HUDDERSFIELD: Christmas may be a distant memory, but retailers will not forget it so quickly: it was the worst on the UK main street since 2008. Marks & Spencer (M & S) and Debenhams posted a decline in sales from retailer Halfords and discount store B & M also had difficulties.
Even the biggest Christmas market, John Lewis, predicts a profit jump after discounting in order to keep up with the competition.
Put simply, British high street is just a horror story. Debenhams, founded in 1778, saw its share price fall by more than 90 percent last year. HMV has gone into administration for the second time in six years and is looking for a buyer.
M & S closes 100 branches. The latest tranche has just been announced. An estimated 93,000 UK retail jobs were lost in 2018, and 2019 could be worse.
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Economic stagnation, unfair online competition and global warming are called malaise – and certainly not for the first time.
Fears of Brexit, for example, are intended to dampen the economy. The British brand Superdry attributed the poor autumn results to an unusually warm weather, which reduced the demand for jackets. And it has not gone unnoticed that Amazon's tax bill for British companies for 2018 was significantly lower than that of smaller high street rivals.
Although online sales in 2018 have indeed also had problems, bad business practice must also contribute to the bigger issues.
Many retailers are overburdened with debt, focus on cost reductions rather than reinvestment, have bad relationships with stakeholders, or simply have no vision. To give just one example, WHSmith landed at the end of a 2018 survey of British buyers through a consumer magazine that was criticized for its overpriced and outdated shops. The latest results will be due later in the month.
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However, there is another important culprit that is mostly overlooked. It's the one that puts traditional retailing at greatest risk over the long term – more than Brexit or even Amazon.
Consumption is likely on the downside, with millennials leading the shift, not just in the UK, but in many of the world's other leading economies.
CHANGE OF CONSUMER HABITS
Consumer studies scientists have been changing their habits for several years.
This involves an increased ambivalence towards consumption itself: people buy less and less overall. This is especially true for the apparel industry, where the research shows that millenials are particularly unfavorable – even after considering switching to online commerce.
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The lack of bricks and mortar, for example, did not prevent the online fashion retailer Asos to shock the city with a profit warning shortly before Christmas.
The American auto industry is another harbinger of generational change: sales are stalling because younger people are less interested in property.
The average age of a new car buyer in the US in 2015 was 50 years. Another example is Apple's recent trade problem. People not only opt for cheaper smartphones, they also keep them longer.
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If the first company in the world that has passed the trillion dollar mark shows signs of difficulty, we should take note of this.
Part of this shift in consumption can be ideological. Researchers have suggested that environmental concerns are forcing some people to consume less.
Probably also economic drivers are involved. For example, since the financial crash of 2008, alternative consumption communities have emerged.
They are collaborative and self-sufficient. Doing things among each other instead of shopping from the outside. The rise of the exchange movement is a good example.
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But in the process, we see that our way of life has moved away from the consumption model that dominated capitalist post-war economies. The purchase of more and more things as a source of identity and meaning seems to be gradually but consistently out of favor.
Instead, people are increasingly interested in experiences. The priority is to collect and share memories – interact with other people and places, attend events, do adventures, and so on. We could talk about the era of the post consumer.
To meet this new ethos, it has been said repeatedly that the future of the main road is to provide experience. For years, retailers have been trying to integrate new, interactive and surprising experiences into their offerings.
The success stories include the bath bomb and political dealer Lush; or the revitalized bookseller Waterstones, who promotes books in the store with large murals and thematic events.
However, experience-based marketing is not a panacea. The casual dining sector, once held in response to the troubles of troubled shopping malls, itself had a difficult 2018 year.
The problem with selling experiences is that it's easier for someone to create them yourself. We buy things because they are practical or we do not have the skills to make them. But some of the best experiences, such as a walk or meeting with a friend, are free.
In short, there is not necessarily a simple answer to this long-term decline. We are talking about growing dissatisfaction with the idea that passive consumption means happiness. The reasons are certainly diverse and complex, but as consumption increases, we need to think about how to respond.
The retailers who survive will be the ones who really understand what's going on. The answer is probably to offer objects, services and experiences that feel real and enriching.
In many cases, it's about building a long-term relationship that is no longer selling items, and perhaps providing a space where people can make sense of themselves – the French beauty chain Sephora looks like a pioneer here, the very casual is try-before-you-buy approach to retail.
However, whether such initiatives can support economic growth is another matter. Consumption has been the heart of Western economies for generations; If it can not be revived, it raises profound questions about how society will function in the future.
Brendan Canavan is a lecturer in marketing at the University of Huddersfield. This comment first appeared on The Conversation. Read it here.