News has reached Cromer that the Pfizer vaccine against SARS-CoV-2, the causative agent of COVID-19, has been approved for use in the UK. This information followed the news yesterday that Debenhams, a department store founded well over a century ago, had collapsed; and, before that, that the business of the Arcadia Group, a retail concern that owns many fashion stores, was now under the aegis of the Official
It might not entirely irrelevant to this discussion to note that following the news of the collapse of its retail outlets in meatspace, the hitherto neglected Debenhams website was deluged with online shoppers.
The retail model that news outlets call the ‘High Street’ has, in fact, been dead for years. It is predicated on the idea that people do their shopping in different stores all located close together, and that customers will live close enough to them that they can do it all by walking, or a short bus ride. The model started in medieval market squares and worked well enough when towns were small, and before people had cars.
It was still working fifty years ago when my mother, clad in a thigh-length orange coat and high boots and toting a trolley basket, just like Sophie’s Mum in The Tiger Who Came To Tea (published 1973) took the Infant Gee on the bus to the shops, back in the day when plastic bags were new-fangled (even back then we were discussing the problems of biodegradability – the idea that we did things without a care for the environment is a conceit of thunbergistas, who think anyone over the age of about sixteen cannot possibly have anything of interest to say, except if they are David Attenborough) and Sainsburys was a store where you still had to shop at separate counters.
While women shopped (it was almost always women) their useless husbands would commute to an office or be parked conveniently in a street-corner pub where they would drink beer. As evidenced from The Tiger Who Came To Tea, drinking beer is an exclusively male pastime, pace the existence of sentient tigers. Young people, they’d never believe it.
The big change came with the car; the modern superstore; and the switch to
malls shopping centres that offered easier parking and accessibility for both shoppers and wholesalers with their large trucks, and a shopping environment with plenty of room to move around and not be rained on. That was when ‘The High Street’ started to die. Symptoms worsened with the advent of internet shopping. Even before COVID-19, shopfronts that offered services, rather than goods, were starting to do their work remotely. Witness the closure of High-Street bank branches, given that it’s much easier to do business online, or through an app. COVID-19-inspired restrictions have exposed the flaws in the High-Street business model.
What does this mean? It means that even after we’ve all been vaccinated, the world is not going to return to normal. And however many times people will talk about ‘the new normal’, one can never, to mix metaphors (and hang on in there baby, I haven’t finished yet), step in the same river twice. Prediction, as someone once said, is very difficult — especially about the future.
Notwithstanding inasmuch as which, one can start to see some signs of how things might turn out. The growth of internet shopping has revived the lost art of the delivery of goods – not just from Amazon, but from local shops, and even restaurants. What’s good for Snoop Dogg will be fine for the rest of us. Did somebody say ‘Just Eat’? Some shops are already
reporpoising repurposing as distribution centres. It is perhaps worth noting that in the Heyday of the High Street, shops (takeaways too) used to deliver direct to homes much more often than they do now. In The Tiger Who Came To Tea, Sophie’s Mum expected regular weekly supplies from The Butcher’s Boy or The Baker’s Boy, delivering goods on their bikes. Perforce risking for a second time the strained quality of mercy credulity of younger readers, is my childhood memory of the Onion Man, a (supposedly) French person with a striped matelot jersey and a beret and one leg who pedalled asymmetrically around our neighbourhood, strings of onions pendulant from his handlebars.
In the New Normal, people will realise how liberating it is to work from home and have all their shopping come to them. Shops will still exist, but they will be leisure-time destinations rather than daily necessities. Even now, shopping centres combine retail outlets with dining opportunities, cinemas, and other attractions. On those occasions when I Get Down With The Kids (increasingly rare, as after I Get Down, I can’t easily Get Up Again — It’s the knees, you know), they tell me that they go to shopping centres to socialise rather than shop, and to department stores for clothes for special occasions, or just to try things on that they’ll buy later online. Meatspace shops, then, will become more like show-rooms — Apple Stores (where you buy computers, not apples) — already work like this.
The question arises of what will happen to those vacant shops, and, notwithstanding and moreover, commercial properties in city centres. The answer is relatively simple – they could become anything, if local politicians and planning departments have the imagination to be flexible about zoning. If shops and offices aren’t needed, or needed much less, homes definitely are. And schools. And walk-in health centres. This will lead to a much more mixed environment in which shops and people will be closer together once more, and, with the decline of the car, local shopping will become attractive and feasible again. The increasing locality of shopping and nonlocality of work should level out inequalities of property value, business rates and local taxation, so that living in a city centre will be less different than in a small town than it is now. If it’s no longer necessary to go to London to find all the high-paying gigs, equality of opportunity should increase.
Shopping centres (and their huge car parks) would be redeveloped as homes, parks, or even dug up and rewilded. A future pop hit will be called Big Yellow Uber: the chorus would run ‘Create Paradise/ Rip up a Parking Lot’. So, even if they do most of the regular shopping online, Sophie and her parent (both/either/all three of them will work at home) will once along go shopping along the future equivalent of the High Street.
This is predicated on the idea that politicians and planning departments have any imagination to start with. It’s not really their fault. Once at a science-fiction conference I asked a futurologist whether people in the future would work from home, only for this notion to be pooh-poohed: no more than 15 per cent of people would ever do this, he said. And this was a person who spent a lot of time thinking about future trends, rather than managing the present. It takes a global pandemic to jolt management structures and ingrained habits out of their slough of inertia. The SF writer William Gibson wrote words to the effect that The Future is already here, just not widely implemented. To take a specific example — we already have the technology for self-driving cars. What’s holding up their adoption is (I suspect) questions about liability when one of them is involved in an accident. The things that hold up the future are not so much the absence of technology as the under-development of imponderables such as legislation.
All the preceding reminds me of the story of the mohel who works from a storefront. The municipality decrees that all storefronts should have an attractive display in the window to entice passers-by. Initially at a loss about what to do, the mohel gets a job lot of pocket calculators and arranges them tastefully in the window. Nobody takes any notice because, you know, those who know, know, no? Until one day
a large tiger a man enters his shop and asks to buy a pocket calculator.
CUSTOMER: I’d like to buy a pocket calculator please.
MOHEL: I’m very sorry, I don’t sell pocket calculators.
CUSTOMER: I rather like that nice Texas Instruments model. Or the Casio.
MOHEL: As I said, I don’t actually sell pocket calculators.
CUSTOMER [puzzled]: Really? But there is a tasteful arrangement of pocket calculators in your window.
MOHEL: It’s like this. I’m a mohel. What do you want I should put in my window?