‘What does the ‘plus’ mean?’ I asked the young assistant as I bought a new DAB + radio in the John Lewis post-Christmas sale.
‘I’ve no idea,’ he said smiling confidently. He made no attempt to find someone who did know or look it up on his phone. I bought it anyway, not really knowing what I was getting, good or bad.
Perhaps he was responding to John Lewis & Partners (JLP) cutting staff bonuses for the fifth year running. But his attitude was all too typical of British shop assistants, who often do not make shopping a pleasant experience.
British shop assistants are now very scarce. It seems obvious that retailers no longer want to employ people. Their workforce has shrunk from 3.2 million in 2008 to around 3 million today with the British Retail Consortium predicting another 900,000 jobs will disappear by 2025.
In September JLP revealed almost a hundred percent crash in half year profits, almost no takings at all, and blamed, ‘Challenging times.’ That was interpreted as shoppers moving to the intensely competitive internet market. Recent industry data shows retailers fighting a losing battle to lure customers in, with foot fall down more than 9% in October.
Marks & Spencer announced the closure of a hundred shops over the next three years. Online fashion website Asos overtook their market value for the first time in 2017, despite not having a single store to its name. I went there recently looking for a V necked T-shirt. There were none, but when I determinedly found an assistant, which are rarer in M&S than white rhino in Africa, and when I’d tracked one down, he said the usual, ‘We ain’t got none. Better look on line.
Despite the crash in high street shopping I’ve not noticed any attempts to lure me in, apart from constant often unconvincing Sale notices. In the last few weeks, my experience, such as when buying a radio, tells me that shoppers showing up in person are not wanted.
I first noticed shops starting to bring about their own destruction two years ago when John Lewis opened in Oxford with huge fanfare. It has the best site in the £440 million Westgate Shopping Centre, described by a leading Labour Councillor as a ‘another landmark moment in the transformation of Oxford city centre.’
There were rumours that the elite store had threatened to pull out if there were any cut-price shops nearby.
While he welcomed the arrival of nearly a million square feet of concrete, open to the skies, where you can walk around on different levels looking at the shops you used to see on the dying historic High Street, whilst getting soaked by rain and overflowing gutters, plus giant cinema complex, the fifth in the town, I was not so sure. Like many locals I liked the existing human scale shopping centre we already had, with its Sainsbury’s food, hair-care from the £ shop, and cup of coffee and a free chocolate in the sit-down Thornton’s.
Putting aside that prejudice I went to the new Lewis’ expecting a glamorous bit of retail therapy. Nowhere else on earth makes you feel so happily middle-class. I was looking for roller-blinds but they only had a few. I was told that if I wanted variety, yes, I should look on line. They’ve been saying the same ever since.
Not only have they junked customer choice, they seem strangely reluctant to sell what they do have. On Black Friday, that £10bn battle for sales, as I didn’t buy anything at all; I went for a pressure cooker and a microwave. When I asked about cookers, which are powered by steam, the assistants behind the till in the kitchen department, there were none out on the floor, had never heard of them and directed me to the electrical department.
In electricals there was a suitable microwave. Around 10% of the UK retail stock is now surplus to requirements, but they haven’t got it lying around in the shops. There were none in the stock-room. If I ordered it from the shop, it would have to go via Milton Keynes and take ages. I knew what their advice would be.
I made another attempt to buy a microwave there this week. There were no assistants, it seems they are finally extinct, instead there were little cards next to the products advising us to, ‘scan using our app to shop,’ with an internet address. I’ll do so, but I’ll be using Argos which has no pretention to being an upmarket shop or a proper shop at all.
In 2019 let’s halt the rhetoric of grief about the death of the high street. We are watching its slow execution, carried out by the people who own our shops. Physical shoppers are no longer welcome, or only a trickle of them, just enough to keep the places ticking over as a tax loss, like an unprofitable newspaper. As with old, respected papers, you can carry that game on for years, and years.