The time must come for the high street’s ‘national treasures’ to die

Woolworths, Marks & Spencer and WH Smith all inspire a sense of nostalgia in British consumers, but we are really just watching their slow, painful deaths

cartoon280808There is a fine dividing line between an affectionate reverence for the ancient and established and a maudlin attachment to the moribund and defunct. This is true both of people and things. Lately, it has become commonplace to talk of familiar faces as “national treasures”. The list of these monuments includes Michael Parkinson and Julie Walters and, unless we are exceptionally vigilant, may yet include Esther Rantzen and John Prescott.

However, moving swiftly on from the ridiculous to the pitiable, the saddest examples of the British unwillingness to let go are to be seen in almost every high street in the country. They are the retailing giants who, far from outstaying their welcome, have outlived their usefulness and yet remain welcome in a sort of half-hearted way.

Three in particular stand out. They are, in no particular order, FW Woolworth, Marks & Spencer, and WH Smith. Each of these once illustrious names harks back to a distant era when both the world and the shoppers in it were very different from today. FW Woolworth started out as a five-and-dime store in New York in 1878, Marks & Spencer began life as a market stall in Leeds in 1884 and WH Smith can trace its history back to a news agency service founded in 1790.

That all three survive to this day is remarkable and warrants the kind of soft-hearted admiration we bestow on longevity. Just as we marvel at a centenarian – “Bright as a button and still has two of his own teeth!” – because he has fought the ancient enemy, mortality, for longer than most and that makes us feel good, we reserve an affection for the old high street names because they remind us of our childhood and that, too, engenders a kind of warmth.

There will come a time, however, when the centenarian passes on and the symbolic handful of dust is thrown down on to his coffin. That is the natural order of things, and what is true of people is true, too, of shops. It is time that Woolies, Smiths, and Marks & Sparks were laid to rest. For each has laboured long and hard, lived a full and rewarding life, and earned a peaceful and dignified departure.

Not that that will happen. Sad to see, all three are enduring protracted and painful death throes, and all for the same reason. Each is a lumbering old-fashioned generalist in an era of nimble specialists.

Smiths sells newspapers and magazines in competition with thousands of other newsagents; it also sells – and not very well – books, greetings cards, DVDs, stationery, all of which can be bought elsewhere with greater choice. Woolworth has no raison d’etre at all. The stores are shabby, ill-stocked and empty.

M&S, being the largest and most famous of British high street chains, is undergoing the most public and protracted death scene of all. Just as if a monarch were passing away, the decline of the patient is monitored daily and bulletins issued frequently. It is as if the health of the nation itself were somehow linked to the once penny-stall.

In its hey-day, M&S clothed the nation. Its merchandise was remarkable for its quality and durability. And you could take back unwanted or unsuitable items and get a refund, no questions asked. That is no longer a unique selling point. More to the point, M&S’s clothing is no longer of a high quality. It is, at best, average. And in any case today’s shopper craves a style and variety that she can find in a dozen other high street outlets, and at a competitive price. As for food, M&S’s quality is uncontested, but it made the mistake of concentrating on expensive, read-made convenience foods when the current taste is for fresh produce.

All three moribund giants have another thing in common: they are badly managed. Some time ago, British management adopted implacable cost-cutting as a means to greater profitability. The test of a good manager became the number of people he or she laid off. Result: M&S, Woolworth and Smiths have too few staff. Nothing is so calculated to infuriate the shopper than first, having to serve herself, and secondly having to queue for heaven knows how long for the privilege of paying for the goods.

Now that the economy has ceased growing and all retailers are suffering, it is inevitable that some will go to the wall. Could it be that when the scouring wave of recession has receded we shall see that it has taken with it the dead wood and debris that is Smiths, Woolies and Marks & Sparks? Sic transit gloria mundi. (Gloria Mundi felt unwell on the journey.) 

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