Retail Therapy

The Great British High Street deserves to die. These days it's far from Great and not very British, but it is collectively as high as a kite. The entire experience of British retail is like a Lord of the Flies-themed amusement park.

Firstly, the stores are terrible. The architecture of our high streets is disgusting. The shops are shabby, lit with the worst kind of off-yellow flourescent light and festooned with foul, gaudy posters with text in a four-digit point size. Apostrophe errors are rampant.

The layout of the stores is seemingly completely random, in an attempt to get you to notice things that you not only would never buy, but things that you never even imagined humanity would allocate our scarce economic resources to produce. The only doctrine in retail layout in this country is that you had better not want to actually break into a stride in the store. Trying to get to the underpants in Marks & Spencer is reminiscent of Hampton Court Maze.

Everything they sell is total, unadulterated rubbish. Clothes are falling off hangers, disorganised, piled around the stores in random heaps by shoppers abandoning them at will. Remember the days when, if they changed their mind about a product, people used to actually go and put it back where they got it?

The goods on the shelves are old. Packaging is tatty. Bits are missing. Stuff is broken. Pages are torn. Shelf labels never match the goods sitting above them.

Don't even get me started about the big computer stores. Don't get me wrong, they're totally fantastic if you want an iMac G4, a parallel printer cable or a PCMCIA 56k modem.

Palmtops, sir? Why, yes, we have the latest Psion Organiser right over here.

The very thought of PC World churns my stomach, and I'm not even visualising the people that work there. The elephant in the room is this: UK retail is entirely staffed by children who know nothing about anything.

You may have heard of a little mechanism we like to call the National Minimum Wage? Well, the minimum wage lets a retailer employ children at a 39% discount over adults. £5.73/hr if you're over 22. Under 18's are a bargain at £3.53/hr. This is why you are always the smartest person in the shop. This is why you know more than all the staff put together. This is why you, like me, are paralysed by the thought of visiting a retail outlet without spending an hour doing review-research on Amazon first: there is zero information available at the store.

Take mobile phones, for example. The products are such irrelevant tat that they're no longer even on display. All you get is a piece of card with the size, weight and number of ringtones listed and a carved piece of foamcore with a sticker of a photo of the phone on the front. Don't even think about asking a question of the staff unless, perhaps, you're registered blind and need someone to read you that little spec sheet aloud.

iPod Vending Machine, by dmeyer

The iPod is clearly designed and packaged by Apple to be retail-proof. It's a sealed box, so insulated from any interactive retailing that you can buy it from a vending machine. Come to think of it, a vending machine is probably one of the more pleasant retail experiences one can have.

At the very least, an iPod vending machine usually says Thank You and doesn't try to chat up the tampon vending machine in the space next to it.

So, do I care about Woolworths and MFI going into administration today? Put it this way: I didn't even know MFI were still trading. Last time I was in an MFI store, they proposed to sell me the worst chipboard wardrobe I had ever seen - an edifice so abysmally constructed that even the showroom unit had gaps at the joints - for £1,400. And I'm supposed to put on a surprised face and wring my hands when these places find they can't sell their wares?

Think about it: what, exactly, is the difference between the retail of today and the retail experience when I was a child? We buy it with other people's money now, but it's otherwise basically identical. There are things on shelves, you pick them up and you go and pay for them at a little desk somewhere in the store.

We think that Apple is a shining light of innovation in retail, but think about what Apple have really achieved:

  • They stock current products.
  • They actually let you see and touch the product instead of an Airfix replica of said product.
  • The people who work there have a clue, are polite and helpful.
  • The store is nice and clean.
  • They add some value beyond "get it and take it home": Genius Bar, One to One, Training Sessions, Personal Shopping, live events.
  • They have those nifty wireless card reader things.

That's not a terribly high bar to set, is it? I mean, it's not like they even have a customer toilet in the Glasgow store. They send you across the road to Glasgow's equivalent of the Black Hole of Calcutta, the Buchanan Street public toilets.

I have never, ever been in a quiet Apple Store. They are always busy, and they're just competently-run, handsome and clean shops full of helpful people who sell nice things people like.

The first commenter to tell me I'm generalising wins a prize: one Pound, with which to purchase Woolworths. Generalisation is an essential tool. I know full well that Apple Stores are selling big numbers of high-margin items and the game is different for different markets, but can't someone move beyond the "1910 corner shop but bigger and with chip and pin terminals" model?

Take Tesco. Tesco, whose awesome supply chain prowess makes the United States Army look like a rag-and-bone merchant. Tesco, whose loyalty card recommendation algorithms might well pass a Turing test. Even Tesco don't deliver what one would describe as a pleasant retail experience. Convenient? Yes. Pleasant? Not exactly, no.

The "Great British High Street" is to commerce as print newspapers are to journalism: a dying and irrelevant mechanism for delivering the needs of society. Let them both go. We still need news and retail, but business models and delivery mechanisms are not a God-given right.

Farewell, then, Woolworths. I'll miss the Pick 'n' Mix that I always liked the idea of but never purchased because you wouldn't put a balance on the customer side of the counter and always surprised me with the final cost. A fitting epitaph, I think.