‘Down from London’: the high street predicament

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    Debenhams sits on the corner of Guildhall Street and the High Street

    DThis week brought the sad news that Debenhams in the High Street is due to close. Not particularly sad for me, as my main experience is being dragged in there to look at cushion or something, but very sad for those who work there.

    Also, for the many thousands of people who drag people in there to look at cushions. The high street department store seems to be an endangered species, not just here, but nationally. I suppose they are the victims of increased buying online and stocking the sort of things that are relatively easily delivered.

    Shopping in London isn’t really about visiting the same high street, and seeing it change. You usually have your local shops, or completely useless market stocking Doc Martens and fluorescent wigs, depending on the borough, then obviously there’s central London. In Zone One you can find any shop you want, whilst sharing a three-meter-wide pavement with a billion tourists taking pictures of JD Sports.

    It’s interesting to see how the high street is changing and evolving: smaller shops, more specialists, a Costa every three feet. There seem to be a lot of thriving shoe shops in Canterbury, which is understandable as buying shoes online is a bit of a minefield. Especially if you don’t realise the difference between child and adult sizes…even when you’re wrapping up the suspiciously small box to give to the Mrs on her birthday. True story.

    Canterbury always seems busy, at least in term-time and tourist season, and that keeps a variety of shops in business that would fail elsewhere. However, the “traditional high street” type shops are as badly hit as everywhere else.

    There are some places where formerly busy shopping areas are turning into deserted wastelands. Vast concrete memorials to mid-century consumer gods, forgotten in favour of the new religion of the internet. Yeah, I’ve been watching “American Gods” on Amazon Prime. I would have rented a video of it from Blockbusters, but I can’t seem to find one.

    In fact, it turns out there’s only one Blockbuster left, in Bend, Oregon. Justified by a very rural population renting piles of DVDs for the long winter in log cabins without internet. The sort of place where you need to run like hell if you see someone renting “Deliverance”, or “Misery”, or “Texas Chainsaw Massacre”.

    The Friday night trip to Blockbuster was an incredible experience, especially as a kid. Trawling the aisles for new releases, trying to persuade your dad to let you rent an 18, the intoxicating smell of popcorn. Then, when you do decide to rent “Jurassic Park”, realising they have all gone and end up clutching a prized copy of Eric Idle’s extended Alec Guinness impression “Splitting Heirs” instead. True story.

    Choosing what to watch on Netflix often results in a similarly disappointing evening, but the process of choosing in a video shop was immeasurably better. And less likely to result in divorce. In the case of Blockbuster, the convenience of online alternatives does outweigh the retail experience, and I suspect that is true of Debenhams and even Nasons. 

    The modern video shop, in as much as it seems to be the same people behind the counter, is the vape shop. The better ones make the whole thing into an experience and have an array of choices you couldn’t hope to wade through without help. Often, they also smell of popcorn. 

    I think people will always want some sort of retail experience, but the things they go to the high street for will change. That means the high street itself will need to adapt. Canterbury is lucky to have a good stock of “out of town” consumers, as well as those of us who go there all year round, and I hope that the next iteration of the high street will be more than coffee shops, fried chicken and vape emporiums. 

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