Monday 23 September 2019

Lorraine Courtney: 'We'll lose more than just shops if we let the high street die'

'We should all resist the urge to shop on our laptops, and instead put on sensible shoes and battle the crowds.' Photo: Doug O'Connor
'We should all resist the urge to shop on our laptops, and instead put on sensible shoes and battle the crowds.' Photo: Doug O'Connor
Lorraine Courtney

Lorraine Courtney

I'd gone into Dublin to buy presents and soak up the Christmas cheer. I went home exhausted. Whatever happened to the soothing balm of retail therapy? Shopping online, that's what happened.

Christmas on the high street is constantly panting to keep up with the cyber-shopping model. When you throw in expensive and elusive parking by city councils, it's small wonder.

My brain tells me online is often the way to go, my heart tells me otherwise. Whether I'm shopping for groceries or shopping for Christmas presents, it's always a better experience when you go into actual shops and interact with other humans. We are social creatures, after all.

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Most of us feel at least slightly guilty when we see the real-world effects of our online shopping. We flinch with regret when we look at high street shop fronts lying empty, but the high street also needs to up its game if it wants to see off the challenge of dying one click at a time.

Retail Ireland recently published its Christmas Retail Monitor 2018. It predicts Irish households will spend an average of €2,690 in shops this December, approximately €866 more than any other month of this year and 3pc more than Christmas last year.

But, with a greater number of Irish shoppers now choosing to shop on foreign websites, local retailers might find they are not benefiting from all of these sales.

Central Bank statistics reveal the total e-commerce spend is likely to exceed €16bn before the end of this year. This would represent a close to 50pc increase since 2015, highlighting the increasing number of us Irish consumers now shopping online. In fact, growth in online sales is running at 10 times that of traditional bricks-and-mortar outlets.

Of course, there are plenty of success stories on the high street. Lots of indie shops and cafés are doing a roaring trade. We need more of these - after all, you can buy a mobile phone or a fast-food meal anywhere. Profits are rising at Ikea. Though not exactly a high street shop, it is a retailer that knows its customers very well and gives them what they want.

If high streets are to survive, they need to be different. We need to have a good reason to go there. As well as the usual big retail brands, we need unique stores with interesting products that we want to hold and touch. You can't hold things on the internet. You can't feel the thing in your hand. You can't ask a real human for advice either.

Shoppers who make the effort to visit a high street want to find the clothes and shoes they need in the right size. If we can't, we go home and buy them online. There's also a lot to be said for improving the look of our high streets, like planting trees and installing outdoor seating.

Because of the internet, us consumers are far more savvy: we know where to go and how much we should be spending. The onus now is on the retailers to work harder to get our business and they are doing that. Thomas Burke, of Retail Ireland, thinks online shopping is as much an opportunity as a threat for retailers. "Irish retailers have really embraced the opportunity. They've started to step into the online space and build their own platforms there. They are investing a lot in upskilling their staff so that they are experts in their field, with very high levels of knowledge, and that is what consumers want."

If we want a high street with shop staff who understand our needs, we must use it. At a time when we are all talking about shopping more ethically, we should all resist the urge to do our Christmas shopping on our laptops, and instead put on a pair of sensible shoes and battle the crowds.

We should support our local businesses. We should keep shopping in the high street, even though we might save time if we stay at home and click. Going into town to shop is an event. In an age of dwindling social interaction, it's a lifeline for so many of us. We risk losing something more important than we realise if we let the high street die.

Irish Independent

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