Is online shopping the 'nail in the coffin' for the UK high street?

The death of the British high street happened long ago; online shopping is merely the nail in the coffin.

The demise of the cherished British high street has been an ongoing process for years now, a trend that we have all passively accepted without many complaints beyond the negative effects of structural unemployment. This year however, we are starting to see a new trend in the downfall of the UK high street – that of large-scale stores and shopping centres threatening closure and citing net losses. This is a new malaise for the world of in-person shopping, one that will have a long, painful death.

Before analysing the prospects of the British high street, let’s address why we should lament its demise in the first place.

It’s important to note that the high street receives its value from the local community that it has sprung out of; the high street isn’t something to preserve because of the diverse set of shops and goods it provides, nor is it because of how it affects our GDP. No, our love of the high street is what it represents: a community with an authenticity that is increasingly difficult to sustain in the 21st century. It represents localism, where both workers and the goods they sell are from the area, and provides workers with a passion and knowledge of their craft.

However, this description of the UK high street has been dead since the introduction of chain stores and widespread commercialisation of day-to-day life. Its demise has been solidified for decades now, and hence our sorrow for Footlockers’ fall and the subsequent high street of Primarks couldn’t be further from that of a true high street culture that provides the social glue necessary for a community to survive. The current high street is of course also under threat, but our chief worry in this case is structural unemployment, a worry that should stretch beyond merely the high street.

Take for example the recent announcement that IKEA Coventry is to close next summer. IKEA is not part of high street culture, nor does it represent a shop which binds its workers to the products they’re selling. Instead, IKEA is a symbol of how our high street transformed in the 2000s through its Americanisation, where shopping occurs in the outskirts of cities in large impersonal warehouses. Areas of living and areas of shopping were no longer assumed to be mutually inclusive. IKEA Coventry is an exception against this trend, with the furniture retailer being located right in the centre of the city; yet, why is it that we are to lament the closure of a gigantic blue warehouse in the middle of what used to be a city paved with cobblestone roads and independent shops?

Those with a more optimistic view of the present may point to the revival of independent shops and boutiques in gentrified neighbourhoods such as Shoreditch as an example of how the British high street isn’t dying – but is the culture behind these “hipster” neighbourhoods akin to that of the traditional high street? No. In gentrified areas like this, the high street is defining the neighbourhood instead of the neighbourhood defining the high street, which results in the community becoming based upon consumption and commercialisation. The independent shops in Shoreditch are only sustainable because they attract some of the most well-off individuals in London; the true working-class has long ago been priced out of the neighbourhood. What we are increasingly seeing is that an “authentic” high street culture is a privilege for those with the ability to pay, while most people have to carry-on with the atomisation of society like there is no alternative.

There is no doubt that the increase in online retailers is to blame – but what is the root cause of this surge? Perhaps it is the perennial paradox of how our interests are not often in line with what is best for not only ourselves, but the wider community. We are taught to seek the most efficient route to achieve our goals, yet the most efficient option is not always the one that gives us the most fulfilment. With the example of shopping, it isn’t difficult to picture a life in which nearly all of one’s desires can be achieved by staying at home browsing online: we can deliver our groceries online, order takeout from Amazon, buy clothes from ASOS and shop for everything else on Amazon. Soon enough long-distance university education will be viewed as being perhaps on par with physical attendance; yet, there’s something innately repulsive about the idea of a voluntary house-bound individual, one that succumbs to the eases of online shopping for every want and desire.

Is the society that this level of instant-gratification produces preferable to the one of a traditional high street culture? I would guess that the majority of the people would say no – but that won’t stop them from continuing to increasingly shop online. Capitalism’s exponential growth will far outpace the sudden realisation that as a society we have fully replaced our culture of the high street with one of atomistic and hedonistic online shopping – and by then will then be too late.

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