A Ghost Story Retailed

December 31, 2011 7:09 am Published by Leave your thoughts

Act I: Little Shops Know Horror

The narrative arts are apt to organise their material into three acts. The first sets out the status quo Рthe situation, the characters, the mise en sc̬ne. The second introduces development Рchange, challenge, conflict. The third offers resolution Рa return to the status quo (the sentimental happy ending) or, in more mature work, a new and perhaps superior accommodation or a reluctant reconciliation or a new realism.

Real lives are lucky if they ever reach a third act. Most of us spend our youth finding out who we are and the rest of our adulthood more or less regretting that precious little of what we found out in youth may still be relied upon. This pattern is so common and predictable that you would think the human race might have devised strategies for dealing with it by now. But no. As with walking and talking, so every generation has to learn anew that there are no eternal verities and that our projects and prospects are grand edifices built on foundations of balsa wood.

Take shops. Even 20 years ago, it would have seemed unimaginable that the retail parades around which every community of any size grew up in Britain as elsewhere would now be well into a long and slow but evidently irrevocable decline. If you’d asked people half a century back what would be going strong and confident a decade into the next millennium, they might not have cited the trade union movement or the nuclear family or the railways or horse-drawn traffic or the bobby on the beat or the British Empire or the printed newspaper, but they surely wouldn’t have marked the high street as one for the bonfire of history.

Fifty years ago next year, my father closed for the last time the factory that he had managed for most of three decades. The story of the secret takeover of the business by city slickers who eventually went to jail is a yarn for another day. But Dad had known only one trade – boots and shoes – ever since he left school at 14 and it was clear what he must do. Aged 50, he drew the dole for precisely one week and then opened a shoe shop: Stan Gilbert Footwear Ltd.

It was hard going. Footwear was the county trade and everyone for miles around had a family member who could get hold of free or at least cut-price shoes. My mother and I worked long hours to help – I was a teenager – and, by degrees and shrewd use of trade contacts, Dad made it pay and survive for 20 years. It helped a lot that, though a narrow, unimaginative and prosaic man, he was transformed into a poet with a well-made shoe in his hands. The first pair that I owned as a child was wholly fashioned by him, by hand, from scratch. I still have the lasts on which he made them.

Aside from the product, no one had to teach my father (or indeed my mother and me) the rudiments of serving behind the counter. That was what it was – a service – and we knew it when we received it, which was pretty much everywhere when shopping. We all lived instinctively by Gordon Selfridge’s dictum: “the customer is always right”. No task came before attending to a customer; and shops, especially independent ones, generated dozens of tasks, some daily, some weekly, some seasonal (the annual ritual of stock-taking was a real three-ring circus). Anything that might interfere with one’s readiness to serve a customer was done before the shop opened or after it closed. Everything had to be in place at opening time. Nobody stacked shelves or cleared the till or (unthinkable!) yakked on the phone while there were potential spenders on the premises.

My father had his particular ways of doing things, but most of what we all did as retailers was to reproduce what we knew from our own shopping. So you called customers ‘Sir’ or ‘Madam’ (even if mere teenagers), or you addressed them as Mr or Mrs So-and-So if you knew them (in a medium-sized town, those you knew by name made up a high proportion of your trade). You judged how far they wanted to browse unhurriedly, whether they might demur at the offer of assistance, when to clinch a sale and when to wait for them to reveal an inclination. There were always time-wasters, those who came in for a warm or for a chat or to pass the time of day, those who wanted to check your stock or were just nosy about what you had to offer. In a one-trade town, there might also be the low-level equivalent of industrial spies who popped in for a quick shufti and reported back to a rival. All of these you treated with the greatest courtesy, restraint and patience. The customer was always right.

When they found nothing that suited, you described the lines on order and what might be in soon. You never let them leave the shop feeling that you were indifferent to their custom. When they made a purchase, you showed them the price tag and offered a shoebox and/or a paper bag to carry them in. If they made more than one purchase, you added up the prices in your head and checked your calculation against the till when you rang up the amount. You took their money (keeping notes in view until the sale was complete so that they couldn’t dispute the denomination they had tendered) and – absolutely standard, this – you counted the change coin by coin, note by note into their hand. (When I worked in a bookshop in the early ’90s, I found that the by-then novelty of counting out change was greatly appreciated by the customers). You gave them a receipt, thanked them kindly but not profusely and hoped to see them soon. You certainly didn’t remark “brilliant!” just because they’d had the gumption to pay for their purchase.

By the by, prices even then were generally one penny below a round figure – for instance, 19/11 (that’s 19 shillings and 11 pence which is the equivalent of 99.5p today). The reason for this sort of pricing was not to bamboozle the customer into imagining that the price was a lot less than £1. It was to oblige the shop assistant to open the till to make change, given that passing few customers would be carrying exactly 19/11. Hence the transaction would have to be recorded on the till and the shop assistant could not pocket the money and keep the sale a secret from the shop owner which, when the correct money – say £1 – is tendered, is perfectly possible.

Something else to note about Dad’s shop is that he only sold shoes and a few strictly footwear-dependent items, like laces. He didn’t stock phone cards (remember those?), DVDs, lottery tickets, postage stamps, bunches of alstrÅ“meria or sandwiches. He wasn’t part of a chain so he determined his own prices; several he marked down as loss leaders, cutting profit margins to encourage a higher volume of sales. He didn’t have piped muzak in the shop.

In those days, all transactions were made by cash or cheque. No one had
credits cards. Hire-purchase (known as ‘the HP’: payment by instalments) was
much more widespread and, when money was tight as it was for many in the
post-war years, people would ask if they could get things on account. Indeed,
many shops (though not Dad’s) displayed signs that read: “Please do not ask
for credit as a refusal often offends” (yes, really). I recall a fish-and-chip shop owner crossly turning to me, then just a boy of seven or eight, to tell me that his previous customer, a young woman leaving as I was arriving, had had the nerve to ask for “six penn’th of chips on tick”.

Premises like Dad’s, the founding stones of the high street, have been swept away. The phenomenon of the sole-proprietor shop has dwindled to a vestigial few. This is partly due to their drift from true notions of service and specialist expertise. Further, the family business notion was eroded by myriad factors – among them, more mobility and awareness of other options, less deference and sense of obligation to parents. As young people learned to aim for further education, seeing the world and moving away from the limitations of a small town, they were less attracted to the idea of working in and eventually running Dad’s ailing jewellery shop or the green grocers’ staffed by successive generations of brothers and sisters.

While these little shops died, the small and medium-sized chains struggled too, not without their own casualties, Woolworth’s and Habitat being, I suppose, the best-known and most mourned. The survivors all look rocky when even the pre-Yule rush never properly materialises. Unthinkable just a few seasons ago was a sight that greeted us on our own high street this year: the Oxfam shop having a sale throughout the very run-up to Christmas.

Much, much more responsible for the death of independent retailing and the decline of the high street has been the relentless advance of the behemoths. I’ll come onto the superstores in another chapter, pausing merely to remark here that through their bulk buying and preferential access, their bullying and their undercutting, the supermarkets force all the smaller, more specialist shops to the wall.

Consider an area of the market of particular interest to me as a sometime journalist. It is only relatively recently that the big stores started to stock newspapers and periodicals. They began with the national dailies and a few television and women’s magazines. When this worked well, they expanded their displays to include pretty much everything at the popular end of magazine publishing, the stuff that is an easy sell. They aimed to catch the impulse buyer who spots a headline or a strapline or who always meant to take a look at Heat or Hello! (there must be such people). They also entice the shopper happy to pick up a paper or a TV Choice without bothering to go to the newsagent’s. But with the more specialized publications the supermarkets naturally do not bother. That would mean supplying a service and going to trouble for specific customers rather than snaring random, passing trade.

The independent newsagents do carry arcane magazines or order them for regular customers. But the supermarkets have cut a vast swathe out of the newsagents’ main source of income: newspapers, popular magazines, soft drinks, sweets and cigarettes. As one after another newsagent goes out of business, the specialist magazines that depend on them for their sales lose their outlets. So their narrow profit margins are squeezed until they too fold. And that’s the death of another source of income for a writer like me.

Our one-time newsagent in north London told us how he would walk past the local supermarket on his way to open his lock-up shop at some unearthly time in the morning. The supermarket would be closed for hours yet but its stock of newspapers was already waiting tied in bails at the door. His supply, however, would not be there when he opened; it would turn up at some unpredictable juncture after many customers had left empty-handed. Every independent newsagent has the same experience; multiply that across the nation. Great! What a clever ploy of the newspaper distributors to favour the big boys even though it loses them precious, dwindling sales.

Stocking papers and popular mags is just part of the move to diversify that has comprehensively disfigured the retail trade. Now everybody stocks everything. How I long for an age when shops did one thing surpassingly well instead of lots of things in a mediocre fashion. I am so old that I remember when Boots was a chemist’s.

As with so many other baleful developments, television played its part in the retail trade’s decision to spread itself thin. For the item that was seized on by the widest variety of shops was the newly desirable videotape in the late 1970s and early ’80s. Far more than in any other country, home taping took serious hold in Britain from the moment VCRs hit the shops. And, while only large or specialist shops could hope to make a go of selling movies on tape, blank tapes could be sold by anyone; and they were. Early in the ’80s, we came across a peculiar combination in Exeter, a chippie selling videotapes. He called himself Fish’n’Flicks. Somehow, I didn’t fancy buying a videotape misted with the spray of chip fat: how much damage would it do to one’s recorder? I hardly imagine that he’s still in business, not at any rate for tapes.

The ubiquity of tape has long since been overtaken. Indeed, for a Luddite taper like me (I have way too many stored videos to change now), blank tape is almost impossible to find and the odd but (for me) useful lengths extinct: 120, 195, 210, 300 minutes. I could only be sure to find any blank tapes locally in a video shop whose prices were the highest I had encountered in more than 25 years. But it’s closed down now. Inevitably, one is driven to rely on internet shopping for tape.

The diversification into unrelated goods roared on. In the wake of tape, petrol stations started selling food (even less appetising than fat-sprayed videos), butchers sold cheese and eggs, post offices stationery and greetings cards, bookshops DVD’s and coffee, lighting shops furniture (we once bought an occasional table at Christopher Wray’s), florists ceramics and knick-knacks and so on. Were Stan Gilbert Footwear still going, I suppose he would have to major in trainers and offer sidelines in handbags, luggage, socks, roller skates, skis, hiking maps and ointments for athlete’s foot.

Superstores now routinely stock supposed fashion, down-market books, toys, bed linen, firewood and electrical goods and offer dry-cleaning, insurance and banking. Surely coming soon to your local Asda will be: ayurvedic massage, care for the elderly, tarot readings, dog-training, escort services, yoga, line-dancing classes, personal bodyguard hire, pro bono legal advice, endangered species as pets, landscape gardening, group therapy, dentistry, armaments for any eventuality, car boot sales and cosmetic surgery while-u-wait. (I’m joshing but you’ll tell me of any branches that do indeed offer some of these). Such vast diversification by the stores with limitless pockets puts pressure on every small business to augment the line that was once a matter of expertise and comprehensive service.

When I moved to London to become a university student, I found a city crammed with fascinating stationery shops. I soon learned where to buy those left-field items that any writer relishes: typing paper in quarto size (handy for short letters), box-filing cards in quantity at a reasonable price, two-tone typewriter ribbons, varying shades of carbon paper, all kinds of covers for manuscripts and documents, a vast variety of graph and ruled paper, felt-tipped pens of the idiosyncratic style that I favoured.

It couldn’t last. Along came a chain called Ryman’s that one by one squeezed all the individual stationers out of business. Ryman’s stocked none of those quirky items that I so liked and they killed off the shops that did stock them. I loathed Ryman’s. One day, passing a branch, I caught sight in the window of a neat little photocopying machine designed for a small office. I had always dreamed of such an addition to my workspace. Taking a deep breath, I crossed the hated threshold and soon emerged carrying the photocopier. It was indeed so light that I carried it home on foot. What a fool for making an impulse purchase from the enemy. The copier never worked reliably and, when I ran out of paper for it, I found that the particular paper it required was grotesquely expensive. Only Ryman’s stocked it and they dropped it not long after. And the rule with a chain is: when head office cancels a line, no branch carries it. I knew it was futile to protest at the branch where I bought the damned thing.

The last time I was in London, I found that the one great independent stationer’s left, Osman’s of Wardour Street, had finally but inevitably gone. The death of the stationery specialists, along with the decline of newspaper shops (whose trade has also been hard hit by the reduction in demand for smoking materials), is just a small symptom of a much greater malaise: the death of variegated retail.

Part of the process of decline of the high street was that every town centre became identical to every other town centre because the major chains were the only retailers who could afford the rentals. Nor is it just the case in Britain. Go to towns and cities in Europe and even further afield and the same fascias gaze down upon you from shops that used to be unique and local.

And as the small independents died, what was striking was how the most likely new tenant was a hairdresser’s, a “beauty salon”, a bistro or a fifty-kinds-of-coffee hangout. In country towns like the one nearest us, the other most prolific businesses – at least until the recession set in – were estate agents.

In taking over and standardising town centres, some of the chains overreached themselves and found that they had to cut back again. Even some of the superstores fell back and Safeway and Somerfield are gone. I certainly don’t miss our local Somerfield. On the few occasions that I found myself driven to enter it for lack of any more desirable shop, it was hopeless. The prominent “ten items or less” sign at one of the checkouts was never enforced and I never saw the so-called “express checkout” actually open. I used to refer to the place as Slumberland. It’s now a branch of the Co-op and, as far as I can tell, not much better.

Ah yes, the superstores ‘ to be continued…


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This post was written by W Stephen Gilbert

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