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High street shake-out

Woolworths has gone, many other famous stores will disappear, but a new age of shopping will emerge

Traditionally it is the days and weeks after Christmas that are the most terrifying for retailers. The final quarter of the year arrives when rents have to be paid (this year, it is actually on 25 December), the invoices from suppliers pile up, a visit from the VAT man is imminent and the banks start to get antsy about the swelling overdrafts and feeble cash flow. Within days, the corporate undertakers come knocking.

This year the pattern has been different. Amid the carnage of the credit crunch, no one is taking any chances. Even if you are a company such as Woolworths - which takes in 80 per cent of its income in the six weeks leading up to Christmas - impatience sets in. The first thing to go is the credit insurance, the guarantee to suppliers that they will be paid, come hell or high water. When that happens, the sweet factory demands cash for each shipment of pick'n'mix and banks start becoming nervous. Before the directors have a chance to take emergency action, such as selling off a string of stores to rivals, the plug has been pulled.

The demise of Woolworths, a fixture on Britain's high streets for a century, is not that surprising. Its elder sister in the United States died some years ago and its falling share price has been signalling disaster for some time. But Woolworths is far from being alone. Among the reasons that Alistair Darling chose to make a 2.5 per cent cut in VAT the centrepiece of his pre-Budget report is that it has two important characteristics. Unlike an income or corporation tax, it can be administered swiftly - without the need for a complex finance bill. Second, it does help the consumer and the high street.

The sceptics have argued that a few pence or pounds off prices as a result of lowering VAT makes no difference in a year when Marks & Spencer is conducting guerrilla sales tactics ("20 per cent off" days, designed to catch the opposition on the hop) and other high-street chains are permanently holding sales.

Such observations are economically illiterate: by hook or by crook the cut in VAT will put £12bn into the economy over a relatively short period. Even if the price cut is not passed on, it will mean that smaller high-street boutiques may be able to hang on a little longer (by widening profit margins) allowing them to main tain a job or two that might have been shed in recession conditions.

What is different about the present crisis on the high street, which has seen the demise of Woolworths, MFI, MK One, as well as a slump in the shares of DSG (owner of Currys, PC World and the online Dixons site), is that it reflects changes in retailing and the way we shop.

It is no coincidence that the Woolworths on my local high street in south-west London had already closed by the time the administrators moved in and the premises were being refitted as a Tesco Extra.

The boundaries between shopping chains have changed. When Tesco reached saturation point in food sales, at the point where it became subject to regular competition and monopoly investigations, it headed in the direction of diversification. No longer is it just a grocer. It is a newsagent (watch out W H Smith), a clothing retailer (be careful Debenhams), an electronics outfit (no wonder Currys is hurting) and has moved into the video entertainment business (poor old Woolies). Tesco, the dominant force in British shopping, is not alone in this. There is no longer such a thing as a specialist retailer.

The big grocers - Tesco, Asda, Sainsbury's and, to a lesser extent, Morrisons - realised some time ago that while people came to their stores for their daily bread, the profit margins on food are relatively narrow. But if they could bulk-buy products - from fashionable clothes to flat-screen televisions made in China and the Far East - they could become vast department stores. Indeed, the profit margins on the clothes and electrical goods could be better than those on the 50,000 food items.

Even the venerable Marks & Spencer, still the nation's biggest clothing retailer with around 12 per cent of the market, is in the television and kettles business. Consumers who trust M&S with their lingerie needs are not going to doubt that an M&S kettle is as good as one bought from Currys. The need for the general store, of which Woolworths was the exemplar with its eclectic mix of everything from screwdrivers to chocolate bars, is no longer there.

Also undermining the high street is, of course, the internet. Personally, as much as I love browsing in bookshops, new and secondhand, it is a long time since I made a purchase from one. My book shopping is done online through Amazon or the fantastic used-book site AbeBooks. Online sales are rising exponentially, climbing by 54 per cent to £46.6bn in 2007. This is money that is being cannibalised from the high street. Does all of this mean that the high street as we know it is over? One doubts it. But the line-up of stores will change. Tescopoly has its natural limits. In much the same way as Woolworths has been replaced by its modern equivalent, Wilkinsons (which is seeking to buy Woolworths' premises), in some suburban centres, so Currys is going to find itself under pressure from the American import Best Buy, where the emphasis is on expertise and service.

Once it was out-of-town shopping that was the threat. But soon the developers realised that people actually like the social aspect of open-air, high-street shopping and have redeveloped the high street from Bristol to Leeds with open spaces and cafes. The high street is organic and over the coming year or so, as the slump bites, empty stores will proliferate. But don't despair - there will always be an entrepreneur ready to bet on recovery and find ever new ways to claim the shopping pound.

Alex Brummer is City editor of the Daily Mail

Retail carnage

Woolworths - the chain has collapsed with debts of £385m and many of its 815 branches (and 30,000 jobs) are expected to go.

Argos - after reporting its biggest ever fall in sales in October, staff had their hours cut by 20 per cent.

John Lewis - reported a 13 per cent drop in sales, its tenth successive decline.

Debenhams - is carrying nearly £1bn in debts, and profits have dropped by 16 per cent.

MFI - the company went into administration last week; 1,000 jobs will be lost.

Character Group - shares in the firm, which supplies Britain's biggest toy retailers, including Tesco and Toys R Us, dropped 20 per cent last week. The company is now valued at little more than the value of its bank deposits.
JJB Sports - selling off assets to repay £20m loan; JD Sports is considering buying its rival.

Land of Leather - the furniture retailer reports sales down 47 per cent on last year.

Majestic Wine - its half-year profits are down 25 per cent.

Wrapit - the wedding gift-list firm went under in August, taking up to 2,000 couples' presents with it.
Rosebys - the textiles chain closed for good last month - 201 shops have shut.

Hardy Amies - the Savile Row tailor and one-time dressmaker to the Queen went into administration in October, forcing the closure of five of its six UK stores.
. . . and even Tesco has posted its worst performance since 1992, with just 1.9 per cent growth. Shares fell 40 per cent in the past year.

This article first appeared in the 08 December 2008 issue of the New Statesman, After the Terror

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The age of loneliness

Profound changes in technology, work and community are transforming our ultrasocial species into a population of loners.

Our dominant ideology is based on a lie. A series of lies, in fact, but I’ll focus on just one. This is the claim that we are, above all else, self-interested – that we seek to enhance our own wealth and power with little regard for the impact on others.

Some economists use a term to describe this presumed state of being – Homo economicus, or self-maximising man. The concept was formulated, by J S Mill and others, as a thought experiment. Soon it became a modelling tool. Then it became an ideal. Then it evolved into a description of who we really are.

It could not be further from the truth. To study human behaviour is to become aware of how weird we are. Many species will go to great lengths to help and protect their close kin. One or two will show occasional altruism towards unrelated members of their kind. But no species possesses a capacity for general altruism that is anywhere close to our own.

With the possible exception of naked mole-rats, we have the most social minds of all mammals. These minds evolved as an essential means of survival. Slow, weak, armed with rounded teeth and flimsy nails in a world of fangs and claws and horns and tusks, we survived through co-operation, reciprocity and mutual defence, all of which developed to a remarkable degree.

A review paper in the journal Frontiers in Psychology observes that Homo economicus  might be a reasonable description of chimpanzees. “Outsiders . . . would not expect to receive offers of food or solicitude; rather, they would be fiercely attacked . . . food is shared only under harassment; even mothers will not voluntarily offer novel foods to their own infants unless the infants beg for them.” But it is an unreasonable description of human beings.

How many of your friends, colleagues and neighbours behave like chimpanzees? A few, perhaps. If so, are they respected or reviled? Some people do appear to act as if they have no interests but their own – Philip Green and Mike Ashley strike me as possible examples – but their behaviour ­attracts general revulsion. The news is filled with spectacular instances of human viciousness: although psychopaths are rare, their deeds fill the papers. Daily acts of kindness are seldom reported, because they are everywhere.

Every day, I see people helping others with luggage, offering to cede their place in a queue, giving money to the homeless, setting aside time for others, volunteering for causes that offer no material reward. Alongside these quotidian instances are extreme and stunning cases. I think of my Dutch mother-in-law, whose family took in a six-year-old Jewish boy – a stranger – and hid him in their house for two years during the German occupation of the Netherlands. Had he been discovered, they would all have been sent to a concentration camp.

Studies suggest that altruistic tendencies are innate: from the age of 14 months, children try to help each other, attempting to hand over objects another child can’t reach. At the age of two, they start to share valued possessions. By the time they are three, they begin to protest against other people’s violation of moral norms.

Perhaps because we are told by the media, think tanks and politicians that competition and self-interest are the defining norms of human life, we disastrously mischaracterise the way in which other people behave. A survey commissioned by the Common Cause Foundation reported that 78 per cent of respondents believe others to be more selfish than they really are.

I do not wish to suggest that this mythology of selfishness is the sole or even principal cause of the epidemic of loneliness now sweeping the world. But it is likely to contribute to the plague by breeding suspicion and a sense of threat. It also appears to provide a doctrine of justification for those afflicted by isolation, a doctrine that sees individualism as a higher state of existence than community. Perhaps it is hardly surprising that Britain, the European nation in which neoliberalism is most advanced, is, according to government figures, the loneliness capital of Europe.

There are several possible reasons for the atomisation now suffered by the supremely social mammal. Work, which used to bring us together, now disperses us: many people have neither fixed workplaces nor regular colleagues and regular hours. Our leisure time has undergone a similar transformation: cinema replaced by television, sport by computer games, time with friends by time on Facebook.

Social media seems to cut both ways: it brings us together and sets us apart. It helps us to stay in touch, but also cultivates a tendency that surely enhances other people’s sense of isolation: a determination to persuade your followers that you’re having a great time. FOMO – fear of missing out – seems, at least in my mind, to be closely ­associated with loneliness.

Children’s lives in particular have been transformed: since the 1970s, their unaccompanied home range (in other words, the area they roam without adult supervision) has declined in Britain by almost 90 per cent. Not only does this remove them from contact with the natural world, but it limits their contact with other children. When kids played out on the street or in the woods, they quickly formed their own tribes, learning the social skills that would see them through life.

An ageing population, family and community breakdown, the decline of institutions such as churches and trade unions, the switch from public transport to private, inequality, an alienating ethic of consumerism, the loss of common purpose: all these are likely to contribute to one of the most dangerous epidemics of our time.

Yes, I do mean dangerous. The stress response triggered by loneliness raises blood pressure and impairs the immune system. Loneliness enhances the risk of depression, paranoia, addiction, cognitive decline, dem­entia, heart disease, stroke, viral infection, accidents and suicide. It is as potent a cause of early death as smoking 15 cigarettes a day, and can be twice as deadly as obesity.

Perhaps because we are in thrall to the ideology that helps to cause the problem, we turn to the market to try to solve it. Over the past few weeks, the discovery of a new American profession, the people-walker (taking human beings for walks), has caused a small sensation in the media. In Japan there is a fully fledged market for friendship: you can hire friends by the hour with whom to chat and eat and watch TV; or, more disturbingly, to pose for pictures that you can post on social media. They are rented as mourners at funerals and guests at weddings. A recent article describes how a fake friend was used to replace a sister with whom the bride had fallen out. What would the bride’s mother make of it? No problem: she had been rented, too. In September we learned that similar customs have been followed in Britain for some time: an early foray into business for the Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, involved offering to lease her posh friends to underpopulated weddings.



My own experience fits the current pattern: the high incidence of loneliness suffered by people between the ages of 18 and 34. I have sometimes been lonely before and after that period, but it was during those years that I was most afflicted. The worst episode struck when I returned to Britain after six years working in West Papua, Brazil and East Africa. In those parts I sometimes felt like a ghost, drifting through societies to which I did not belong. I was often socially isolated, but I seldom felt lonely, perhaps because the issues I was investigating were so absorbing and the work so frightening that I was swept along by adrenalin and a sense of purpose.

When I came home, however, I fell into a mineshaft. My university friends, with their proper jobs, expensive mortgages and settled, prematurely aged lives, had become incomprehensible to me, and the life I had been leading seemed incomprehensible to everyone. Though feeling like a ghost abroad was in some ways liberating – a psychic decluttering that permitted an intense process of discovery – feeling like a ghost at home was terrifying. I existed, people acknowledged me, greeted me cordially, but I just could not connect. Wherever I went, I heard my own voice bouncing back at me.

Eventually I made new friends. But I still feel scarred by that time, and fearful that such desolation may recur, particularly in old age. These days, my loneliest moments come immediately after I’ve given a talk, when I’m surrounded by people congratulating me or asking questions. I often experience a falling sensation: their voices seem to recede above my head. I think it arises from the nature of the contact: because I can’t speak to anyone for more than a few seconds, it feels like social media brought to life.

The word “sullen” evolved from the Old French solain, which means “lonely”. Loneliness is associated with an enhanced perception of social threat, so one of its paradoxical consequences is a tendency to shut yourself off from strangers. When I was lonely, I felt like lashing out at the society from which I perceived myself excluded, as if the problem lay with other people. To read any comment thread is, I feel, to witness this tendency: you find people who are plainly making efforts to connect, but who do so by insulting and abusing, alienating the rest of the thread with their evident misanthropy. Perhaps some people really are rugged individualists. But others – especially online – appear to use that persona as a rationale for involuntary isolation.

Whatever the reasons might be, it is as if a spell had been cast on us, transforming this ultrasocial species into a population of loners. Like a parasite enhancing the conditions for its own survival, loneliness impedes its own cure by breeding shame and shyness. The work of groups such as Age UK, Mind, Positive Ageing and the Campaign to End Loneliness is life-saving.

When I first wrote about this subject, and the article went viral, several publishers urged me to write a book on the theme. Three years sitting at my desk, studying isolation: what’s the second prize? But I found another way of working on the issue, a way that engages me with others, rather than removing me. With the brilliant musician Ewan McLennan, I have written a concept album (I wrote the first draft of the lyrics; he refined them and wrote the music). Our aim is to use it to help break the spell, with performances of both music and the spoken word designed to bring people together –which, we hope, will end with a party at the nearest pub.

By itself, our work can make only a tiny contribution to addressing the epidemic. But I hope that, both by helping people to acknowledge it and by using the power of music to create common sentiment, we can at least begin to identify the barriers that separate us from others, and to remember that we are not the selfish, ruthless beings we are told we are.

“Breaking the Spell of Loneliness” by Ewan McLennan and George Monbiot is out now. For a full list of forthcoming gigs visit:

This article first appeared in the 20 October 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Brothers in blood