How retail has changed Britain

AHave you noticed a lot more vans on the roads recently? Have you noticed how many job adverts there are for delivery drivers?

It's hardly surprising; many of us make most of our non-food purchases online nowadays so sales of delivery driver insurance for the vans carrying everything from pizzas to fridge freezers have increased dramatically!.

Napoleon famously called the British "a nation of shopkeepers." That is no longer true. Corner grocery shops, which enabled many families to earn a living during the early to mid 20th Century, went into deline from the 1950s as larger convenience stores, and then supermarkets, took their trade away. Some still survive but their numbers are much diminished.

The decline of the High Street

We were still buying most other goods from the local High Street; companies like Woolworths, Debenhams, Marks and Spencer and British Home Stores were almost inevitably present and they generally did a roaring trade. The problem for shoppers however was car parking; more and more households had cars and they were no longer willing to catch busses to and from the shops. Parking facilities near most high streets were woeful at best and it was not surprising that the out of town shopping centres with huge car parks soon started to take over. The High Street went into terminal decline. Most of the above named stores were soon out of business.

Shopping was still not a perfect experience though. All too often a shopper would ask for a particular product in a shopping centre store just to be met with one of several responses:

  • No-one ever asks for it
  • We had some but they are sold out
  • They should be in next Tuesday
  • That's a display model but if you order it it should be ready in six weeks.

The rise of online shopping

What people needed was a shop where everything was available and which could deliver purchases quickly. Amazon was just that shop, and the universal adoption of the Internet meant that most of us could find just about anything we wanted and have it delivered really quickly; often the next day.

For busy shoppers this was a boon; for retailers a disaster. Of the major stores mentioned above only M&S has survived as our shopping habits altered dramatically. Then came Covid.

The effects of the Covid epidemic

For many retailers Covid was the last nail in their coffins. Non-essential shops were forced to close; online retailers, at the same time, went into overdrive! A lot of shops and stores closed for good, particularly those in the shopping centres, as a lack of trade but sky high rents and rates drained their funds. The shopping centres themselves founds that rents were uncollectable from many of their customers, and shops fell empty with little likelihood of any other retailers taking them. Businesses that had invested in these centres, and which were highly indebted to the banks, started to stagger financially.

According to the Retail Gazette, around 70 shopping centres in Britain are likely to close permanently soon. What will happen to their sites is debateable; the possibility of other retail organisations taking them over is small. Perhaps Amazon, or other online giants, will take over the land they sit on for even more 'fulfillment centres'; but whatever happens to them the onward march of retail shopping looks unstoppable.

Is this a good or a bad thing?

More delivery vans on our roads means fewer people going to the shops so overall the amount of vehicle exhaust pollution, helped by electric cars becoming more widely used, should diminish. Our shopping, however, will become more concentrated in the hands of a smaller number of huge companies, with all the dangers that a lack of competition may bring.

Also, job opportunities will again be in the hands of these big companies. Have you seen number of drops that delivery drivers have to make to earn a decent living?

All things must change however. It will be interesting to see what the future changes in the way we shop will be!