Well I thought I’d posted this earlier but no it went into the ether never to be seen again, so, frustratingly, here’s my second version….. Have you heard this one? An HMV voucher’s not just for Xmas; it’s for life. Ha ha! But it’s not so amusing if you’re one of the poor buggers who received them for Xmas and cannot now redeem them. Nor is it funny for the even poorer souls who spent good money buying these as presents and they are now worthless (I think there should be a law against companies simply declaring these things as unredeemable without any notice period). And it’s even less amusing if you are one of the 1000’s of unlucky sods who face unemployment now after working their rocks off up to and through the hectic Xmas period. How must that feel? Happy 2013 to all staff eh.
But HMV aren’t alone of course. Last night news hit that Blockbuster had also gone into liquidation, following a similar announcement just days ago from Jessops. And this on the back of such notable retailing casualties in 2012 as Comet, Peacocks, Clinton Cards, JJB Sports, Game, Acquascutum, La Senza, Allied Carpets/Floors, Mostyn’s, Allders, Blacks Leisure and several more. The impact of online shopping, changes in technology, the encroachment of the mega supermarkets into more and more non-core areas of retailing and even simple changes in fashion and taste have all conspired to make the dinosaur brands – those who simply haven’t recognised the wind of change and adapted to meet fresh circumstances – extinct. That’s the business equivalent of natural selection I guess; evolve or die.
Clean as that economic analysis is, it doesn’t begin to describe the sociological impact on our town centres. It’s not just the big brands which are suffering. Today I noticed yet another shop closure on our high street, a seemingly popular Boho-style ladies clothes shop, after perhaps a year of trading. That means that we have around 5 outlets currently empty along a three quarter-mile stretch of shops along Teddington’s High Street/Broad St. Those that do close are being taken over by charity shops. I’ve written before that I cannot believe how the relatively enormous outlets housing Carpet Right and the two bed retailers are surviving when no-one ever seems to be in the stores. They have no discernible custom.
But change aside I have another theory why our high streets are being suffocated of business. Along that near mile stretch of road offering all of our significant retailers/restaurants/banks etc (and it is still just about a delightfully diverse shopping/eating experience) Teddington’s civic authorities offer no more than maybe 30 metered parking spaces serving a population of c.10,000 people. It’s not a lot is it? There are some car parks but they are, in my view, overly expensive. The largest one, behind our Tesco Metro, charges a minimum fee of 55p. Who carries that sort of coinage in their pockets (inevitably it means putting in a £1 coin and there’s no change facility) and there is no redemption for shopping at Tesco’s as it’s council-run. So a 5 minute purchase of a litre of milk probably costs you twice the regular price.
To compound the problem Richmond Borough Council have adopted a policy of recruiting all those poor souls made redundant on the high street and re-employed them as traffic wardens. They are everywhere. The other day I dropped my daughter off just before 9am at her workplace along the river bank in Twickenham which offers about 40 street-side parking bays and it was already being patrolled by 4 wardens. FOUR!! So if you’re feeling bold and fancy chancing your arm by heading back to your car a few minutes after the tickets expiry time, chances are that wherever you now park in the borough, you will have a ticket on your windscreen. These wardens are parking Nazis and they are the bane of my life. So what happens? Most people just think bugger it and schlepp over to Sainsburys or another major supermarket a few miles away with their free or warden-free car parks for the shopping. And bit by bit the high street loses a few more customers every week.
To me it’s senseless and short-sighted. OK the authority enjoys a spike in revenue for a few years to help pay for those expensive local services but people are deserting the high street for out of town shopping centres and as the big retailers go under and the smaller independents gradually get squeezed out, the local shoppers disappear and the revenues ultimately dry up. The high street is like a town’s main artery and if its life blood disappears what’s left is an empty thoroughfare. The high street defines a town’s personality, its atmosphere and appeal. It’s where we bump into each other, catch up and socialise as well as shop. Take the people away and it simply becomes a lifeless street. Not just that but encouraging people to get in their cars and drive miles away to do the shopping is not sustainable long-term. It just doesn’t make sense. We’ll end up with a mall-style lifestyle as they have in America which is soulless and depressing and simply bloody crazy.
So Richmond Borough Council do something different and counter-intuitive and draw people and newer businesses in not out. Try some free parking days, rent-free business allowances, renovation grants, high street creches, bike schemes, cheap mini buses, restoration design awards, recruit the country’s best teachers, create the UK’s most beautiful car-park, create a residents’ cinema out of a redundant building, instead of wardens in militia-style uniforms employ young and old people as volunteers to make visits friendly and inviting. Here’s a radical idea, underwrite an initiative from a local store to redeem HMV vouchers against their goods. Be bold! This area is a great bit of London but the longer you stay the more you sense very slow decline. It could so easily become a town with a real sense of vibrancy and spirit again and although we might not have an HMV it would be nice to think that Tedders could become Richmond’s MVP.