The retailers’ tale

Well I went to the mall on Sunday and bought a disposable fountain pen for £3.20. Big deal. Getting to the mall and back by car cost used £5-worth of petrol* . Then there was the £6.50 two coffees and a slice of shortbread, plus about £40 on a tin of paint, a light fitting, some sandpaper, and a notepad and birthday card for a friend’s daughter.

So a bit under sixty quid in a three-hour sojourn at the coalface of consumerism. Not a great economic return on the £20 million-worth of cars gathered around it, plus whatever it costs to keep the place running seven days a week. Although by recent standards, the mall was decently decked-out with people, you couldn’t always call them ‘shoppers’ since there seemed to be many more of them in the thoroughfares and coffee bars than in the shops.

At least a dozen units, including some anchor locations, were closed. My wife said she’d only counted six shuttered units a couple of weeks ago. The mall operators had got round to boarding-up about half the closed units. Printed across the hoardings were slightly larger-than-life images of artfully minimalist shop window displays. They showed frocks, shoes and handbags in oddly muted colours – as if apologising for drawing attention to the two-dimensionality of retail gratification.

Several of the stores had closed in the past few days. Monsoon and East had evidently decided they had too many outlets for today’s demand for massively marked-up garments imported from the low-wage countries, as somewhat cynically evoked by their brand names. Stripped of stock, fittings and twinkly display lighting, the vacated units looked cramped and ugly. But the gods of retailing abhor dark spaces far more than ugliness so each empty space was bathed in a wan glow seeping from a few basic light fittings.

Notices taped to windows still streaked with dust left by the removal men varied from brashly informative, poster-sized placards – “You can still visit us at Canary Wharf!” (just 120 miles away) – to shamefaced bits of A4, apparently knocked out on the stockroom inkjet moments before it was hauled off to head office. Few people looked at the notices, let alone past them to the stripped-out interiors. Who wants to see the dreary concrete and steel carapaces encasing the brightly lit fantasy of each carefully-differentiated fashion brand? Who wants to see the cheap sameness of production, margins, distribution, positioning, promotion and ‘loyalty-building’ laid bare by the pitiless emptiness behind dirty plate glass?

In any case, what good are repeat customers if they’re too broke to take advantage of the volume-related discounts that masquerade as loyalty? We are in a deflationary depression. Hardly any of the expanding supply of funny money from central banks is finding its way into people’s pockets. With every passing year, more people are corralled into shopping for necessities alone. Fewer and fewer have spare cash to shop at Karen Millen and Cecil Gee, even though they still have the inclination to do so.

Ironically, the primary reason for the death of the retailers in the mall on the hill was scattered thickly across its windswept car parks. Without cars, the out-of-town retail park wouldn’t exist. But with cars, the customers can’t afford to buy the goods. Cars are a commitment to waste. Day in and day out they cost the average owner £14 in fuel, bills and depreciation. Cars spend 95% of their time doing precisely nothing. That’s 13.30 a day, £93 per week, £4,840 a year to do nothing apart from suck up money.

But unless people maintain their financial commitment to personal mobility, going to the mall would be half the fun for twice the price. Going there by train and bus instead of by car would have taken us twice as long and cost about twice as much as the roughly 45p per mile it costs to run the car. The bottom line is the mall’s future is tightly tied to the future of cars-first transportation. In a future where cars-first transportation probably won’t exist, there will be no rationale for places like the mall.

Significantly, several of the outlets that have recently abandoned the out-of-town mall have moved to units at its new town-centre rival. That place doesn’t have ‘easy surface parking’ or a major motorway running right past it but it’s slap bang in the heart of the city, surrounded by hundreds of thousands of people who could … at a pinch … put a couple of thousand quid of shopping money in their pockets each year by chucking-in car ownership.

That’s a calculation more people are starting to make. And of course, if fewer people drive in cities, the cities become more liveable. Then moving retail … or what’s left of it …to the centre makes more sense. Unfortunately, the economy is so utterly geared to driving that moving away from a cars-first lifestyle will cause a long period of stagnation punctuated by brief upticks and occasional crashes. But the end of affordable oil has baked that scenario into the cake anyway.

The spiral is self-reinforcing. Less driving = less money. Less money = less retailing. Less retailing = less money (in a so-called ‘consumer’ economy). Less money = less retailing. Rinse and repeat. Until or unless energy starts getting cheaper again (and there is no reason why the fossil energy that powers 90% of global industrial civilisation will get any cheaper), that process will inexorably accelerate.

For a while to come, places like the mall will be able to mask the decline with dressy pictures of dressed-up windows that disguise the gaps in their pearly smiles. But eventually the point will come when someone has to weigh up the costs of constructing a really good public transport link out to the fringe mall (say a tramway) against the obvious and far cheaper expedient of moving the flagship retailers back to where the people already are – which of course would be the end of the out-of-town retail park.

Me? Well apart from a bottle of perfume my wife chose as a present to herself from her mother there was nothing we couldn’t have bought online, or in our nearest town. We went because we still have a modest amount of time, money and fuel to waste. When we don’t we won’t. And that will be another tick on the countdown to the end of car-dependent retailing.

* £5 is what it cost to buy it. Arguably such a fantastic store of lightweight, transportable energy is worth much more than a fiver

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