19 May 2022

Opinion from Adrian Leopard & Co

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Debenhams closing once and for all. What will be left in the high street?
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Debenhams closing once and for all. What will be left in the high street?

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Social progress will never be halted but perhaps you should be careful what you wish for

15th May 2021 will be one of those dates which will go down in history as a marker when things changed, probably for ever.

The fate of large chain stores has been on the wall for some time and so the final closure of the Debenhams stores today will be not so much a shock as the last stages of the funeral, the one where the coffin is dropped into the ground and covered over for eternity.

12000 jobs have gone with it and also it heralds a disappearing style of retail trade, something which has been strong in our country for hundreds of years. Indeed for over two hundred years Debenhams has been around and after today, all that will remain will be the name which has been bought and will be used for online trading.

The trouble is that time waits for no man and social development is effectively an irresistible force determined by a vast selection of social changes. Many will argue that coronavirus was the last straw in the Debenhams demise but in truth all the pandemic has done is to hasten the day. Shopping moved out of the traditional shop to online platforms a long time ago and the pandemic has merely forced people to use that route for their purchases at a time when they could not go out as they were used to.

People will always need goods – that is for sure – but it has become so much easier to buy what you want over the internet. You can sit and browse to your heart’s content, look at multiple sites and companies, go off and have a coffee, make a choice, select what you want and when it comes, if it doesn’t fit, you can send it back, all for no penalty. It sounds quite idyllic and for many it is.

The people who will miss the real live shops are those whose social lives gain much for getting out of the house, having something to do and of course the possibility of doing it with friends. In other words, the loss will be a social loss and let’s not beat about the bush, that can be a significant loss to society.

It’s not just stores like Debenhams which are disappearing. Ordinary shops are vanishing all of the time or perhaps groups are consolidating and closing some of their shops, usually because economic performance does not justify the costs.

So the big question remains – what is the future of the high street? With huge buildings like Debenhams being vacated, who needs them? Even offices, once accused of taking over any retail space which became available, are no longer needing all the space which they currently use, thanks to people learning the delights and practicalities of working from home during the pandemic.

We have been witnessing the biggest change in our society for many years but now we are seeing it more sharply because the change has accelerated simply due to circumstances. Changes of this nature can have significant effects on life styles, jobs, general social attitudes and more. Dinosaurs tend not to survive dramatic change because they cannot themselves adapt and this brings about a raft of social problems. In addition, technological progress very often means fewer jobs which means more people to look after at the cost of the state. Certainly with 12000 jobs lost with Debenhams, the chances of those employees being soaked up into an online sales platform are pretty remote.

So today is one where we shall say goodbye to an old friend. Not the first of course – I remember when F W Woolworth ceased, Woolies as it was known, back in the early 1980s, another iconic name relegated to the history book leaving high streets not really looking the same any more.

Adrian Leopard 15-05-21

Photo Hendrik Schlott

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