The death of the high-street?

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The situation is this: you’re sat at home alone in your pyjamas in the middle of the day (because you’re a student and that’s okay) and you are bored senseless. You contemplate switching the TV on for five straight hours of Breaking Bad or simply refreshing the usual website once a minute in an infinite loop for an indefinite period of time. Eventually you decide to listen to that one album that one guy recommended to you. But you don’t own it. Responsible capitalist as you are, you decide to buy it. What’s more, you fancy a stroll, so you elect to push your body to its very limits and go outside to buy it, from an actual shop staffed by real human people.

So you venture into town. The walk isn’t too long and the weather’s alright so you’re feeling pretty pleased with yourself and you’re even contemplating whistling for a second before you remember that you’re not a Disney princess. You reach the first big chain music shop and inside you go. After wading through gamers crowding round the console displays you are confronted with the usual shelves of chart-toppers plus the endless array of films and computer games you will never want or need. You negotiate your way past these and try to decipher the shop’s shelving system. It’s a good fifteen minutes of pondering and wandering before you realise they don’t have the album you wanted, only five copies of one you’ve already heard by the same band. Not discouraged, you try the other music shop in town. This time you find it, but only in special edition, with a price label that makes you feel sad inside. Now you decide to change tact. You scour the charity shops with good intentions but worse luck. Finally, you find an old copy hidden away in the one of the more discreet second-hand places. With a sense of well-earned victory, you open it up, only to find it’s a different CD entirely that’s been put in the wrong case. Then it starts raining, because life is cruel. Forget it. You go back home, take all your clothes off and order it online instead.

You (yes you, personally) are responsible for the death of the high street. How do you feel? Bad? You probably shouldn’t. You’re only doing what most of us would – putting convenience first. The news of HMV’s potential looming shutdown was met by responses ranging from disappointment to glee at the prospect of closing down sales. There are all sorts of reasons to feel a sense of sadness at this, from the immediate loss of jobs to the wider sense of impending doom as people predict the end of high street shopping in favour of the easier, warmer option of the internet. Not being a particularly economy-savvy individual, I am in no place to say how these gradual changes might affect jobs and sales in the entirety of the Western world. I can, however, make one or two reassuring predictions regarding the sense of gloom and scavenger’s guilt accompanying the news.

Firstly, I’m relatively sure that it will be a long while yet before the end of real life shopping. Yes, it might seem that most people will opt for the convenience of the internet over the aesthetic of crowds and queues. However, the fact remains that online shopping still isn’t the most convenient option for all goods. It’s all very well for goods, like music and DVDs, which you don’t really need to inspect before buying, but you can’t try on shoes on a screen, or accurately compare the exact comfort level of four different sofas with nothing but forum advice. Add all that to the fact that shopping is considered an enjoyable recreational activity by so many, and you might as well argue that all outdoor sport will die out now that we have the Nintendo Wii.

The fact that many people do genuinely enjoy shopping in town would suggest that the outdoor world might live a little while longer yet. I would like to think that it will be some time before we all transform into sun-fearing tunnel-dwellers. In theory, you could now live in a single en-suite bedroom with nothing more than a computer, ordering food and anything else you feel you need and slowly devolving into an amorphous blob that can’t lift itself out of its swivel chair. But would you really want to? People like going outside, people should go outside, and I suspect that they still will. The suspected closure of a familiar brand like HMV easily provokes an onrush of pre-emptive nostalgia, but it happens, and I’m sure we will do it. They said that TV might kill the radio, and it didn’t. Nor will the internet entirely do away with world outside of the laptop screen.

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