Shops now just a click away from oblivion

Dotcom: Asos is buying the Topshop, Topman and Miss Selfridge brands, but not the physical shops.

Could town centres be more fun without shops? As online retailers take over more and more traditional stores, planners are thinking of ingenious new ways to lure us back to the high street.

The girl wakes up full of excitement. At last, it is here: 2 February 2022 – her 16th birthday! Now, with the pandemic over, she can celebrate by doing all the things that were impossible last year. She and her friends will head into town for some shopping at their favourite stores, Topshop and Miss Selfridge. It will be great! But then she suddenly remembers: the shops are no longer there.

Topshop and Miss Selfridge are just two of the well-known names that are about to disappear from Britain’s city centres. It has just been announced that the online retailer Asos is buying the brands, along with Topman and HIIT. But it will not be selling their products through shops.

Debenhams, another famous brand, went the same way last week. Its takeover by Boohoo means the end of its remaining 118 stores, with the possible loss of 12,000 jobs.

These deals have banished any remaining hope that shopping might keep city centres alive. Between them, Asos and Boohoo will empty around 15 million square feet of retail space – an area amounting to 194 Premier League pitches.

Even before take-overs, British high streets had empty space equivalent to one shop in eight. The question facing every city in the digital age is: what do we do with our town centres now? If they are to thrive, other ways of bringing people into them have to be found.

There is no shortage of suggestions. They include turning shops into homes, offices, gyms, sports arenas, health spas and entertainment centres. One former Debenhams store is heading in that direction, with plans for a bowling alley, an e-karting area, ping-pong and pool tables, and a cocktail bar. Part of another large store, BHS in the West End of London, has been given over to crazy golf.

“From rock climbing to indoor ski simulators and even axe-throwing,” says property expert Duncan Lillie, “there is an almost endless breed of next generation operators and entrepreneurs with ideas to cater for the pent-up demand for entertainment after lockdowns.”

Another expert, James Child, believes the essential thing is to offer people things that require their physical presence. Cafés, pubs and restaurants are obvious examples, but there are plenty of others: “Services such as dry cleaners, key cutters, nail bars – even the post office and local bank. I’m pretty sure you can’t get your haircut online, right?”

Town centres could also be opened up for those they are not currently geared to, such as old people, young families and pet owners. Few old people enjoy doing battle with hordes of shoppers, but many would welcome the idea of a retirement home just a short walk away from cafés, a medical centre and an arts centre.

New green spaces would attract dog-owners, who could take their pets to nearby vets’ clinics and grooming salons. Indoor and outdoor playgrounds could be created for children.

Could town centres be more fun without shops?

Street treats

Some say, no. There is no more enjoyable way of spending a Saturday than going into a real shop and trying on clothes or looking at the latest gadgets. A huge number of things bought online are sent back, and the more we return, the more delivery vans there will be, adding to traffic and pollution. Whatever else is put in high streets, shops will be needed to make them truly vibrant.

Others argue that most town centres today are grim and lacking in character. Everywhere you go you see the same chain stores, and shopping is a slog when you have to carry lots of bags around with you and walk miles to a car park or bus stop. It would be far better if they were places where people either lived or just went to relax and enjoy themselves.

You Decide

  1. Should there be any limit on the hours that shops open?
  2. Would it be better for everyone if the prices of goods were set by the producers rather than the outlets which sell them?

Activities

  1. Imagine that your school is to be turned into a public centre for leisure activities. Draw a detailed plan showing what all the different parts of it could be used for.
  2. Imagine that you are launching an advertising campaign to persuade people to go to shops instead of buying things online. Design a series of posters and write a script for a TV or radio commercial.

Some People Say...

“Too many people spend money they haven't earned, to buy things they don't want, to impress people they don't like.”

Will Smith (1968 - ), American actor

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
It is generally agreed that the development of suburban shopping malls was a disaster for many cities, particularly in America. Once affluent people started spending their money there rather than going into the town centres, the latter became run-down and crime-ridden. Detroit, a prime example, became known as “the murder capital of the USA” after the failure of planners to address the problem.
What do we not know?
One main area of debate is around why town-centre shopping is in such a state of collapse. Lockdowns clearly have much to do with it, but some argue that they have merely accelerated an existing process, caused by the failure of traditional shops to modernise. The shops’ owners say that it is impossible for them to compete with companies like Asos because, in addition to the expense of their buildings, they pay far more tax than online retailers.

Word Watch

Topshop
The brand owed much of its success to persuading top designers such as Hussein Chalayan and celebrities such as Kate Moss to produce lines for it.
Miss Selfridge
A spin-off of the Selfridges department store, it was launched in the 1960s. Its first dresses were made of paper and designed to be thrown away after use.
Asos
Short for “As seen on stars”: it started out by selling clothes inspired by outfits featured in films and on TV.
Debenhams
One of Britain’s oldest shops, it was founded in 1778. At its peak it had 178 stores in Britain and Denmark.
Boohoo
The company was accused last year of using factories where workers were paid less than the minimum wage and not protected from Covid-19. In November it appointed a former judge to ensure that it met higher ethical standards.
Ping-pong
As well as being another word for table tennis, it is the name of a type of steel drum used in West Indian bands.
Entrepreneurs
People who set up businesses, taking on financial risks in the hope of profit.
Hordes
Large numbers. The Golden Horde is the name given to a Mongol and Turkish army which overran Asia in the 13th Century.
Slog
Hard, persistent work. To slog is to plod perseveringly through difficulty.

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