Scribblings from the hard shoulder of the Information Superhighway

Blood on the Tracks

(Bob Dylan)

I confess I have neglected this site of late – sometimes real life gets in the way of an on-line life.

And I’ve resisted turning it into another food and restaurant review site, but after some ten months living half my life in Manchester’s ‘Northern Quarter’ I figure I am qualified to offer my personal opinions on some of the places I’ve enjoyed, or not.

And, as it’s possible that I’ll be in Manchester for a while longer, I figure, why not?

If somebody stumbles across this site and tries somewhere different as a result of my suggestions, then everybody wins.

Before I become (although I hope this won’t happen) ‘just another food and drink blogger’, I would like to add my two penn’orth about the state of the UK high street.

In recent months we have seen the demise of Republic (a fashion chain), HMV, Jessops, Blockbuster Video, JJB Sports and Comet. Before that it was Woolworths, Habitat and Blacks Leisure. I’ll exclude Clinton Cards from the list as they’ve been resurrected and my views on the whole debacle are probably libellous.

Jessops-2

A few years ago, as a Town Councillor I attended my local statutory Annual Town Meeting. These are an opportunity for the Council to blow its own trumpet to those residents who bother to attend, and for those residents who do attend to complain to ‘the council’ – that amorphous tier of government that is responsible for everything that goes wrong.

On this particular occasion a resident bemoaned the number of empty shops in the Town Centre and asked ‘why doesn’t “The Council’ do something about it?”. I won’t go into the various tiers of administration that actually make up ‘The Council’ or the responsibilities and restrictions placed on each, but the short answer is that ‘The Council’ couldn’t do anything about it. They didn’t (and don’t) own the shop units in question and if a retailer wasn’t interested in a town of some 4,000 homes – below the viability level for many shop chains – then the stores wouldn’t come.

Ssops in South Woodham Ferrers

It was at this point that an elderly gentleman stood up and requested permission to address the meeting. He said that he had spent much of his working life in retailing and observed that the model of retailing had changed since the town was designed and built in the 1980’s. In those days the town had a bookshop, a couple of record stores and a number of thriving independent retailers. These days, the gentleman suggested, we don’t need bookshops or record stores, as most of us purchase our media online. And indeed since this meeting the trend in music has moved further away towards downloads.

In recent visits to the BlueWater shopping mall in Kent I’ve noticed a trend towards empty retail units reopening as coffee shops or cafés. This is retailing as leisure, the coffee shops hopefully lulling the visitor to spend something, somewhere.

Which brings us back to HMV.

HMV Closing Stores at Tolfalas.com

Anyone who knows me will know I’m a media junkie. One of the earliest questions I can remember, at the age of about three, asking my parents (while looking at a ‘top twenty’ board outside a record shop on East Ham high street) was whether there were records that weren’t in the top twenty. Since then I have acquired a reasonable collection of music and movies in various formats (vinyl, cassette, CD, VHS, DVD, BluRay). I used to love the clack, clack, clack of browsing CD racks, and before that poring over the serried ranks of album covers.

CDs at HMV - from The Independent

But over the past month I have visited the HMV store in central Manchester on three separate occasions, spending up to twenty minutes at a time browsing, and come out empty handed. There was nothing that engaged me sufficiently to spend my hard earned cash, I already had it, wasn’t interested, or couldn’t justify the purchase to myself.

It’s sad.

Given that ‘high street’ stores have to pay staff and premises costs they will never be able to compete with the online behemoths, this means that they will have to justify their existence another way.  My suggestion is that the retailers need to add value, to differentiate themselves from the online retailers. Had there been signed copies of albums, or ‘limited edition’ sets with additional content that might not be available online then I might have been tempted.

Okay, this would require engagement and commitment from the artists themselves, actually venturing out and being seen, but it’s something that would surely benefit everybody. That’s what the bookshops do, especially as Christmas approaches.

Otherwise our high streets will continue to decline and become increasingly irrelevant.

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