Jonathan Meades: The death of shopping

The High Street's woes are evidence of retail therapy losing its appeal
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The Independent Online

The initial reaction to the coy, mock-audacious, aggrandising euphemism retail therapy is to wince. It was, possibly, the coinage of a rag trade thinker. More likely it was that of a fashion "writer" - that is, a member of the band of enthusiastically brown-nosed illiterates who lauded last season's sans culottes futurism ("daringly zeitgeisty"), who laud this season's apocalyptic serf look ("famine is so thrillingly now"), who will laud next season's fresh- out-of-Dachau silhouette ("courageous neo-waifism").

Retail therapy is, lest we forget, shopping. And shopping is acquisition. And untramelled acquisition is the only civil liberty that most Britons have truly valued since Margaret Thatcher's cultural revolution a quarter of a century ago sanctioned greed and her chancellor, Nigel Lawson, performed that extraordinary act of conceptual legerdemain which turned debt (a bad thing) into credit (a good thing). Maybe it's more than a civil liberty. Maybe it's a secular creed. Maybe buying is therapeutic, more than therapeutic: one still, nonetheless, winces at the epithet.

But to believe in the regenerative capacity of gaining material ownership or even of covetousness (hereafter known as "aspiration") is rather less absurd than to believe in one or another of the ancient Middle Eastern myth-systems which dog the modern world with their hoary antagonisms and supernatural clichés: at least white goods are useful; at least Eau Lente and Castrol X smell delicious; at least Manolos and sweetbreads are sensually satisfying.

In any event, all creeds wane, and shop attendance is down, again. We are losing the habit of buying our way to serenity or, indeed, of buying Serenity™ with its interactive links to Bliss and full set of handcrafted Happinesses. A CBI survey of the retail sector is constellated with minus signs, with cries of the utmost despair - "people are holding off from replacing their washing machines!" - with boldly proposed panaceas - staff at Comet are being trained to "improve the quality of conversations ...".

There exists a syndrome that one might as well call The Professional Fallacy, whereby members of a profession or caste ascribe to civilians their specialist attributes and knowledge. Thus economists have difficulty in realising that the rest of us don't behave according to the "laws" of economics, and so blithely assert that our reluctance to go shopping derives from a widespread financial insecurity prompted by the uncertainty that the inflation of property prices will increase for ever and ever, despite full employment and increasing earnings. As John Coleman, chief executive of the House of Fraser, corroborates: "Consumers have got money. But they are using it to pay debt. Something has spooked them."

That "something" could be the tardy dawning on them of the long-term ramifications of Lawson's sleight of hand. It could be the culmination of the gradual realisation on the part of many property owners that their ownership is indeed provisional, yet that their property is their pension.

What economists and retailers such as Coleman neglect to address is that consumerism has an autonomous motor, whose power is not directly linked to exterior economic circumstance. It is entirely conceivable that we are bored with shopping, with the same shops everywhere, and that we'll find a new solace to render temporarily sacred. The British high street is a site of homogenised mediocrity because the corporate guarantee of a poorer quality of material life is unchecked by the sort of dirigisme that exists throughout the rest of Western Europe, largely in reaction to the flawed Anglo-Saxon model, and which positively discriminates in favour of small retailers by circumscribing the opening hours of chain stores, and by operating a sliding rating and fiscal system. The Howard de Walden estate which owns much of Marylebone, a stone's throw and a world away from Oxford Street in central London, has, exceptionally, made a sterling effort to attract one-off shops - The Ginger Pig (butcher/ charcuterie), Daunt Books, La Fromagerie, John Rushton Shoes - on the commercially hard-headed grounds that such a measure will increase the value of the area's domestic properties. These enterprises have succeeded in realising that cynosure of a thousand wishful estate agents: they have helped to create something close to a village. One of only two or three in the urban (as opposed to suburban) quarters of the capital. Needless to say, the wretched Tesco, uninvited to the party, has gatecrashed by setting up two stores within sight of each other in premises whose leases were not controlled by the estate. Nonetheless, Marylebone High Street and its surrounds have become an exemplar of what is possible given the will of enlightened commercial despotism. It goes without saying that every Parisian arrondisement has several such streets. But then, Paris is the world's capital of flânerie (of which shopping and window shopping are subdivisions), while London is the world capital of breakneck scurrying hither and thither for a purpose. Even London's narrow pavements militate against their being used as anything other than byways. They're not for loitering on.

I am just back from Angoulême (population 110,000 and with a central food market way beyond anything that London, 70 times its size, can muster). Waiting for me was an email from a friend, with a tremendous piece of journalism attached, an interview with an astonishing creature called Scott Pack, the head buyer for Waterstone's and a most dogged servant of bottom-line populism, who has informed his fellow alumni of the Philistia Academy that "my life is better than yours". It made my friend's flesh creep, and mine. But then it occurred to me that the loud-mouthed booby was merely a picayune symptom of the malaise of gigantism: structures topple when they outgrow their strength.

It does not need Poujade, the voice of small shopkeepers, or the little English nostrums of guild socialism to effect such a change. It just needs time. Oh, and an infrastructural make-over would be a boon.

It can be argued that a country's retail pattern is a reflection of its manufacturing system - or former such system. The countries where shopping remains a pleasure rather than a utilitarian chore are countries that support small businesses and small-scale, climatically and geologically appropriate agricultural enterprises. Countries that are partially deaf to the anglophone exhortation to think global, countries that value quality over choice and where the middleman does not need to be cut out because he didn't exist in the first place.

The heartening conclusion to be drawn from the CBI survey is that consumers are not behaving as the high street and supermarket juggernauts would wish them to. The evidence for this is that the only retail area to show increased profits is that of specialised food shops: the emphasis should be on specialised. The British consumer is at last coming into line with the European consumer. This bodes ill for Goliath's future health.

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