The high street is doomed? Tell that to the people queuing outside Primark

GaHinsliff
·5 min read
<span>Photograph: Matthew Horwood/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Matthew Horwood/Getty Images

When all this is over, what I want more than anything else is to be in a crowd. Any crowd, really. Parties would be the dream; a joyfully sweaty crush with barely room to reach the bar, and the promise of drunken dancing to follow. But at this stage, even the collective hush when the lights dim in a packed cinema would do. Lately I’ve even been feeling unexpected pangs of nostalgia for the tube at rush hour. It’s not the feeling of being rammed into a stranger’s armpit but the people-watching, the eavesdropping on strangers’ conversations, the bustle, the life you miss. Yet even with the vaccine coming, it may be months before much of this is wise. So for now, the safest substitute available to most of us is going shopping. Just mooching from store to store under the twinkly Christmas lights, chatting to a friend, in a way I’d mostly given up before the pandemic.

About 12,000 people work on UK-registered fishing boats: the same number work for Debenhams alone

Retail therapy isn’t really my thing, but months of nervously steering clear of big cities has been a reminder of the lost pleasures of shopping in person: actually feeling the fabric of clothes, sneakily reading the first few pages of books, rummaging through junk for treasures, trying lipsticks on the back of a hand in the hope of one day not having to wear a mask. I want to be surprised at Christmas presents I hadn’t even thought of, but most of all, I want to buy them with someone. Nobody click-and-collects with a friend. No briskly efficient solo Amazon session has ever ended in the pub, getting triumphantly sloshed with the bags stuffed under the table. And that’s why the long-term death of the high street feels perhaps less inevitable than doomsayers think.

It’s been an undeniably sad and frightening week for anyone working in retail, with both Debenhams and Arcadia going up in smoke. Like everyone else I practically lived in Topshop as a teenager, and my first proper job was as a Christmas temp selling ladies’ handbags (and in those days it very much was ladies) in Debenhams in Chelmsford. All hell broke loose on Christmas Eve, with panicking husbands grabbing anything in reach. “Women always need handbags,” they’d say sheepishly. But we haven’t this year. Who needs a handbag when they’re barely leaving the house, or a bikini when holidays are cancelled, or a party dress that will only sit forlornly in the wardrobe? Staid department stores were walking wounded even before Covid delivered the coup de grâce, having been overtaken first by an explosion of smarter options on the real high street and then by the great shift online. Now only the fittest will survive the double whammy of enforced closures plus customers suddenly no longer craving what fashion has to sell.

Yet the assumption that customers have abandoned bricks-and-mortar shops for good feels instinctively wrong to me. The future of shopping may well be either small and hyper-local or glitzy big-destination retail, with little surviving in the once vast Debenhams-land in the middle. But at least it has a future, or it could.

Related: 'It's lovely to be back': on the streets of three-tier England as lockdown lifts

Ye olde-fashioned small-town high streets have been dying for decades, crippled even before the advent of online shopping by the fact that everyone’s out at work now, with no time to traipse from butcher to baker. But a permanent shift towards home working could create a new breed of daytime customer, hungry for social contact after hours spent staring into a laptop. Perhaps more surprisingly, shopping as a social occasion isn’t dead either. When Primark opened its flagship project in Birmingham last year – transforming a five-floor, empty shopping centre into the biggest fashion store in the world – coach trips came from Wales just to see it. Customers arrive in gaggles of friends, or take their mums out for the day. And if you can’t imagine why anyone would queue just to get into a Primark when lockdown ended – well, how lucky are you? Lucky not to need to buy the kids’ stocking fillers as cheap as chips; lucky, too, perhaps, to feel you have something bigger in life to look forward to. Primark is so beloved because it’s cheap but feel-good, something also true of Decathlon, the French sports and leisure chain, which did a roaring trade over summer in bikes and tents and paddleboards and anything else likely to keep bored people busy outdoors. The signs on the door address customers as “athletes”, which feels immensely flattering when you’re really only buying tennis balls for the dog.

Retail will obviously need help to get through a catastrophic period, where the lifting of physical lockdown looks likely to be followed by the kind of recession that leaves people with nothing to spend. But that’s largely a matter of political will. The fishing industry is deemed so critical to the national psyche that Downing Street threatened to sacrifice an entire Brexit deal over it, so when I heard someone on the radio say that Debenhams and Arcadia between them employed as many people as fishing, I was surprised enough to double-check. Sure enough, that’s not quite right: in fact about 12,000 people work on UK-registered fishing boats, and the same number work for Debenhams alone.

Make Amazon and its ilk pay their taxes, restructure business rates, draw up an imaginative rescue plan and high-street retail would still have to evolve very rapidly but needn’t be doomed. Without such efforts, we could, of course, simply drift into a world of solitary phone-scrolling from our sofas. But after almost a year of that, don’t be surprised if the last thing people want is more of the same.

• Gaby Hinsliff is a Guardian columnist