08:00 Wednesday 23 January 2013

Net feels heat as high street shivers

Written byBY ADRIAN JENKINS

22/01/13 Is the internet killing the high street? - Burton Mail office, Burton 22/01/13 Is the internet killing the high street? - Burton Mail office, Burton

SOME of the biggest names in retail have either struggled to survive or fallen in the past 18 months.

Focus DIY, Habitat, Barratts, Past Times, Peacocks, Clinton Cards, JJB Sports and Comet – they’ve all been affected.

Wiped out or mere shadows of their former selves, their fate has changed the face of shopping forever in places such as Burton and South Derbyshire.

The misery has continued this year.

Bang went camera chain Jessops; crash went music outlet HMV; and wallop went DVD rental firm Blockbuster UK.

But why?

As the UK flirts with an unprecedented triple dip recession – this Friday’s growth figures may confirm another contraction – buyers are watching the pennies as the fog of uncertainty shrouds trading again.

Incomes are also facing pressure as bills for basics like fuel soar.

However, questions are increasingly being asked as to whether there is another horseman of the apocalypse stalking the high street – online shopping.

Peter Hardingham, manager of Burton’s Octagon shopping centre sparked debate last week by launching a blistering attack on the internet following Jessops’ demise.

“It is a sad reflection of the times being felt by the high street but is down to the ruthlessness and devastating impact caused by internet shopping,” he told the Mail.

Does he have a point or is his argument merely a cover for the victims’ inability to remain lean and mean as times get tough?

Church Gresley-based eBay specialist consultant Jane Bell says Mr Hardingham’s argument is wide of the mark.

“The high street is not adapting to the internet fast enough,” she says.

“At one time there was only the high street and that was it.

“Now, there are different routes to take and you have to be on each one.

“It’s being in the place where your customers are going to be.”

She says retailers need to embrace the internet, including social media and eBay, as well as use traditional forms of drumming up business such as high street shops and mailshots.

Chris Plant, spokesman for Burton and District Chamber of Commerce, says there is ‘certainly a good case to argue’ that the internet ‘might at least be partly to blame’ for the high street’s malaise as consumers are now more willing than ever before to scour the internet first in search of bargains.

“Not only is online shopping so well established but there is a perception, which may not be entirely true, that things are just cheaper online,” he says.

“While that is often the case, it does not follow that there are not bargains to be had on the high street.”

Mr Plant says HMV, Jessops and Comet were all ‘hammered by the inexorable shift to consumers buying their products online and cut-throat competition from big supermarkets and online giant Amazon’.

The ‘explosion’ in digital downloading merely compounded HMV’s problems, he says.

“Online shopping has hit high street shops selling products like electrical goods, where once someone knows what they want they will most likely buy from the cheapest source, or books, where no high street shop can possibly hold the wide range online,” Mr Plant says.

But while Blockbuster crashed because technology moved on, Comet and Jessops could have survived if they had improved their internet presence to support their high street business, he argues.

But though the internet offers a variety ‘which may now prove irrestible to the consumer’, Mr Plant says it will not conquer all.

“The internet may burrow deeper holes into the high street, but it won’t kill it,” he says.

“A website cannot replace the social experience of shopping.”

In the age of austerity, there appear to be many reasons why our high streets are suffering like never before.

Our increasingly voracious appetite for online shopping seems to be at least partly responsible.

But the onus is on companies to ensure they insulate themselves from the chill economic winds and tough internet competition by ensuring they make full use of the technology available to market their products.

Our high streets will change further as more victims fall by the wayside; but firms which embrace the digital age will be better placed to survive.

Life on the high street, it seems, will never be the same again.

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