An Ode to Retail

It has been a tough year, not least for our retailers. I’ve been thinking of them. I always do at this time of year. Most of my working life has been in retail, be it on the shop floor or in the boardroom. How strange our shops have been shut … like the stages and cinemas, the theatre of high street retail temporarily closed. I have missed them, almost grieved their absence.

Shops are extraordinary things. They inspire and delight. For many years retailers have sought to add panache and ‘experience’ to fight off the onslaught of the juggernaut of online competition. But in these dark times, shops provide something more vital — a human interaction, a moment of being cared for and looked after.

Recently one retailer has been publicly declaring ‘the show must go on’. And I agree, the show of our lives must go on, as tough as this year is; whatever difficulties we are facing, ultimately we must keep going. The retailer using this phrase in their television adverts is Amazon. How dare they? They are not struggling, their share price and sales are soaring. Yet they dare to appropriate this very phrase from the world of theatre, another industry encountering one of its bleakest years yet.

In the realm of Amazon, it is their workforce who face hardship, working in a tough environment, with limited access to sick leave and frequent complaints of poor COVID safety procedures. Its marketplace sellers suffer hikes in seller fees, as it passes on its tax obligations. It is our high streets and independent retailers who face a non-rational business that does not price for profit, but instead prices to put everyone else out of the market in the long-term. Relentlessly exploiting a playing field that is already heavily tilted in its favour.

Amazon sells us the myth of convenience — that ever faster delivery and ever broader online choice will make us happy. That Amazon can supply everything from books to clothes, to the replacement head for your electric toothbrush. The ‘everything store’ they say. The ‘everything-but-a-human-connection’ store I say.

On a pre-lockdown visit to my local High Street, I found more human connection and ‘theatre’ buying storage boxes in Paperchase than I will ever find in a hastily delivered Amazon Prime box. Shops can be a visual delight — a well-organised stationery shop, an art supplies shop, a bookshop, even a hardware store. They reek of possibility — of things to be written, painted, made, read. Having sanitised my hands, I was able to peruse Paperchase’s excellent range of storage items. It felt wanton to feel the sturdiness of the card, the weight of each item in my hand. At the till I was able to ask the seemingly daft question, of whether the A4 storage box was literally A4-sized, or slightly larger allowing for easy storage of A4 items. Obviously it was the latter, but my question elicited a warm nodding, and understanding. The manager even joined the conversation, waxing lyrical about how popular the plain range has always been and well-designed too. We all nodded in agreement.

I floated out the door gladdened by the whole experience. I walked down the highstreet appreciating the lively windows of the shops still in business. I passed the Mountain Warehouse window, with cosy padded jackets in jaunty colours, signalling the arrival of winter. I felt comforted by this sight, having worked for them for many years previously. I understood that the exact shade of mustard yellow, the puffiness, the snap of the poppers, had been refined, season after season, to reach the optimum pleasing-reliable-jacket-at-an-affordable price. The work of a cast of many behind the scenes, making it available in store and online.

In such hard times, the Mountain Warehouse winter jackets seemed like the green shoots of spring — a sign that commercial life was continuing. Likewise the large, but organised queue outside McDonalds and the cheerful Big Issue seller now equipped with a card-reader. So many businesses adapting and surviving in the most difficult conditions.

Yet how much longer must this cast of thousands soldier on, under a regulatory regime that favours the likes of Amazon? The diversity and survival of our high streets is under grave threat. UK highstreet retailers continue to be hamstrung by a costbase exacerbated by poorly designed legislation. The result is more businesses gone, jobs lost, every day, leaving Amazon amassing market power. We need our policymakers to be braver and bolder and not stick their heads in the sand.

High streets are so much more than some shops in a row. They are places of tradition dating back centuries, of exchange and conversation, of human connection and commerce. If we cannot act to protect these physical institutions of our shared public life, what hope do we have of protecting our invisible institutions, like that of democracy.

New technologies and even multinational corporations can enrich our lives and societies with new possibilities. Somebody really is glad they can order that electric toothbrush head or watch some ex-Top Gear presenter try and cook! Change is good, but unfettered it can leave us vulnerable and at its darkest it can turn people against each other.

Convenience is a seductive myth but sadly life is not convenient. Birth is not convenient; looking after children and doing the dishes is not convenient. Death is not convenient, mostly. A pandemic is not convenient. Yet here we are, and the show must go on. But let it be the human show, of care, infused with the spirit of our shared lives. The very show that plays out everyday on our highstreets up and down the country.

It is our high street retailers who are drawing deep on that ‘the show must go on’ spirit — not Amazon. From the bottom of my heart I thank them, but showmanship alone cannot sustain them. I’ll be thinking fondly of all my former colleagues known and unknown, as they re-open their doors for the most challenging of Christmas trading periods. So much is at stake, so many businesses resting on a knife’s edge. Let us hope our policymakers are awake, ready to step in and play their part and reform the supply-side regulations that weigh down our highstreet retailers, as Amazon dances ahead. With this our show could continue, with innovation and growth and retain the heart of our evolving high streets.

K.L Brown is an ex-Retailer, writer and artist.

She is the former Trading Director of Emma Bridgewater (2017–2018); former eCommerce Director at Mountain Warehouse (2012–2017); served on Mary Portas’ team for her 2011 Review of the High Street; consultant to many household names at OC&C Strategy (2008–2011); former Sales Assistant at Monsoon (2009) and Next(2002); Volunteer Shop Assistant at Oxfam (1999–2000).