As well-known stores such as HMV, Jessops and Blockbuster hit the buffers, towns are realising they must adapt or die
All that remains of the HMV in Ealing Broadway is a large pink sticker that clings to a first-floor window and shows Nipper staring down the gramophone, baffled as ever to hear his master’s voice.
Beneath the sticker, in premises where, until two years ago, Nipper was self-proclaimed top dog for music, is Miss London, a clothes shop currently in clearance sale mode, offering “Many items for £5”.
Around the corner, the shutters of Jessops are halfway down, disclosing only the legs of two people busy gutting the shop. Rubbish sacks slouch against the glass, which, neatly for a chain that was devoured by the internet, bears a notice urging customers to log on to www.jessops.com for further details.
This could be any UK high street in the wake of a bleak start to the retail year that has seen HMV, Jessops and Blockbuster put into administration, joining Comet, Clinton Cards and Peacocks as victims of weak demand, overwhelming debt, changing tastes and the march of the internet.
According to the British Retail Consortium (BRC) one in nine high street shops is empty and in Ealing, west London, some of the shopfronts still open are a testament to consumer struggles.
The shop next door to Jessops offers payday advances and cashes cheques.
A little further up the Uxbridge Road, not far from the al-Jazeera mall where you can buy a chicken kebab, get a haircut and remit money to Afghanistan all under one roof, is the elegant art deco building that was once Woolworth’s West Ealing outpost. It has now been split between a branch of Superdrug, Poundworld and a pawnbroker’s.
Opposite is a branch of Blockbuster which, like Jessops, has just been tagged by the administrators. The sheet of paper on the door directs customers to Deloitte and the media to a PR company.
Yvonne Phipps, who has lived in the borough since 1948, sometimes struggles to recognise streets where she grew up. “Ealing used to be called the Queen of the Suburbs but it’s changed,” she says as she pauses in the cold outside Wilkinson. “West Ealing needs updating: there are so many cheapy shops.”
While she has nothing against the “little shops” that have rushed to fill the void left by the big names, she feel they ought at least to be “good little shops”.
Nicola Shoeten-Sack, out on a midweek shopping trip for as long as her one-year-old son would allow, agrees that this is a high street of two halves.
“This end is manky,” she says. “The Broadway’s fine, but since Westfield [in nearby Shepherd’s Bush] opened, you see things like HMV shutting. The big name shops are going into town and the cheaper shops are popping up but they’re not staying for open for long.”
Does that mean she does most of her shopping in the Broadway? She shakes her head. “I tend to go window-shopping and then go online because you can get things half-price.”
Ah, the internet. Combine the ease and value of online shopping with the pressures of the economic downturn and it suddenly seems easy to understand how so many of the shops round here and elsewhere – HMV, Jessops, Blockbuster, Woolworths, Game, JJB Sports, Barratts, Clinton cards and Past Times – could have faltered or failed altogether over the past few years.
But those who hold the internet and the economy solely responsible for the much-pronounced death of the British high street are missing the point: the patient has been ailing for decades.
“We are in a recession, and that has proved a catalyst to the process but that’s what it is: a catalyst,” says Matt Piner, research director at the retail analysis and consulting agency Conlumino.
“It’s not the cause and there has been a very long-term transference of spend away from town centres and towards firstly supermarkets and out-of-town retail parks and shopping malls and then, obviously, online.
“I think that it’s brought into focus a lot more when you see these big names that everyone knows disappearing from the high streets, but there has been a gradual flow over the last five or 10 years of retailers downsizing.”
The BRC is also very wary of assigning all the blame to the internet.
“These latest administrations are a stark illustration of the pressures retailers are under at a time when we’ve got relentlessly weak consumer demand coupled with rising costs,” says Richard Dodd, the BRC’s head of campaigns. If the government wants to protect the high street, he says, it needs to invest in town centres and address the old issues of parking and access. But, more pressingly, it also has to bring down the costs of doing business.
What’s at the top of his list? “Freeze business rates in April. At the moment we’re still facing a 2.6% increase, which would come on top of really significant increases in the last two years.”
Ealing council says it is committed to preserving its high streets and points to the number of big names that have recently set up shop in the area.
And, if you look back towards the Broadway, past the pound shops, the pawnshops, the phone shops, and the cheap shoe shops, there are unmistakable signs that money is coming in: shopfitters are putting in the windows of a new Morrisons, a two-floor Caffè Nero has opened near the station, a new Wagamama is serving noodles and the building that was once Barratts is now an enormous Pret a Manger where office workers snatch sandwiches and the parents of young children meet for coffee and mutual support.
Pat Hayes, Ealing’s executive director of regeneration and housing, admits there has been an increase in the number of charity and pound shops. But he says the council’s commitment to matching businesses such as Pret with the right property, and its wooing of clothing giants such as H&M is paying dividends.
“Fashion is an important pull on the high street because it tends to be cross-age and cross-class as well,” he says. “We’re also seeing shopping as more of a leisure activity than as a pure retail activity, so we therefore encourage the coffee shops and the restaurants like Carluccio and Wagamama so you get a much more mixed town centre that isn’t entirely retail. That’s what people seem to want and that’s where we’ve been making progress in Ealing.”
Hayes is confident that both the sale of the town hall car park to property developers and the advent of a £100m “film quarter” based around a brand new multiplex cinema, flats and shops, will attract further investment.
“We just have to accept that the retail industry is going to go through a drastic restructuring and we’re going to have to help the high street within that context,” he says. “We have to think of how we’re going to support the things that actually make a high street viable. It’s also about thinking about a vibrant town centre that isn’t necessarily all shops.”
Staff in many of the chain stores around the Broadway are too fearful of head office to discuss how they’re faring. But Jaspal Singh, the manager of RS Superstores — which looks more than adequately equipped to live up to it slogan “all your household needs” — agrees to venture an opinion. “Business is all right, not too bad,” he says, surrounded by stacks of plastic dustbins, storage boxes and washing up racks. “Sometimes busy, sometimes quiet – like life.”
Edward Durkin, a manager for the Daniel store, which has been selling furniture in Ealing for 112 years, reckons things are beginning to look up. “Although we have come through a difficult time, the Gym Group and Morrisons moving in next door have brought increased custom and life,” he says. “We see a long future trading in the area.”
Less sanguine about the future of Britain’s high streets is Richard Hyman, a retail consultant at Patel Miller.
He is convinced that this year will be even tougher than the last.
“There will be more distress; there will be more casualties and some of them will be quite big ones,” he says. “Whether we see anyone quite as big as Woolworths is less certain, but the retail market has got to get a bit smaller. There are too many mouths to feed.”
Billy Puddle, who’s been selling fruit and veg outside what is now the enormous Pret a Manger since the mid-90s, is a little more optimistic.
Yes, it’s been downhill for a few years, he supposes, and yes, many of the old shops have gone. But one or two of the big high street names still retain their draw.
“I think it’s levelled off since Primark came, but it’s starting to come back and the Marks and Spencer brings people here,” he says. And anyway, he reasons, the high street has got to pick up sooner or later, hasn’t it? “It can’t get no worse,” he says, and gets back to his bananas.