I feel an affinity with the House of Fraser retail group. For many years my parents’ phone number differed by only one digit from the dying retail behemoth that was the Army & Navy stores in London’s Victoria Street, a venerable House of Fraser subsidiary now consigned to business history.
“Is that haberdashery?” the querulous callers would ask my irascible Dad. There was never anyone in there — I signed up for a store card out of a bizarre sense of loyalty.
Now sadly for the thousands of workers whose jobs are at risk, and for the town centres facing a bleak, boarded-up future, House of Fraser itself is in retreat — even its flagship Oxford Street store is to close. The chief executive called the decision “highly emotional”.
It constitutes one episode in a wider tragedy. With store closures looming at Marks and Spencer, Mothercare, New Look and other brands, British shoppers feel as if we are at the bedside of a dying friend: the high street at the heart of our towns and cities. Because, at its best, shopping offers collective joy. Splurging in a bricks-and-mortar shop is a way to experience what the psychologists call participation mystique. A good friend calls it “buying into life”.
The Conservative peer Daniel Finkelstein spoke last week of the value his refugee parents attached to their trips to London’s Brent Cross shopping centre. For those who had been through every horror that Europe could visit on a Jewish family, he said, consumerism was not a vice but a taste of their new life in a free and prosperous country.
It is the capitalist dream made quotidian and accessible — any of us, greedily cruising the racks at Primark or rummaging through the bins at Poundworld, can taste the abundance once available only to the rich.
The cornucopia is best described by F Scott Fitzgerald in his novel Tender is the Night. The heiress Nicole Diver takes her ingénue acquaintance shopping in Paris. They tick off “a great list that ran to two pages”, picking up putative presents for no fixed recipient, and more besides: “coloured beads, folding beach cushions, artificial flowers, honey, a guest bed, bags, scarfs, love birds, miniatures for a doll’s house and three yards of some new cloth the colour of prawns . . . a dozen bathing suits, a rubber alligator, a travelling chess set of gold and ivory”. The “feverish bloom” that the binge shopping brings to Nicole’s face is enabled by the machinery of global trade: “the whole system swayed and thundered onward”, as Fitzgerald puts it.
It is dizzying prose for what can be an intoxicating experience, as I know to my cost. A quick dash into M&S for a ham sandwich once drew me into a dreamlike four-hour marathon in the aisles of the Marble Arch superstore. I emerged with two pairs of shoes, a suit and some terrible swimwear that Nicole would never have stooped to. And I forgot the sandwich.
You can have similar blowouts online of course — and that is the significant trend. According to Boohoo.com, the online fast fashion site, young people bought 52 per cent more clothes, without looking at them in the mirror first, in the three months to May 31. But where is the rapture?
It cannot be an accident that the decluttering gurus are having their moment with older shoppers at the time that retail migrates online. Ikea’s senior management were the first to acknowledge the possibility of “ peak stuff” — the idea that we can’t fit any more of their products into the house. But two years after that supposed gaffe, the environmental impact and effect on underpaid factory workers can make us queasy. As I once overheard a teenager confide to her friend: “I love this top. But I do feel bad because of the slaves.”
These days I am a spent force, devoting (almost) as much time to flogging things online or putting them on freecycle as I do to sneaking in a new purchase. And the advantage of an unfashionable postcode is that people will happily make off with what you put out on the pavement.
But our waning appetite to hunt down more stuff in stores means other retailers will join Army & Navy as footnotes to someone else’s story of high street decline — as quaint as a haberdashery department. We will all be the poorer for abandoning our collective spaces to the betting shops and the tumbleweed.