Judith Willis discusses whether high street stores are heading for extinction.
In light of House of Fraser – one of Britain’s most well-known department stores – being the latest retailer to enter administration, it is safe to say that high street shopping is steadily on the decline whilst online shopping is rapidly growing. More than ever before, it looks like the future for fashion is going to be based entirely on the Internet. One day the only shops on the high street may be those dedicated to online orders and Click & Collect, much like the popup store launched by Zara back in January of this year. The photos of the concept store taken in London Westfield Stratford shopping centre look they’ve been taken on board a space craft. Foreshadowing the future, it would seem.
I can’t say that the idea of the extinction of the high street feels all that bleak because I don’t even remember the last time I went shopping to a physical clothing store. I am addicted to shopping apps, checking the New-In categories at least two or three times a day and make too many purchases for my bank card’s liking. Once upon a time, my friends and I used to go into town of a weekend and spend the day drifting in and out of shops, trying things on and having our own catwalk show in the stark, unflattering lighting of the fitting rooms. Now that our careers have taken us to different areas of the UK, we’ve resorted to sending links to say, a dress or top we think one of us would like in our group chat.
When you work full-time and you need an outfit for an event, you’re more inclined to go online and filter down your options by size, colour and style, rather than running to the shops at the end of a long day and digging through the rails, not knowing whether you’re going to find exactly what you’re looking for – only to discover it’s the wrong size or has a foundation stain on the front. Online shopping can all be done whilst you’re lying in bed at any time of day, free from crowds, queues and stress. There’s also that element of exhilaration and excitement that comes with ordering new clothes and waiting for them to arrive. Certainly, there’s that risk of disappointment if the clothes do not fit or do not look quite as they did on the website, but at least you got to try them on in the comfort of your home and most brands offer fussfree returns.
Online shopping is definitely not for every generation. My mother is sixty and loves going out for the day to shop, despite that fact that most of the time she’ll return home empty-handed and annoyed that she spent “all that money on parking”. Yet, she is baffled by the amount of online purchases I make. I’ll often find her in my wardrobe, suspiciously squinting at the care label of something that I’ve just bought asking whether the garment is synthetic or 100% cotton. God forbid it’s dry clean only!
Before I became part of the production team for a brand, I was in the customer service department. When you work in customer service, you’re on the front line and get to know the demographic first-hand. And whilst brands are trying to engage with a younger clientele, the majority of customers are older women. Placing an order over the phone with an elderly lady could sometimes take a very long time whilst they attempted to navigate their way around the website on the other end of the line, and a lot of them were victims of phone fraud, so would be reluctant to give their card details when it came to payment. By the end of the call, they were usually so flustered and frustrated with their lack of technological savviness and would tell me how much easier it was to go the shops. You have to wonder how they would cope if shopping became entirely based online.
For digital retailers based only online, they need not worry about the ailing footfall on the high street. On the other hand, companies with stores are being forced to become more and more innovative in order to avoid the fate of their competitors who have succumbed to administration. Tim Radley, founder of retail specialists VM Unleashed, said the only way retailers will survive is if they offer “omni-channel” shops, where going shopping will be an experience. Topshop’s flagship store in Oxford Street is the perfect example – not only does it have three stadium-sized floors for clothing and accessories, it also has a food court, hair and nail salons and even a piercing service. No wonder the place is always rammed, it’s not just a store – it’s a tourist attraction.
A future without high street shops does seem bittersweet. Perhaps it will be the familiarity of them being there that I will miss most. But I tell myself I cannot be too wistful about the future of the high street because after all, I have been a willing participant in its downfall.
You can find Judith on Instagram with @misswillis