As the Goliaths of the high street tumble like a flimsy line of dominos, it’s tempting to think they are all suffering from the same affliction, but there’s a great difference between last week’s most high-profile victims – Arcadia’s Topshop and Debenhams.
I was interviewed by the BBC as news of the collapse of Philip Green’s Arcadia broke.
They wanted, they said, a quick sentence to put ‘at the top of the package’ to describe what had gone wrong.
I replied, somewhat impatiently, that it was impossible and inaccurate to wrap up the complex causes in a couple of easy soundbites. Each brand has its own story.
But TV news programmes are no place for nuanced explanation and, in the end, they managed to mould what I said into the comments they originally wanted.
The current retail Armageddon is brutal and when we emerge from it there will be fewer and smaller stores. But it’s not true, as is shown by those that are thriving, that no one wants to visit any shop
Businesses collapse because people aren’t buying enough of what they sell. Yes, in some cases they have too many stores in a world where so much shopping is online.
Yes, they may have managed their finances poorly. Yes, they may have been teetering on the brink before Covid pushed them over.
And yes, in the case of Arcadia, they had too many ossified brands such as Dorothy Perkins (the clue is surely in the old-fashioned name) that should have been put out to pasture years ago.
But it’s wrong to assume that all big brands on the high street are similarly doomed.
Next (with its terrific online operation) and Apple (whose stores are entertainment venues in themselves) are doing brisk business.
Zara shops, with their excellent fashion and stylish window displays, are rammed every lunchtime, and Primark, which doesn’t even have a shoppable website, is raking it in.
Rather than cutting back on physical shops, they invested heavily in a Birmingham superstore, which saw huge queues last week when it opened for 24-hour shopping.
There are still some great clothes in Topshop but the buzz has gone. Debenhams, on the other hand, was for decades a treasured department store and as much a destination for an older customer as Topshop was for the young. Shoppers are pictured on Oxford Street lining up to shop
On Wednesday, as clothes stores reopened across England, I dropped in to Topshop and remembered just how much I loved visiting shops as a teenager – not for what I could buy, but for the social activity.
We would meet as a gang of friends on Saturdays in the patchouli-scented stalls of Kensington Market, or test plum nail polish in the dark, cavernous Biba, and listen to the music in the boutiques on the King’s Road.
And not so long ago you could see the same excitement at Topshop, as girls queued for the fitting rooms, arms filled with possibilities for the party that night, or sat at the newly installed nail bar or the Hershesons blow-dry pop-up.
But then you began to find near-identical clothes in every store and website. The shops started to look tired. Green pulled back from investing in innovative design and the creation of a fun-filled shopping experience and, when that edge was lost, the customers drifted elsewhere. There are still some great clothes in Topshop but the buzz has gone.
Debenhams, on the other hand, was for decades a treasured department store and as much a destination for an older customer as Topshop was for the young.
In the 1990s, with the support of chief executive Terry Green, it launched the hugely successful Designers For Debenhams.
Women flocked there for smart clothes by the leading British designers of the time – John Rocha, Betty Jackson and others at affordable prices – long before the designer collaborations of H&M.
Jasper Conran’s cut-price version of his elegant black evening shift sold so well that it netted him a fortune. And once you were in Debenhams, well why not pick up a new duvet cover? And grab an eyeshadow while you’re at it.
But that innovation too ended and now it’s been years since Debenhams has been anything but a frumpy white elephant.
The current retail Armageddon is brutal and when we emerge from it there will be fewer and smaller stores. But it’s not true, as is shown by those that are thriving, that no one wants to visit any shop. If anything, the restrictions of Covid have shown many of us how much we miss that experience.
We just want them to be original, offer us things that we can’t find everywhere else, and ensure they are intriguing and welcoming places where we want to spend our hard-earned leisure time.
Hair salons – and a cutback too far
During recent months, many businesses such as hair and beauty salons have asked for payment in advance when booking to cut back on the time spent in a crowded reception area and also to help their damaged cash flow.
That was totally acceptable while we were in the most difficult days, but now there’s no reason for not letting us return to paying once we’ve had our treatment. Funnily enough though, I don’t notice a rush to return to that normality.
Did someone rain on Harry’s parade?
As a child in dance lessons, I remember being allocated the role of thunder when all the other pupils were raindrops. I wonder if Prince Harry, asking ‘what if every single one of us was a raindrop’, was inspired by attending a similar class.
Forget cyclists – help our homeless instead
Kensington and Chelsea Council is battling Extinction Rebellion – and London’s Labour Mayor Sadiq Khan – to rip up the empty, huge bike lane running along Kensington High Street, one of the capital’s busiest thoroughfares.
There could be no better illustration of this pointless construction – a quick £300,000 down the drain – than watching, as I did, the car in front slaloming between the bike lane bollards in confusion and desperation to find a left-hand turn.
Perhaps now the many other councils which are considering wasting their money on all these expensive measures could instead spend the cash on helping to solve the tragic and, sadly, growing homeless population – people sleeping rough on pavements beside nonsensical traffic initiatives.
At last, light spot in the darkest of years
I’m a sucker for Christmas lights going up, this year more than ever. It’s wonderfully cheering to see the decorations twinkling gaily above the streets and bringing a bit of fantasy into the darkness.
Gaffe-prone Gavin’s really had it now…
Do you believe in miracles? Well you should because Gavin Williamson is still in his job despite last week’s latest blunder – his charmless, childish, inarticulate boasting about our vaccine regulators.
But he might have finally done himself in by suggesting that Eton should accept girls.
He may be able to mess up our state schools and exam systems but I very much doubt our PM wants him mucking around with his alma mater.
Do you believe in miracles? Well you should because Gavin Williamson is still in his job despite last week’s latest blunder