Canterbury city centre without its shops is unthinkable…almost. But as ever more high street shop chains run into bankruptcy and closure, we need to remember that this isn’t merely an inconvenience, but a rapidly unfolding change in the way our society works.
Although Canterbury has been relatively insulated from this until recently, it is affecting our High Street, too.
This doesn’t just affect shoppers. Shopworkers too are at risk. Their employment is already fairly precarious.
They are among the lowest paid workers, and enjoy, if that’s the word, some of the possible worst pay and conditions.
They have low hourly pay and increasingly have been put onto the dreaded zero hour contracts, where the staff bear all the risk of fluctuations in demand, with little or nothing in the way of pension, job security or promotion prospects, while the employer takes all the profits.
This isn’t unique to retail, of course – as much as they can be a nuisance, all those people frantically riding bikes carrying takeaways down our streets have also poor conditions, as do bar staff and restaurant workers.
In fact, there’s a whole section of our workforce now whose work is at the whim of their employer.
Retail workers are, to this extent, just another example. But they are unusually vulnerable as our shopping habits change.
It didn’t used to be like this. I worked in shops intermittently for about five years, full-time at first and then during college holidays and at weekends.
Although it was part-time, I didn’t work on a zero-hours contract: I worked set days and hours, got lunch breaks, paid holidays and even a little training. My employer couldn’t just send me home without pay if the shop was quiet, and actually didn’t need to.
But mostly I think they valued their staff, recognised that we were key to their business, and yearned for us to feel wanted.
As retail businesses have got bigger, like many of our commercial corporations, they seem to have got greedier.
Retail is a cut-throat business, for sure. Margins are slim, fixed costs high, and the risk of failure now very high.
So having beaten their suppliers up as much as they can, and unable to do much about rent and business rates, the only way retail owners have thought of to cut costs has been staffing.
It’s never the management’s bonuses, pension pots or share schemes that get cut – or shareholder dividends.
Gradually, despite campaigns for a real living wage and the introduction of the minimum wage, retailers have systematically cut perks, hours, training, holidays and any other benefit they think they can get away with.
This has been quite simply a race to the bottom, spreading like a virus through the whole sector.
And it is the staff who have had to put up with it, powerless in an industry in which knowledge, expertise and customer care have been sacrificed to minimising costs, along with job security.
With the retail experience pared down to basics, going shopping has become a thorough chore. It is entirely the fault of the retail industry that online shopping has so easily replaced actually going out to shops, since the one thing that could have kept shoppers feeling positive, the one bit of added value that made people loyal to retailers – the staff – have been systematically reduced to not much more than checkout assistants.
Of course there are other issues in play: the move to out-of-town retail parks, soulless and isolated as they, are hasn’t helped.
Consumers, too, without thinking about it, have chased low prices and accepted non-existent customer service as being normal. We’re not off the hook, either.
The result is that high streets are becoming shells, filled with restaurant chains, until they too go broke, as they are doing in numbers this year.
One of my friends recently counted 13 empty shops on Palace Street alone: there is no escape from the relentless logic of this, even for a city with as much tourism as ours.
But there are several ways of reacting. The council, which is a large property owner in the city (as is the Church), could do much more to encourage smaller shopkeepers, not just through rent and rate reductions, but through marketing, collaborating and developing the city street scene.
Small shopkeepers could be the saviours of the High Street, with their commitment and passion for their products.
But currently the council is tinkering rather than developing a conscious strategy, as a result, I assume, of the prevalent “laissez-faire” approach to the role of business.
The Business Improvement District (BID) has done nothing much to help, dominated as it is by the large chains, which are part of the problem rather than the solution.
There is no rule that says we have to have a High Street filled with shops.
It wasn’t the case 150 years ago, and perhaps drastic change is inevitable. But with no long term vision, no effective intervention, and no plan B, the city’s High street – not to forget those in Whitstable and Herne Bay, too – risks becoming a ghost town.
Something much more imaginative is needed, and quickly.
Dave Wilson is a Labour Party member and community activist who has worked in and around local authorities for 35 years.