WHAT does the “plus” mean?’ I asked the young assistant as I looked at a 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 to look it up. 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 famously ignorant about what they sell and now they are very scarce too. It seems obvious that retailers no longer want to employ people. Their workforce has shrunk from 3.2million in 2008 to around three million today with the British Retail Consortium predicting nearly a million more jobs will disappear by 2025.
In September JLP revealed almost a hundred per cent crash in half-year profits to almost zero, 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 footfall down more than 9 per cent in October.
In May Marks & Spencer announced the closure of a hundred shops over the next three years. The online fashion website Asos overtook M&S’s market value for the first time in 2017, despite not having a single store to its name. I went to M&S recently looking for a V-neck T-shirt. I could not find any. When I determinedly tracked down an assistant, who are rarer in Marks than white rhino in Africa, he said: ‘We ain’t got none. Better look online.’
Despite the crash in high street shopping I’ve not noticed any attempts to lure me in, apart from constant unconvincing ‘Sale’ notices. My recent experiences, such as buying the radio, tell me that shoppers showing up in person are no longer 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 £440million Westgate Shopping Centre, described by a leading Labour councillor as ‘another landmark moment in the transformation of Oxford city centre’.
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 a 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 Pound shop, and cup of coffee and a free chocolate in the sit-down Thornton’s.
Putting aside that prejudice I went to the new John 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 online. 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 £10billion battle for sales, I went for a pressure cooker and a microwave. When I asked about pressure cookers, which are basically saucepans with added 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, but 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. So I’ll be using Argos, which has no pretension 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 on that game for years and years.