Leading article: This is about more than DVDs and sandwiches

Click to follow

Whether this merger proves a good thing for this most familiar of high-street fixtures or not, it is a clear sign of the times. This is a merger that reflects the way we shop nowadays. Boots is the latest of the old-style retailers to fall into serious trouble. Three profits warnings have been issued in the past 18 months. It is one of the five grand names of the retail sector - along with Woolworths, WH Smith, Sainsbury's and Marks & Spencer - that regularly crop up on the investment danger lists.

The problem facing Boots, as with many other retailers, is the rise of the supermarkets. Tesco and Asda, in particular, have been aggressively targeting Boots' market. Shoppers are increasingly buying their toiletries and pharmacy products with their groceries at the supermarket, rather than separately at Boots. More and more of us, it seems, are happy to do all our shopping in US-style marts.

Boots has tried various strategies to protect itself. It opened an optician service; it sells sandwiches (even DVD players in some outlets). But diversification has not succeeded in turning the company around. Now we are promised more drastic measures. After the merger the famous Boots brand name will remain. But behind the shop front much will change. We are informed that there will be 1,500 "community pharmacies" whose main business will be selling healthcare products and providing advice. But some 800 larger stores will become health and beauty "destinations" that will offer a wide range of cosmetics alongside pharmaceuticals. This, we are told, will entice back customers from the supermarkets.

It is all a far cry from the era in which John Boot founded The British and American Botanic Establishment - the company that would become the ubiquitous chemist - in Nottingham in 1849. But that was a time when we shopped very differently. And, as we are seeing, today's consumer is motivated by anything but nostalgia.