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High street hassle for Nigel Hastilow

By Nigel Hastilow | In-depth | Published:

I made the mistake of buying a Christmas present at an Apple store the other day.

I knew what I wanted – an iPad for the Domestic Goddess (I shall hide today’s paper, it’s a surprise) – so I mistakenly believed I could just walk in, purchase it and leave.

But no. The store employs lots of people who are happy to explain all the whizzy technicalities but won’t actually sell you anything.

I asked why an iPad was cheaper than an iPad mini even though it’s bigger. I got some long, complicated answer and my eyes started to glaze over.

In the end, we decided what I wanted in the first place was what I actually wanted.

But would the red-bearded assistant hand it over, take my money and send me on my way?

Of course not.

I had to go downstairs and queue to talk to another assistant who summoned another colleague to find me an iPad from some backroom store.

Eventually I was allowed to leave with the toy in question, but it would have been so much easier to buy the thing online.

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More to the point, if I trusted a Chinese website to deliver it before Christmas, I could have saved myself £49. And I found the iPad £20 cheaper on the John Lewis website.

That’s without taking into account my £7.50 car park charge, which is a lot more than free postage to my home.

All this helps to explain why going to the shops to buy things is becoming less popular.

Despite the ‘Black Friday’ frenzy, High Street sales fell 1.3 per cent in November following the worst October on record.

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Some of this may be explained by a lack of consumer confidence, fears over Brexit and so on.

Mostly, though, it’s because shopping online is just easier, cheaper and quicker.

Local councils don’t help.

They see their high streets full of zero-rate charity shops or simply boarded up yet they continue to persecute shoppers by making it costly and difficult to use a car. The RAC Foundation says car park profits reached a record £819 million last year –Wolverhampton alone raked in £1.8m, Shropshire £2.6m, even Wychavon took £1.7m.

Interestingly, one of the few councils that didn’t make a profit was Telford and the Wrekin, which lost £7,000.

How, you might wonder, is that possible?

The answer is the council has a deliberate policy of not charging in local centres ‘to protect their economic vitality’.

Unbelievable. A local authority with the good sense to realise parking fees deter shoppers, add to the burden on hard-pressed shop-owners and eventually lead to closures.

In other words, they realise parking charges are a short-sighted, short-term cash-cow which help to kill off the high street as we used to know it.

About a quarter of the shops in the Black Country now stand empty and for every new one that opens, two close.

That’s not just because of parking charges, but they don’t help.

It may be local authorities and their voters are happy to watch the slow death of the high street.

Apart from anything else, all those empty buildings could easily and efficiently be turned into homes for people.

It’s estimated up to 400,000 homes could be created from unwanted shops which would at least reduce the Government’s need to concrete over the countryside while breathing new life into many run-down districts.

Meanwhile, the internet shopping revolution won’t stop any time soon.

According to a report by accountants PwC, 56 per cent of people now shop at Amazon and 70 per cent of us research online before we make any significant purchase.

It seems more than a third of us now use our mobile phones to buy things.

To be fair to bricks-and-mortar shops, the majority of our spending is still done in the time-honoured fashion.

Proper shopping is more sociable.

You can see, hear, smell, touch and taste what you’re buying. You can try on clothes without the faff of ordering three sizes and colours online and sending the whole lot back.

The internet accounts for only 15 per cent of all sales – but according to the Centre for Retail Research it will be 21.5 per cent by the end of the decade, 164 major shop chains will go bust and 41 per cent of town centres will lose 27,638 stores over the next five years.

In the next week or so it won’t make much sense to shop online because, with every passing day, the chances of our purchases arriving in time for Christmas grow more remote.

Local authorities will be rubbing their hands with glee at all the parking money they’ll rake in.

But it’s a short-term bonus which won’t make up for a long-term decline.

And when she gets her new iPad I dread to think how much the Domestic Goddess will contribute to the retail revolution.

Nigel Hastilow

By Nigel Hastilow

Express & Star columnist

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