November 28, 2019

Mayhem on the UK High Street

Scene on a UK High Street (photo: onflilm_iStock by getty images)
Ready for the tumbleweed?
As most UK retailers prepare for a probably not so merry Christmas and further Brexit uncertainty, German trade visitors from across the North Sea look with astonishment at the numerous store closures on the once vibrant UK High Street.

Those with any imagination, however, have no sense of schadenfreude. Although the online share of German retailing has not reached anywhere near UK levels, one doesn't exactly need a crystal ball to know in what direction things will inevitably go.

It is therefore almost an act of self-preservation on the part of German retailers to try and understand what is happening among the Anglo-Saxons.

Clearly, if we exclude the disruption caused by the relentless rise of discounters Aldi and Lidl, many shoppers are buying increasing amounts on the internet. So, without any pretension to statistical relevance, we thought we would ask some younger British consumers on the eve of Black Friday why they prefer surfing cyberspace to walking through the urban jungle...

Online caricature by Oliver Sebel (LZ 46, 15.11.19)
Competing offers in the year-end rush
It wasn't an easy task from Germany, but we eventually found two obliging interviewees from Blighty who were willing to talk about their buying habits: One a lady from Hull working as a legal secretary for local law firm Rollits, and the other a male office worker from London who, unusually in today's selfie culture, didn't want his photo shown.

Before we kick off, Richard Lim, CEO of London-based retail consultancy Retail Economics, shared some revealing statistics from a report which his company has just compiled for restructuring specialists Alvarez & Marsal.


According to Lim, average pre-tax profit at the UK's 150 top retailers has more than halved from 8.8 to 4.1 per cent since 2010 when weighted by sales. Meanwhile annual online revenues have quadrupled to around €82bn since 2008.

Fascinatingly and somewhat counter-intuitively to some of the desolation anyone can see for themselves on the High Street, the number of small stores in the UK has actually increased over the last few years. However, the gains have been made by single-family entrepreneurs at the expense of small chains.

But let us now listen to what our two respondees have to say:

"I don't always have a choice"

Nicola Hinchcliffe, Rollits (photo: private)
Nicola Hinchcliffe, 46, from Hull
Ms Hinchcliffe, how often do you shop online?
Certainly monthly, sometimes weekly.

Why don't you go to a physical store on the High Street?
Mostly it's having the time to go to an actual store. Shopping on a lunch break during working hours isn't always easy, so I tend to shop online or go out on a weekend.

Do you pick up your online orders at a particular store (click & collect) or do you have them delivered to your door?
Both – I mostly get home delivery, but certain shops do offer collection from store.

Are you likely to order more or less goods online in the future?
Probably about the same, especially as some shops have now closed down in my town.

What type of goods do you order online?
Almost everything! Food, electrical, beauty and clothing especially. I'm tall, and I cannot find tall ranges in shops.

Many small shops are closing on the High Street every year. The owners often attribute this to increasing online competition. Do you ever have a bad conscience when ordering online?
Honestly, I've never considered this. But, as I mentioned before, it's much easier to shop online due to time. It's mostly because the shops I like or prefer do not exist where I live. 

Do you believe that ordering online is more or less ecologically damaging than shopping on the High Street?
Yes, I guess it's more ecologically damaging, but I don't always have a choice.

Are you put off by shuttered stores on your local High Street, or is it still fairly vibrant and an attractive destination?
Definitely put off, there are lots of empty shops now in my town. Even two very large department stores have closed this year, which is a massive loss, as these were great to visit. Also, you miss seeing the people who worked there.

Would you say there is still any form of entertainment or social dimension to your average weekend shop or is it just a chore better done online?
I personally find weekend shopping very stressful and noisy. I would much rather go out of town to a large shopping centre or mall. Yes, this could be done by ordering online, but sometimes it's nice to visit shops.

How often do you buy at Aldi and/or Lidl, and why do you shop with them rather than at Tesco, Sainsbury's, Asda or Morrisons?

Sometimes, because the products are great at very competitive prices. But it's not always easy to get there. So I do tend to shop at the local superstore (Asda) which is very close to where I live.

Are you aware that Aldi and Lidl are big German retailers, or do you regard them as British? Have you ever thought that it was unpatriotic to shop with them, or is this not a factor you particularly care about?

Yes, I am aware of this, they're great. And, no, I've never felt it's unpatriotic as a lot of what you get in a normal supermarket is international anyway. I wouldn't think twice about visiting Aldi or Lidl again. In fact, I'm going there this weekend!

"No one my age likes shopping"

Anonymised male silhouette (thesomeday123,Fotolia)
John Farnham, 35, from London
Mr Farnham, how often do you shop online?
Almost daily.

Why don't you shop on the High Street?
Time pressure and greater range in one place.

Do you pick up your online orders at a particular store or do you have them delivered to your door?
Always delivered, it's more convenient.

Are you likely to order more or less goods online in the future?
More.

What type of goods do you order online?
Food and clothing.

Many small shops are closing on the High Street every year. The owners often attribute this to increasing online competition. Do you ever have a bad conscience when ordering online?
I don't like to see small shops closing down, but online is cheaper and more convenient.

Do you believe that ordering online is more or less ecologically damaging than shopping on the High Street?
More damaging because a van has to make a separate delivery for each individual.

Are you put off by shuttered stores on your local High Street, or is it still fairly vibrant and an attractive destination?
London High Streets are generally still busy with few empty shops.

Would you say there is still any form of entertainment or social dimension to your average weekend shop or is it just a chore better done online?

No one my age likes shopping, unless it's for clothes or ready meals.

How often do you buy at Aldi and/or Lidl, and why do you shop with them rather than at Tesco, Sainsbury's, Asda or Morrisons?

I never shop at Aldi and Lidl as there aren't many of their stores in inner London or near my workplace.

Are you aware that Aldi and Lidl are big German retailers, or do you regard them as British? Have you ever thought that it was unpatriotic to shop with them, or is this not a factor you particularly care about?
No one in London cares about the Britishness of the major supermarkets. Most people in my circle know that these two are German, however. This actually makes them more appealing because they are perceived as no-nonsense and efficient.


Read in German: 'Britischer LEH vor dem Strukturwandel' by Mike Dawson on page 10 of Lebensmittel Zeitung, no. 47, 22.11.2019; Also on LZnet: Paywall

German versions of both interviews are also available on request.


German Retail Blog

Sign up for your FREE newsletter now!



Comments (Write a comment)

This is an English-language blog, please write all comments in English!
Thank you.

Your e-mail address will never be published or shared. Required fields are marked with *

stats