It dawned on me about three weeks ago. I was involved in a series of customer study groups, trying to establish how attitudes have shifted in the current climate, when whoosh, a sudden a sense of realisation washed over me like some kind of tidal epiphany. It was so bloody obvious: the greatest threat to retail, our high streets and our town and city centres is not the ridiculous business rates, nor is it the increasing barrage of regulation. It’s not the rise of online retail or even the sirenic Alexa who promises to bring you everything you could ever want by tomorrow morning at the latest. Nor is it the B word, WTO tariffs, increasing energy prices or the lack of available staff. No, I’m afraid the biggest threat to our shopping streets, my friend, is you.
Let me be specific. It’s that little glowing ember of guilt you have inside you, the one that the mainstream media has been oxygenating for a decade and that’s now being fanned to a flame by politicians, lovely Greta and angry Extinction Rebellion.They have made you doubt the very system that made us rich in the first place. They have a point. You only have to slide open your wardrobes for evidence that you have too much stuff. Your bathroom cabinets barely close anymore and your attic is legacy to a Noughties tech binge, a veritable V&A in your loft. But you are not alone in your guilt. Listen to Cathy, the interviewee that changed my mind forever. Cathy (42) is married to Lee (44) and they have three kids Sasha (12) Aron (10) and Ella (7)
Me: In the light of recent health warnings and the increased threat of climate change, how have your shopping habits changed?
Cathy: I find myself thinking much more about things now. I reached up for a box of cereal for Ella the other day and stopped myself. I’d read that it’s mostly sugar and the packaging costs more than the contents, or something. And there’s the diesel the trucks use to deliver it, I saw something on that too. Anyway, I put it back. I’m the same about cooking sauces, biscuits, crisps, and bacon (Cathy counts her victories intently, finger by finger) and we’ve cut out ready-meals, so it’s harder for me getting dinner ready after work, but I know it’s for the best.
Me: How about other sorts of shopping? Fashion, for instance.
Cathy: We all watched that documentary on fast fashion. Incredible really, the amount of landfill it causes. And the chemicals they pour into the gutters that end up in the ocean. It’s truly disgusting how these things are produced. So we’ve agreed not to buy anything unnecessary from H&M, Topshop and Zara from now on. We don’t need it, so we’ve really cut down, I’d say. We tried using the local shops more but the choice isn’t really there to be honest, and the parking’s a nightmare, so most of our essentials are bought online now. It’s easier for us and better for the planet, I guess.
Me: What about changes to the way you travel?
Cathy: Yes, we have definitely stopped using the car so much. In fact, we were supposed to be visiting Lee’s mum at the weekend but we changed our plans. The petrol alone would cost over a hundred quid and all we could do is take her out for lunch really. So, we’ve decided to Skype her instead and wish her a happy birthday the modern way. For the best, really.
Me: Any other big changes you’ve made recently?
Cathy: Well, yes. We’ve stopped going to the pub on a Wednesday night. It was a bit of a break for me to be honest. It’s quiz night and we’d have a burger and a couple of beers. But what with all the health scares around alcohol…and red meat for that matter, we’ve decided to just stay in and watch Netflix. (she laughs)
Oh, and we banned McDonald’s outright. There’s been so much about them in the press and on various documentaries. They’re cutting down the rainforest just to produce enough beef, and then there’s the amount of salt and sugar they put in everything. It’s a no go zone for us now, I’m afraid, though I think Aron still sneaks in there with his friends. I can smell it on him, you know. He denies it, of course. We also cut out the Friday night curry. It was a bit of a family routine and we loved it until we saw that programme on the amount of salt they use. Unbelievable. And very fattening too. So no takeaway curries for us anymore!
Me: Away from food, how about household goods and homewares etc?
Cathy: Oh my god, don’t get me started. The whole kitchen needs doing and this sofa, well I’ve always hated the damn thing. But no, we’re not looking to replace anything major in the current climate. I don’t want to look extravagant, especially when everything is so uncertain at the moment.
So folks, Cathy and millions like her are doing their bit in these troubled times by cutting back a little on the things they once took for granted. If a few more million of us can be as conscientious as Cathy, our high streets and town centres will be completely devastated in five years. Tops.
We cannot let this happen. It’s clear that to turn the tide on this cultural erosion will take more than a cut in business rates and a 3 for 2 promotion. We need to address this head on: we must champion our local pubs and restaurants because they are our community and not just alcohol merchants. We need to bring back the local butchers and bakers and we need healthy, contemporary fast food in family-friendly environments. We need sustainable fashion brands that are genuinely affordable and we need parking spaces that encourage us to bring our families into town. We need community events every weekend and late into the evening after work. We need retailers to work together to make their streets clean, warm and welcoming. We need sensible family-friendly rail-fares that don’t have to be booked six months in advance too! And yes, we need to encourage as many street markets and independent traders into the town as possible, if only to break up the monotony. Put simply, we need to reclaim our town centres for what they were originally designed for: hard working, well meaning, conscientious consumers like Cathy.
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