High Street Voice

And lo, it came to pass, that HMV is to bring in the administrators.

The age of the High Street has been coming to pass since the 1990s, when councils fell in love with out of town shopping centres, and shoppers fell in love with not having to pay over the odds car parking prices for city centre shopping. Sure, the streets of central London and England’s second city Manchester may look exceptionally busy, but this is the era of massive increases in Internet commerce, and once tourists/day-trippers/hipsters are taken out of the equation, both major shopping centres look pretty ho-hum.

Just as “the smoking ban did it” is not a valid response to the question “why are dozens of pubs closing every month?”, so “the ‘net did it” can’t be accepted as an answer for the demise of specific stores or the general concept of “The High Street”. In short, it’s a long and complex list of reasons. Ultimately, nobody has been outside banging the drum for city shopping for decades now. Out of town developments are cheap to build and easy to fill. Councils then engage in a PR love-in with concepts like pedestrianisation, ‘street furniture’ and café culture ‘redesigns’. Being Britain, the results are almost always complete disasters, especially when most councils refuse to provide free parking, even on weekends.

Whilst Mary Portas might be well paid for telling people how to suck eggs….I mean, how to reinvent the town centres, the reality might be very different to that looked at from a purely cold faced economic stand point. Maybe, just maybe, HMV is close to death because it was suffering the same disease as Woolworths, and managed to find better medication? They could have died off simultaneously had one not chosen holistic medicine once a week.

Woolies stopped attracting shoppers, by and large, when shoppers stopped understanding what on earth the store was focused on selling. In the Internet age being a “root about” shop isn’t attractive. Woolies sold XBox games, DVDs, pick ‘n’ mix sweets, children’s clothes, toys, with a restaurant tucked away upstairs and a garden centre shoved into a corner. Like Wilkinsons, but in an unattractive jumble sale sort of way.

For HMV, dealing with Amazon, Spotify, live streaming and all the rest of it was to fling itself into panic mode, jerking around with new identities like a drunk man trying on fancy dress. Of course nobody could have predicted how quickly consumers would kill off CD singles, but HMV held on to them amongst computer consoles, headsets, books, box sets, chart acts and oddly specific specialist sections (“BBC Spoken Word”), and from outside their stores began to resemble one of those very wooden warehouse style shops which always has window displays selling Stone Roses, REM and Alanis Morrisette for £1.99. Was HMV the first place to go for the latest album release? If not, at what point did that happen?

The very idea of having “a High Street” is looking more and more as a notion of crazed nostalgists. The free market and those who subscribe to its teachings have seen off the traditional pub, defeated the greengrocer and the butcher, and now tick off electronic retailers and general stores. HMV will sit alongside Rumbleow’s and Dixons and Jessops and JJB, all faded brands and pub quiz questions now. The reason isn’t just one of “death by on-line shopping”, it’s as much a lack of focus by the stores themselves as it is a natural turning off the light by capitalism’s Spending Corps. Had HMV focused on, perhaps, DVDs and box-sets, it could have streamlined itself into a new kind of retail experience. Maybe 2013 was just the year the growths became incurable cancer?

One thing seems very clear now.  In Town Halls across the country, there are local elected officials grappling with the questions put to them by the economic downturn, the reduction in Government funding, and less popular town centres. Most of the glossy prospectuses produced by consultants on behalf of Town Halls speak of “reinventing the High Street”. I can’t help but wonder if this is just woefully, almost embarrassingly, out of date.

Off the peg

I wander into the shop. A bright young thing leaps at me, eyes wide with the expectation of commission.

“You okay today?”
“Yes, yes, fine, fine. I am, yes, FINE. Fine, yea, just, yep, fine.”

He’s looking at me strangely. Am I on drugs? Maybe I am on drugs.

I’m waving my hands around like a scarecrow in the wind. Am I pointing at something that makes it look as though I’m interesting in buying a specific item? 

“Thinking of anything in particular?” Oh God, he’s dying behind the eyes
“No…just…..yes, no..Just..thinking….around…Fine. I am FINE.” Stop pointing at specific items you idiot
“Oh you’re thinking of buying that? I mean..I was thinking of Bonnie Tyler the other day but that doesn’t mean we all have to live in the 80s, does it?”

Three…two…one…..Out of the shopping centre, on the next bus, home…

Clothes shopping is an absolute nightmare, my personal Room 101, walls plastered with models and designs and preening, judgemental assistants who are more willing to make an assumption on your suitability as a human faster than the Head of HR at an interview. I’m surprised TopMan hasn’t employed security guards on the front door.

“And how old are you, mate?”
“There’s nothing for you here, pal, move on…”

It is because of the instant deflation in confidence which comes from needing clothes that a) I indulge in round-town wanders whilst I build up the cojones to walk into a shop, and b) I  make choices woefully inappropriate just to get out as quickly as possible.

I remember a Victoria Wood sketch in which men ask for a fire extinguisher to be wrapped up in giftwrap rather than focus for too long at the underwear department of a major store; (“Yes, that one, red, it’s in her size”, “That’s a fire extinguisher, sir”, “Yes, yes, put a bow on it, wonderful, bye!”).  That’s me in most shops that aren’t Primark or TK Maxx.  In my misguided youth I meandered inside Reef (clothes made for young people who look like anime characters), scaring the assistant into thinking I was stealing. “Sorry, are you…do you want to try that on…at all…?” “No, I’m just queuing to pay!” “…Oh…”

People who get clothes deserve an award. I don’t know what the Latin is for “purchasing items of clothing” but stick “-phobia” on the end and that’s my diagnosis. I have tried the “spoonful of sugar” technique only for that to become increasingly laborious by age. Have you tried buying anything from Burtons? It’s good for suits worn as a one-off by boybands at award ceremonies, and if you fancy having the eyebrows of strangers raised in response to you merely brushing your hands across short-sleeved t-shirts.

One result of all this is my wardrobe of doom – a time-capsule for every time I grabbed-and-ran something without looking at it twice. The sky-and-cloud design shirt, the beige hooded jacket, the over-sized ‘skater’ jeans…Oh yes, and the jumper (£90, cheap at half the price) bought from    a place far fancier than I should have ever wandered into but it was either that or another meaningless confidence boost stroll around Manchester City Centre so what you gonna do?

I would like, in keeping with  the mindset of most men of my mindset, for all the horror of shopping for clothes to be improved by the actions of other people. Turn every shop into a clearance warehouse so the people I pay care less than I do. Or if it comes to it, and this goes against all my principles, get the State to provide everything. If the High Street were to be nationalised maybe I could have a chest of drawers so stuffed full of plain t-shirts it’d look like a Uniqlo store room.

Or North Korea. That’s it – instead of feeling inadequate everytime I so much as stroke my chin near Duffers, I’ll order everything I need from Pyongyang…