Judging by the reaction on Twitter, everyone is upset about the passing of HMV, and Jessops too. When Woolworths shut everyone affectionately rummaged through the pick’n’mix of childhood memories, but it was a bland discount shop when I went – I expect it always had been. Similarly, HMV used to be the bogeyman for crushing independent record stores until it got into difficulties.
We have special places in our hearts for high street shops, but only after they shut their doors for lack of customers. Perhaps their demise reminds us of ours.
Anyway. The more pragmatic concern is the loss of jobs, possibly 4000 in this case. But I think there are some upsides to high street closures – and there were a surprising number last year in addition to the recent ones. The trend towards purchasing online must be a greener alternative to high street shopping – less infrastructure and less travel. Even more so when a physical thing has been entirely ephemeralised by digital, as with photos or music.
We are witnessing schumpeterarian creative destruction and the optimistic should ask: what’s being created? Perhaps some other sorts of shops might appear? Some ideas from people with careers in tech have caught my eye. Hointer jeans store (Founded by Nadia Shouraboura of Amazon) is an example. As the guy in the article says, “This isn’t shopping. This is focused, high-efficiency buying”. In other words its a shop which sorts you out with jeans really quickly by robotically delivering your choice of style and size to a changing room.
More whimsically, the founder of Flip video camera, started a software powered grilled cheese restaurant. This, to my mind, probably isn’t going to start a revolution, but it’s a gesture in an interesting direction. On a similar tip is a Tesco’s super market where you shop via QR code.
We already have robotics in supermarkets in the form of those vacuum tubes they use to move money around in supermarkets. If I’ve ever seen a technology from the future they are it.
Alternatively, all this high street real estate might turn into housing (when people complain about this they will refer to “Luxury Flats”). On the up side this would make housing cheaper, and the most sustainable place for houses is the town center.
The high street is defined by the existence of shops, but I assume – and pray – that what people like about it is the social focus that comes from everyone going to the shops, not consumption in and of itself. In the most extreme scenario where people do very little shopping in bricks and mortar shops, perhaps there are other ways to bring social focus to town centers? Things like Central Working, or repurposing shops to do more interesting, community based things.
If all our shops are run by robots or turned into houses, where are people going to work? How will those who loose their jobs at HMV ever get them back? I suppose someone from the historical past might ask the same if they saw how efficient agricultural production has become. Imagine how many job losses the combine harvester has caused.
The hope has to be that jobs in more productive parts of the economy will open up, perhaps writing software for cheese toasty makers, or, more likely, working parts of the service industry where a human presence is indispensable.