This Christmas period has been particularly bad for the UK High Streets and even the traditional Boxing Day sales have failed to impress.
Earlier this year, Mike Ashley was bemoaning the lot of the High Street as he offered his expertise to a committee of MPs, saying:
I want to make it crystal clear: the mainstream High Street as we think about it today - not the Oxford Streets and the Westfields - are already dead. They can’t survive.
We have to realise the High Street won’t make 2030 - it’s not going to be there unless you do something really radical and grab the bulls by the horns. It won’t be there.
Amidst confirming he isn’t Father Christmas, which I’m sure settled many an argument up and down the UK, Mr Ashley hit upon three main things damaging the High Street: business rates, “prehistoric rents”, as Ashley called them, and online shopping.
I know little about business rates and commercial rents, so I’m prepared to accept they need some sort of reform, but I do know a bit about online shopping. Ashley suggested taxing any retailer that makes more than 20% of its turnover online but I don’t see how this would work. Furthermore, I think such a tax is wrong.
Maybe the assumption is that a taxed retailer would be forced to open more bricks and mortar stores to avoid this tax. Or perhaps the retailer would pass the tax on to the public and thus discourage them from shopping online.
Hmm, I have serious doubts about this.
First there’s all the things local councils do to make High Street shopping as painful as possible. Many towns and cities actively discourage cars, forcing drivers to fight congestion, park miles away from anywhere useful and pay extortionate fees for doing so. They will tell us to use some sort of Park & Ride scheme but such things just make your journey twice as long and half as convenient. And of course we instinctively dislike other people and resist having to mingle with them on a Park & Ride bus.
Furthermore, online shopping is where the future’s going. It’s extremely convenient to sit at home in the warm with a nice cup of tea, browsing goods online and ordering them with a single click. The alternative is a 25 minute trip into Taunton, another 25 minutes to find a parking space and 20 minutes to walk to the shop I want, fighting my way through throngs of people that irritate me in the process. Then there’s the obligatory queue to join for another 25 minutes to make my purchase and maybe a 20 minute walk back to the car afterwards and then 25 more minutes to get back home again.
I’ll have written off at least two hours of my time. I’ll have had to pay for petrol and about a million pounds in parking fees. And I probably won’t even had got what I wanted, particularly if it’s trousers because they only seem to come in ‘skinny fit’ these days and you need to be precisely 6ft 2 and 8 stone to fit into them.
Where’s the upside? I’m aware there are some people who actually like shopping but such people are clearly insane and there’s no way I want to mix with them in a town centre.
It may be that the writing’s on the wall for the High Streets. Maybe we should just let them become extinct. If any shop hasn’t figured out that online is where it’s at by now then they probably don’t deserve to be in business.
That may sound harsh but things evolve. We don’t have people bemoaning the demise of the horse and cart, calling parliamentary committees to look for ways to save it. Cars superseded it.
And isn’t it a general government aim to reduce the journeys we make anyway? One delivery van can service maybe 100 houses and that’s 99 fewer vehicles on the road.
Mr Ashley may have some useful ideas to save the High Street but I’m not convinced we actually want to do that in the first place.
In the interests of full disclosure, I have preconceived ideas about Mike Ashley because I’m a Newcastle United supporter. I will however admit that he knows a thing or two about retail even if he hasn’t got the first clue about how to run a football club.
If we do indeed want to save the UK high street, though, they should start by addressing the parking issues I touched on above. It's difficult and expensive to park anywhere near the high street. Out of town centres offer parking that's free and plentiful, which is a big reason people choose them over the high street. Until convenient and free access to the high street is available they'll never save it.