Belfast Telegraph

Wednesday 24 September 2014

Why Mary Portas should think about closing up shop

I've never had much time for the self-important utterances of the Commons' Speaker's wife, but when Sally Bercow failed to find much sympathy for struggling retailers on Twitter, she hit on an uncomfortable truth.

According to Sally, it was "sad" that household names such as Habitat and Focus were in trouble, but not really that tragic as she never shopped at any of them.

She trashed chocolate retailer Thorntons (closing 120 stores) as a "yucky-tasting rip-off", and described Carpetright (shutting up to 50 stores) as "overrated". Even Jane Norman (shedding 30 stores) got a lashing for flogging "clothes for skinny minnies".

Was Sally insensitive? It wasn't clever to mouth off at a time when tens of thousands (mostly women) will lose their jobs, but Miss Motormouth put her finger on an unpalatable truth: consumers have fallen out of love with the High Street.

We have become super-picky about where we shop; increasingly, we'd rather sit at home and click. A mouse doesn't look at your backside and say they don't stock your size.

A mouse negates the need to traipse into town, find a parking spot or spend money travelling to a superstore where you'll waste an hour walking up and down aisles.

We've become super-selective. Few brands inspire undying love in the brutal world of retail - even M-amp;S has started its sale early, desperate to shift stock.

I laughed when I heard that self-styled Queen of Shops, Mary Portas, had been asked by David Cameron to conduct a review into the state of our shopping centres.

She is a brilliant broadcaster, but her expertise as a professional retail analyst and consultant has been bought by companies like Westfield, so how can she be impartial?

You can't breath life into a corpse and the time has come to declare the High Street dead and buried.

Our retail habits have changed for good. It's time to be bold and think what we might turn our decaying city-centres into, not pay Mary Portas to administer temporary oxygen and a sticking plaster.

The terminal decline is painfully obvious. Last weekend, I visited a county town where, like hundreds of others, shop after shop was boarded-up. Even in the modern pedestrianised shopping area, there were empty premises galore and the pound shop had become a 99p emporium.

A spokesman from Asda alludes to a 'toxic mix of facts and fear' as government talk of bailing out bankrupt EU countries, as well as the constant drip of cost-cutting, terrifies shoppers into restraint.

The 'average household' tracked by Asda has seen its disposable income drop by 8% in a year - the largest dip the retailer has recorded - to only £165 a week.

Some families are £60 a month worse off than a year ago, as prices for basic foods have risen by 25%, petrol by 13% and transport by 8%. Inflation is running at 4.5% - twice the rate of earnings growth.

Nervous about our future, we're buying carefully. The Bank of England says we're in for 'an uncomfortable' few years. If we're not shopping, that's bad news for the 10% of the workforce that's in retail and even worse for the economy, where consumer spending accounts for two-thirds of GDP.

I didn't shed a tear for Habitat and, like Sally Bercow, I have become a ruthless online shopper, endlessly comparing goods. Online there's millions of quirky brands that prosper without having to pay rent in the High Street, or employ lacklustre shop assistants.

Online is the future and Mary Portas and her doomed review won't make an iota of difference. Turn those boarded-up shops into housing, youth clubs, galleries and schools - they'll never be a grocer's or a butcher's again.

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