Sue Arnold: Watch out for the new, touchy-feely high street

It would be nice to think we've stopped shopping because we've got everything we need
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The Independent Online

If people aren't going shopping in the high street any more, what are all those aggressive women shoving past you to grab the last pair of medium-sized 100 per cent cotton boxer shorts without a saucy inscription across the front doing with their spare time? Making their own clothes, taking their shoes to be mended, and knitting decent serviceable Aran sweaters for their menfolk? I hope, but I doubt it.

If people aren't going shopping in the high street any more, what are all those aggressive women shoving past you to grab the last pair of medium-sized 100 per cent cotton boxer shorts without a saucy inscription across the front doing with their spare time? Making their own clothes, taking their shoes to be mended, and knitting decent serviceable Aran sweaters for their menfolk? I hope, but I doubt it.

If women in Britain are going the same way as their soul sisters in America, who apparently spend an average of two and a half hours on the internet every day, we've swapped shopping on the high street for shopping on the web. Even if I knew how to, I hate the idea of internet shopping. It's so impersonal.

The oil millionaire Nubar Gulbenkian once famously said that the ideal number for dinner was two - himself and the head waiter. I feel the same about shopping, except that instead of the head waiter I want a nice friendly sales assistant, preferably middle aged, who will spell out the manifold advantages of buying an incredibly expensive cashmere and silk designer outfit which will mean bread and dripping for the family for a month, rather than a budget lookalike.

The reason I've pretty much stopped shopping in high street chains and department stores is that you can never find anyone friendly, middle aged or otherwise, to help you. Take last week. I was looking for a light bulb. Nothing fancy. That was the problem. If I'd wanted a chandelier with continental fittings or one that could have illuminated the battlements of Windsor Castle, I'd have been quids in.

When I finally tracked down a frightened-looking assistant, she said hopelessly that she didn't know where anything was because she was on loan from Lingerie and Swimwear. I'd be better off trying to find someone in Small Electric, she advised.

No luck there either. The manager of Small Electric was having a heated argument with someone on the telephone about the department's ongoing shortage of medium-sized carrier bags. Eventually he slammed the phone down and took a deep breath. "Working in this place is just a war of nerves," he said.

Living as we have for the past 30-odd years above the King's Road, I've become something of a retail weathervane. There were still a few old-fashioned bakers, greengrocers and pet shops when we moved in, but not for long.

Ever since the 1960s, when Mary Quant opened her first ground-breaking shop Bazaar and single-handedly launched the mini-skirt and Swinging London, the King's Road has been London's trendy fashion Mecca. Flared trousers and flower-power in the 1970s, cowboy boots and designer jeans in the 1980s, rock star bling and candle accessory shops with names such as Wax Lyrical and Angelics in the 1990s. But over the past couple of years, things have definitely changed.

There are more shoe shops than clothes shops, and more places to buy mobile phones and tall skinny ginger nut and caramel lattes than anything else. In the old days, you'd see people staggering down the King's Road with a dozen designer carriers. Now all they do is upgrade their mobiles and sit in Starbucks calling friends to tell them how impossibly expensive everything is.

It would be nice to think that we've stopped shopping because we have finally realised that we've got absolutely everything we need. The more probable scenario is that we've finally realised we're broke, in debt and can't afford it.

Kevin Roberts, CEO of Saatchi and Saatchi Worldwide, reckons there's another, far more fundamental reason. Women are bored by brands. There are too many. If ad agencies don't change their policy and aim their ads at women who are the main decision makers in the world of consumerism, they're all going to go down the tube.

Women want something extra to persuade them to consume, he says. They want empathy, stimulation and emotional involvement. There are 25,000 items in the supermarket; the average housewife buys 18.

So how do we choose when we are all shopped out? Apple Mac, whose sales are overtaking all the other computer brands has the right idea: its last ice-cream-coloured range of computers carried the single word slogan Yum. When Roberts got his, the first thing he did was to lick it. Watch out for the new empathetic high street.

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