David Mitchell and the Evils of Online Retail
Most of us have plenty of time for David Mitchell's comedic and occasionally political output, but is the dwindling high street really a matter of our misplaced loyalty?
Posted by Killian McAleese, 15th September 2011
Those of us with a keen interest in the retail and ecommerce industry were given the rare treat of a Zeitgeisty piece by comedy actor and writer David Mitchell in last Sunday's Observer. As one would expect from someone with his wit and knowledge, it's an enjoyable read, well argued with a good laugh or two. That he is getting into the blame game, and at whom he's pointing his finger, is evident from the very outset, albeit in the headline words the sub-editor:
Is your high street boarded up? Blame yourself for shopping online
The argument is simple enough: ecommerce success is at the expense of the high street, and if the high street is to survive, it's up to consumers to make informed purchasing decisions based on whether or not they want to keep it, and ultimately "embrace inconvenience". This is not only the inconvenience of refraining from online purchases, but also of abstaining from "the second prong to the pincer movement of doom" - out-of-town shopping centres like Westgate in Mitchell's native Oxford.
Ultimately the piece is more focused on out-of-town centres than ecommerce, but there are a couple of ecommerce-versus-high-street bones we'd like to pick with Mitchell, if we may.
He does take into account the adverse effects of the recession on the high street, so we'll agree on that point and move on to ecommerce.
It's all very well to say that customers should vote with their feet, "embrace inconvenience" as he so nicely put it, but what, broadly, are high-street shoppers embracing, and why should they embrace it? We all too often find that people assume that answers to these questions are too obvious to think about and as a result they don't think about them. But if we're all to be humorously guilted away from better deals and much of our leisure time, surely we deserve a brief exposition as to why?
The 'obvious' answers are that we all love the high street, that we want to visit it, and that shopping there we are embracing and nurturing the true and traditional vitality of our town centres, supporting local businesses and employment, making the high street an enjoyable and worthwhile place to be. We should surely, therefore, do our shopping there or face being labelled hypocrites.
But this attitude fails almost entirely to address why, other than for reasons of "inconvenience" resulting in falling sales, high street businesses suffer.
The internet, just like the recession, does indeed nibble away at the high street's margin, but there are numerous other, major factors that also do. For example, it has long been widely accepted that high-street rents are often not meaningfully aligned to high-street business, and are in some cases prohibitive bordering on unjust.
2011's quarterly rent days have so far been a nightmare for many of our retailers. The March and June deadlines maimed or killed a slew of long-standing household names from Mothercare to Habitat, and this month promises more. It's also not unknown for a retail business to fester on hopelessly on the high street because breaking their rental contract would actually be more expensive that seeing it through, even if the retailer is making a loss. According to the British Retail Consortium's Richard Dodd, retail landlords remain reluctant to move towards offering leases with rent paid one month in advance, rather than the norm: a crippling three months in advance. A fall in overall revenues has not resulted in flexibility from many landlords to the extent that everyone loses out when administration beckons.
Unsustainably high business rates and increased taxes also have a lot to answer for. We're experiencing almost legendarily difficult high-street conditions and yet there lacks government leadership in viably stimulating business.
We have to admit that Mitchell is right in many ways: principally in his implying that if we did all or the majority of our shopping on the high street, we would not be facing the problems we are. But this suggestion is an inadequate, unrealistic solution to boarding up high streets and fails to address what's really going on out there.
If this issue is to be pitched as a matter of local consumer loyalty, then remember that consumers are also being asked to place their loyalty with property magnates and at times compensate for incompetent or at least controversial governance.
Of course ecommerce businesses do not typically face these problems, often being located in industrial estates and rural areas. And of course they shouldn't. If they did, two wrongs wouldn't make a right, and by a similar line of thinking, blaming high-street despair on ecommerce isn't quite right either.
A|wear's Site Combines Simplicity with Outstanding Ecommerce Functionality14th September 2011
Making (Non)Sense of August's Retail Figures9th September 2011
Join the Conversation