Today, I would like to talk about things that still keep clinging to life – even when all the smart money says they should have died years ago. But rather than making this a Buzzfeed article about elderly actors and celebs, I’d like to concentrate on retail chains. Stay with me.
If our recession has a silver lining, it is this: it gives us a great opportunity to cull those retail-chains who have “become a burden”. Companies that have failed to embrace change, learn about what that new-fangled Internet thing is all about, or who turn their noses up at loyalty cards. During the financial Good Times they managed to coast-along and ignore their failings, but thanks to recent financial panic they now reveal themselves as the coffin-dodgers they truly are.
I, for one, was surprised that Woolworth’s lasted as long as it did. For its last few years it was a store that didn’t really know what it wanted to sell. It sold a few bits in every category, but each selection was poor, and the prices uncompetitive. It was an emporium of the trivial and banal. You only ever went shopping in Woolworth’s if you were looking for something and had tried every other shop in town. Or you needed to buy a birthday present for a child you didn’t care about too much.
Woolie’s survived for so long because it was a part of British life. Disappointing, uninspiring, but it had existed as long as we could remember. Like a wheezy old Labrador; we tolerate the iffy-smell and the dribbling and the farting and the occasional follow-through because we have become so accustomed to it. But when it eventually dies … we feel an enormous sense of relief. And then we get new carpets.
So … what’s left? On today’s high-street, who needs that final trip to the vet?
Argos – I have a lot of rose-tinted affection for Argos. In my formative years, their catalogues (the “laminated book of dreams”, according to Bill Bailey) demanded regular perusal every December. When I eventually chose what I wanted for Christmas from granny, all I had to do was read the catalogue number out to her over the ‘phone. Smashing!
But that’s all changed now, hasn’t it? Amazon have pretty-much nailed that market. I can stick it all on a Wishlist, and with a single click, relatives can pay for it, get it wrapped and sent straight to me. No fighting into town to buy it. No fighting for a parking space. No fighting with wrapping paper and sticky tape. None of this wrap-it-in-the-plastic-bag-it-came-in. None of this “if you don’t like it you can return it”. The first time a relative sees the present they have bought for me is when they come to visit after dinner on Boxing Day.
I had cause to go into Argos last month – first time in well over a decade. I think some well-meaning bastard had given us a voucher.
Oh dearie dearie me. When did it change from Willy Wonka’s many-packaged-wonders into Chav-Hell? It’s where job-seekers go to die. They just sit on those crap benches, stare at the TVs and wait for their number to come up – and that’s a sure-fire metaphor, if ever I saw one. Troglodytes from the back room bring Boxes of Doom to be collected by the tracksuited-undead.
When Argos kicks the bucket, the only thing I shall miss is my hitherto-reliable supply of free pens. I predict my future of Home Stationery Scrumping lies at Ikea.
I note with interest that most things I buy on eBay can now be delivered to my nearest Argos for collection. Presumably someone in Argos management has realised that with their massive network of stores and distribution, they might as well try turning themselves into the next Post Office. Which might work, because the Post Office seems to be turning itself into the new Woolworth’s. It’s easier to buy crap toys in my local Post Office than a stamp. And as all the junk Argos sells is stuff I buy cheaper online anyway, they might as well just rename themselves to eBay-2-U and be done with it.
PC World/Currys/Dixons – Now, I visit PC World regularly. But I never ever buy anything from them. Ever. I go in, have a look at some TVs or iPads, shriek “HOW MUCH?” like Ronnie Barker in Open All Hours, note down which one I like … and then buy it online. I might not even go home to do that – I might just do it right there, on my mobile. Then I might grab an assistant and say “you’ll never believe this! I just found this same telly 300 quid cheaper, just by using Google!”. And he will sigh and slink off for his fag break.
Seriously … how do they make any money? I’m guessing that for the last decade they have enjoyed taking money from those last few UK luddites who are too Internet-agnostic to have checked online prices. The profit from those relatively few people just about covering running huge warehouse-sized stores and employing school dropouts to lie about how easy it is to setup Wifi. But surely that profit is minimal? Surely the recession has encouraged those few left to try that Internet thing that they’ve been hearing about?
Marks and Spencer’s – What do M&S have over their competitors? Why shop there rather than anywhere cheaper? The difference is simple: sexier packaging. That’s all. It’s all just gloss. They are the masters of smoke and mirrors. They are the Apple of the supermarket world.
If you want to study the power of clever packaging, just look at the sweets they sell at the tills. A bag of powdery-milk-duds at M&S is five times the price of Wilko’s. Just by using an elegant font, they disable the part of your brain responsible for rationality and you buy it anyway. How on earth do they manage to design a box that makes you think “wow, a fiver for three Walnut Whips – what a bargain!”?
Take away the “this isn’t just any leather gear – this is S&M leather gear” adverts. Take away the pictures of frilly tits on the walls. Take away the pretentious upper-middle-class prestige of Being Seen At M&S. What’s left? Just a branch of Aldi that has hiked its prices by 500%, and a bizarre notion that we would want to pay extra for pre-peeled carrots.
The women who work in M&S always seem to be more attractive than at Aldi. Though that might also be down to packaging.
It won’t be long before the bubble of marketing-bullshit bursts. Then, like those onlookers at the emperor’s new-clothing parade, the nation will realise it has been conned. And then it’ll go to Aldi, and pick biscuits fresh – direct off the pallet, for that authentic “living in a warzone” shopping experience.
Any department store – These are only frequented by three sorts of people: the elderly, those shopping for the elderly, and people who like to pretend they’re in an episode of “Are You Being Served?”. That effeminate gentleman in the hosiery department is just this close to snapping, after people saying “Are you free, Mr Humphries?” to him in a camp manner every day for the last twenty years. Probably best if you stop doing that. No-one wants to see a middle-aged poof sobbing into his extensive range of women’s silk foundations.
I do occasionally watch “Are You Being Served?”. It’s one of my guilty pleasures, particularly when my wife has hidden my ‘Allo ‘Allo boxsets. But I suspect that I am in the minority – there would not be enough demand for a Department-Store Themepark. But for anyone that knows better; I reckon you could snap-up a department store or two (plus staff) for an absolute bargain. Just tell them to stop trying to sell anything, and instead spend all their time talking loudly about getting home before their pussy gets hungry.
So there we have it: just a few companies that must either die quietly, or adapt to survive.
And changing what your company does may be no bad thing. After all: Nintendo started life selling hand-made playing cards. Cadbury’s originally sold tea, coffee and drinking chocolate for 40 years, but then changed to confectionery just as they were about to die. And Jess Ennis (Britain’s most famous mortgage saleswoman) used to be a famous athlete!