The Editor’s Desk: Shuttering the shopfronts

More and more brick and mortar retailers are falling victim to online shopping. Is there a solution?

As I write this I am drinking a cup of coffee from a cup and saucer; I prefer that to a mug first thing in the morning. I use the same cup and saucer every day, both of them with a white background adorned by a simple pattern of blueberries.

The cup and saucer are one of the few relics of my time working at British Home Stores (BHS), a department store in Britain, in the 1990s. The cup and saucer were part of a new line of dinnerware the chain introduced, all with the same blueberry pattern. The line as a whole didn’t appeal, but the cup and saucer did, so I bought two of each.

You’d be hard-pressed to find any trace of that dinnerware pattern now: not only because I’m sure it was phased out many years ago, but because BHS—which was once omnipresent on high streets throughout Great Britain—has itself gone the way of the dodo. It was founded in 1928, and at its height had 163 stores in the UK and another 74 stores oversees, but that all crashed to the ground in spring 2016, when the company entered administration. B––y the end of 2016 all the shops were closed, 11,000 employees were out of work, and the venerable chain had vanished from the high streets of Britain.

It’s not alone. In 2018 several well-known British chains—including House of Fraser, Maplin, Evans Cycles, and Poundworld—closed completely, while others shut hundreds of underperforming stores. In 2019 at least two major players in the British retail field—Marks & Spencer and Debenhams—plan to close stores, and real estate adviser Altus Group has released a report predicting that Britain will lose 23,000 shops, employing 175,000 people, this year (20,000 stores and 150,000 jobs were lost in 2018).

The phenomenon is by no means confined to Great Britain, or to large retailers such as department stores; we see it here in Canada, for chains as large as Sears Canada, as small as single mom-and-pop shops, and every size of business in between. They leave behind them shattered dreams, shuttered shopfronts, and employees scrambling to find new jobs. There is no one cause: depending on which case you read about, financial irresponsibility, lack of oversight, overreaching, shifting consumer preferences, and greed can all play their part. But the single factor most often cited, when discussing the catastrophic failure of so many long-established firms, is online shopping.

Altus Group’s annual commercial real estate innovation report found that 62 per cent of major UK property owners and investors claim that Amazon and other online players have disrupted the retail property market. Brick and mortar stores are finding it harder and harder to compete with online outlets; indeed, many real-world retailers report that when customers do come into their shops, it’s often to check an item out in person before leaving empty-handed, going home, and ordering it online.

Does this mean that retail shopping as we know it is doomed, leading to more and more empty storefronts in towns and cities, and the further erosion of shops and businesses in our small towns? Not necessarily. The Altus Group noted that “The most successful [brick and mortar] retailers—the survivors—are learning to draw in their customers with the promise of a personalized experience. Technology makes that all possible but it still needs a strong human element.”

The human element is something that online retailers often struggle with (those “Chat with a sales representative now!” discussion options notwithstanding). Online shopping is here to stay, but high street retailers aren’t necessarily doomed. The savvy ones will figure out what they can do or provide that online retailers can’t, or what they can do better. It’s up to the rest of us to support them, otherwise more and more of us will be stuck with the equivalent of my blueberry coffee cup: a wistful memory of what once was.

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