Save the high street - bring in the fireman’s poles

9 July 2018

Did you hear the joke about the man who goes into a department store? No? Nor did I… not recently, anyway.

Not even that many women have been going into department stores recently.

Menswear departments, traditionally places of quiet contemplation for slightly desperate middle-aged men wondering if yellow really is too dangerous a colour for this decade’s new crew neck, are now so deserted that MI5 agents can meet there in cloistered seclusion, trading secrets over the elasticated waists.

Even the formerly bustling cosmetic departments, which used to be manned by over-made-up women with a grudge against humanity (“So madam, you would like a new cleanser? Hmm, I’ll mark you down for ‘extra strong’. And moisturiser? Oh dear yes, ‘emergency level’”), find customers thin on the ground. And this while the actual choice of products has boomed. Did you know there’s such a thing as Snail Repair Cream? Skin cream that includes 92% snail mucus? Yup, that’s an actual thing.

But I digress.

The fall of House of Fraser seems to be the herald of High Street Crisis 2.0. If the Are You Being Served? crowd can’t make it work, what hope for the local handbag store?

Commercial agents are still trying to find buyers for about a third of BHS’s 160 empty stores, two years after it crashed into administration, and Debenhams and M&S have depressed us further by announcing store closures.

It’s an emergency, people. Someone has to step up and do something about this or there will be nowhere for mums and daughters to choose wedding hats to rival Beatrice’s and Eugenie’s or for couples to find gravy boats for their wedding lists that they will never use or for teenagers to hone their shoplifting skills.

“The fall of House of Fraser heralds High Street Crisis 2.0”

McDonald’s has responded to high street challenges by installing screens instead of people to take your order, saying “Would you like some e-fries with that?” But do we want ever-fewer human interactions in our shopping? It’s bad enough at the supermarket checkout. “I’ll ‘unexpected item in your bagging area’, madam,” I mutter as the metal-voiced machine melts down yet again.

No, we need a more creative approach to this impending calamity than yet more automation. Here are my suggestions for hotting up the high street and beating off the robot competition once and for all:

Hide PlayStation centres and model railways in the menswear departments. Make it hard to find them, so that men have to fight their way through racks of actual clothes before getting at the man-toys. Introduce new ways to go from floor to floor. Everyone knows the fun of standing two abreast on the escalators to frustrate busy shoppers trying to get past them, but that’s old hat now. What about installing a fireman’s pole to get from homeware to the toy department? Or trampolines in the beds department so that you can bounce from there into shoes and hosiery?

Let’s have more personal shoppers. Usually you have to book months ahead for a personal shopper and once you get them they assume you have Victoria Beckham’s clothes budget. Instead, bring in specialist personal shoppers to help men buy women’s lingerie and special Christmas personal shoppers to sort out your whole list on Christmas Eve. Or experienced bargain hunters who will only pick out goods under £20 to show you.

Turn the top floors into workstation cafés. This is really just a personal plea for people like me who have ‘offices’ in cafés, hotels and even local parks. Let’s have more work hubs – like the one in Salford Quays, where you get charged by the hour to sit and use the free wi-fi and drink the free tea and coffee.

And what about installing banking hubs in stores? Sure, M&S has its own bank, but as branches get rarer than a happy face on EastEnders, make the big six banks get together and set up hubs in villages and half-deserted department stores. Maybe add a financial adviser’s office to help the over-spenders.

There’s more where those ideas came from and I bet you have a few choice ones yourself. Email me your ideas at the address below and I’ll send them (if they’re clean enough) to the powers that be. Together, maybe, we will stave off High Street Crisis 3.0, at least for the department stores. No promises, though.

JASMINE BIRTLES is a financial journalist and founder of
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