The high street is taking its last wheezy gasps as it is being kicked to death by the internet.
Bournemouth has a relatively famous department store, called Beales, which brings back memories, especially around Christmas time. When I was a child it was the place my parents took us to walk around its splendour, have a coffee in its exotic restaurant with lovely panoramic views of the town and it was where we had our first meeting with Father Christmas.
So I went in there the other day to take a stroll down memory lane. The first thing that strikes me is that, yes, it’s still huge, but rather down-at heel and tatty, there are huge empty spaces, followed by random concessions selling discounted crap.
To be fair, the furniture department still maintains standards, with snotty sales people and quality products, but a visit to Santa now has to be booked in advance and costs £9.
No wonder the high-street is in trouble; Bournemouth’s finest retail outlet has declined to the level of a substandard John Lewis and its massive size means its rent and rates must be phenomenal.
Beales struggles on for now, but for how long? Around the corner, a similarly-sized outlet stands empty; it used to be M&S but closed down over a year ago and is now fringed with the tents of the homeless. The footfall in Bournemouth has gone down substantially since its closure, it used to be the only reason a certain demographic came into town; they can now get their fix at an out-of-town shopping centre, Castlepoint.
20 years ago I was looking for a retail outlet to set up a shop and it was hard. There was nothing in a decent location and the traditional chains had all the best shops. Eventually I found something in the Burlington Arcade and had to pay a substantial sum to the previous tenant to get the keys.
Those days have gone. I could take my pick; Borders, the bookshop, has gone, so has Boots, Apple and the other chains, to be replaced by JD Sports and lots of independents. I would not have to pay the ‘key tax’ and I could probably negotiate much harder on the rent, or at least get a decent rent-free term. The ability of independents to get a foothold in the town may seem like a good thing, but that is not necessarily the case.
Many people have the dream of opening up their own coffee shop, their own boutique or gift emporium, but I’m afraid it won’t work. Often they will open up without a proper plan, no marketing and a wobbly proposition. Because people aren’t drawn into town by the lure of M&S and Beales, they will have problems paying the rent and will end up handing over the keys to their shop to a new hopeful within the year.
There are a few shops, however, that buck this dispiriting trend.
A lot of ‘head shops’ opened in Bournemouth, selling drugs paraphernalia and legal highs to Bournemouth’s student population. The legal highs were banned and so they morphed into vape shops, selling tobacco substitutes and drugs paraphernalia.
These shops need to be agile, approachable and ‘respectable’ and to an extent the success of vaping has enabled them to proliferate, but competition is fierce.
The two other ‘internet-proof’ outlets are barbers and tattoo shops.
There is an infestation of these in the town, every other shop is staffed by a heavily-tattooed and bearded ex-insurance salesman who will either inflict permanent inking on any part of your body you like, or shave your head. He might also wax your beard and offer you a coffee.
You can’t get inked on the internet (yet) and it can’t cut your hair, so supply has stepped up to completely outstrip demand. Yes, barbers and tattoo shops will survive, but not many of them. There will be days of reckoning in Bournemouth, like in every town around the country, and the majority of these shops will go to the wall, leaving the highstreet, once again, like an increasingly gappy, uncared for grin.
For the shops that do want to survive, the key is simple. Get the right location, negotiate your lease as hard as you can and provide quality; quality service, quality goods and a quality experience. And charge what it takes to make a profit.