectator sport
Suddenly everyone is a retail expert, happy to bang on about the minutiae of consumption’
Christmas shopping always generates a certain amount of anxiety. But the feverish nature of it around shopping this season has been spectacular, in the true sense of the word. Few can be unaware that in the high streets some businesses are fighting for survival, as pretty much all of the shops slash prices in an effort to increase "footfall".
Each new retail initiative, in every single chain, it seems, is analysed in forensic detail, as media organisations try to work out whether they will get people buying, or persuade people to wait for further cuts.
So suddenly everyone is a retail expert, happy to bang on for hours about the minutiae of consumption, in an apparent delusion that they woke up one morning in early December to discover that they were, in fact, Philip Green. The nation of shopkeepers has found a new conversation, and every second person is happy to talk earnestly about their own imaginary businesses, and the difficulties they are facing.
Rents were due on Christmas Day, people who have never been behind a till fret anxiously, and disappointing sales in December have cast into doubt the ability of some retailers to pay. Shops, they explain with furrowed brow, are even willing to forego profit at this point, so that they can simply move stock and get hold of some cash.
It's worrying in itself, this trend. Consumers have become experts, fascinated by the emergence of uncertainty in a sector that for years, in theory at least, has known nothing but boom, and turning shopping itself into a form of speculation. The wonder of it all is that some people are still finding the time and the inclination to shop, when talking about shopping has become so much more satisfying.
Five million people, we're told, shopped online on Christmas Day itself. Yesterday, most of the big shops opened on Boxing Day, some of them for the first time, and it was reported that people queued for hours to get into them, and grab a bargain. This is being hailed a Good Thing, though it seems a bit sad that people resort to sitting at their computers, buying things, on Christmas Day, and a bit sadder still that they'll get up at the crack of dawn on Boxing Day to fight their way into Selfridges. The Boxing Day sales this year were "the busiest in memory" and were billed as "defying the credit crunch". It all looked like obsessive desperation.
Anyway, none of this enthusiasm, we are also told, will save some retailers from collapse. Experts at an outfit called Begbies Traynor have been popping up for days on end now, warning that in the next month 10 to 15 chains will go into administration. These experts, of course, do not disclose which retailers they have in mind. That would be destructive. Instead they just up their own profile by indulging in a little bit of generalised doom-mongering.
All those left with the rather more serious task of telling everyone not to panic emphasise that only those retailers who failed to move with the times should be worried. Woolworths had been in trouble for years. MFI was left high and dry by the seizing-up of the property market. Zavvi, the music retailer, relied on Woolies to deliver its online business, so that was a knock-on casualty. Whittard's? That's been a retail mystery for years. Who pops regularly into a shop that specialises in horrible teapots? Officer's Club? Wasn't that looking half-dead last Christmas? And so on.
In reality, of course, it's all even more dispiriting than it looks. The real problem is that people don't feel well off any longer, because they never were as affluent as they believed themselves to be. For years every homeowner trotted out to work, safe in the knowledge that the building they had left behind would be lounging around all day, doing nothing, and raking in more earnings that the guy who was paying the mortgage. Lots of money may have been spent in the shops, but it very often was not disposable income at all. Now it's not a little bit of asset conversion. It's just a pile of debt.
It seems utterly inevitable under such circumstances that the retail sector will shrink, that this will cost many people their jobs, and that this in turn will depress spending power. The analysts at Begbies Traynor, and all the armchair retail experts, may be filled with awestruck wonder as they smell panic on the high street, and quietly toss around between them the "big names" that they bet will fall. Viewed that way, the crisis turns into a gladiatorial game.
The really sad thing is that this panicky publicity is in itself fuelling expectation that the big companies will deliver very cheap items, whether in store or online. Many small retail businesses didn't even see the point in opening over the holidays, let alone rousting their staff out on Boxing Day. There is still, clearly, some glamour in going along to watch the powerful and famous slug it out, even when it's only powerful and famous stores. But it's the local shops that have really had the nightmare Christmas.
And they all purred with delight
Eartha Kitt, has died aged 81, was described by no less a chap than Orson Welles as "the most exciting woman in the world". She was still being booked to play cabaret dates during her final illness. Now she has gone, I'm rather glad I saw her in action, as a 65-year-old sex kitten, still wowing an audience of 1,000 adoring young men.
She looked great that night, with her slender figure, her seemingly endless energy and her revealing black chiffon dress. She did the famous purr rather too many times, but since all of the men were purring right back at her like maniacs, she could hardly have been blamed.
The slightly odd thing about all that enthusiasm she whipped up was that almost her entire audience was extravagantly gay. She was pretending that she found them alluring. They were pretending that they found her alluring. The room was filled with role play, and like the Catwoman she styled herself as, Eartha lapped it up.
It was a perfect match between siren and audience. The one thing she didn't have to pretend was that she actually wanted to sleep with any of them. The one thing they didn't have to pretend was that any of them actually wanted to sleep with her. The result was a huge room full of good cheer, and positive feeling. One only wishes the Pope had been there to see it.
Is this some kind of weird futuristic community?
There's always one aspect of Christmas that I'm particularly glad to see the back of, and I'm happy this year that it was only an advert on the telly. It was that "house party" one from Marks and Sparks. It really got under my skin. It seemed jolly enough to start with. But I found myself wondering fruitlessly what psychological set-up behind the narrative could have been.
A group of women – of widely differing ages, but all attractive – lived together in a gracious home. They had no children, or grandchildren, or any other visible family. They were visited on Christmas Eve by a group of similarly single and attractive men, who stayed over with them, so that they could exchange gifts on Christmas morning. Then they all went out to play in the snow. Why?
Was Twiggy, who opened the door, some kind of dominant force? Were they all living in some futuristic community, where men are men, women are women, and breeding is no longer necessary? Were the ladies more professional than their alluring outfits suggested? Will one of the party, next year, be found murdered in the night? Could this scenario chime with the experience of any M&S shopper? Could it even chime with their fantasies? If it did, then should it have? And so on. This wasn't just Christmas, surely ... this was dark, weird, Patricia Highsmith Christmas.
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