For about as long as I can remember, people have been mourning the 'death of the high street', citing the evils of big Wal-Mart style superstores and, more recently, Amazon, and blaming their presence, buying power and elevated level of convenience for driving out the 'little guys' and hastening our demise by homogeny, often while walking around a superstore pushing a shopping trolley full of more stuff than one family could ever really need.
This has never really worried me.
Possibly you can sense a little sarcasm in the first paragraph and possibly some is meant. However, the second paragraph is straight-up, non-sarky truth, which is surprising, because on the face of it, this is something that should worry me. I'm usually a staunch defender of the little guy, and there's nothing I like more than personalized shopping experiences that make me feel special. Remember, though, that for the last six years, I've been living abroad in cities that are not exactly big box store friendly, and for most of the time before that, I was a kid/teenager who would have shopped anywhere, provided they sold toys/mildly-trashy clothing. There was a time at uni when I shirked the mainstream by going to an independent record store to buy my CDs, but my main feelings about that are that I could have saved $10 a pop by swallowing my pride and paying a visit to The Warehouse (NZ's version of Wal-Mart).
So really, this has never been an issue for me because, without trying to sound elitist, I've been visiting local retailers and overpaying for basic stuff for years (right, D'Agostinos on 3rd Avenue?) For me, it's just the price of convenience. In recent months, however, a couple of things have got me considering what this death may look like.
On the dead high street, you can't buy books. Not quality books, anyway - I'm sure paperback romances are still available in the superstores (and once again, this is not meant to sound as snobbish as it does - trust me, I read some crap sometimes). But if it happens to be two days before Christmas, say, and you suddenly decide you want to buy someone a book, and it's too late to order it from Amazon, and you work in Midtown Manhattan and every second of the next two days is scheduled with five seconds worth of work, where do you go?
The answer is you don't. This happened to me, and I just flagged the idea completely and thought of another gift, because the closest bookstore I know of is in the high '50s, and it just wasn't going to be possible to get there. There used to be a Borders right by where I live, but it closed down last year when Borders went under, and, well, that was that. It's empty now. And I have never worried about it before, despite having loved reading since the moment I could, because I have a Kindle and there's Amazon and most of the time these days I don't have time for books anyway - constantly staying on top of the news cycle keeps my eyes occupied enough. But when you need a bookstore, you need a bookstore, and that's hard when there aren't any.
The second incident happened just this morning, as I woke up by checking Twitter from my phone in bed (news cycle, see?) A tweet from Concrete Playground linked to their article about international brands they'd like to see in New Zealand. I clicked through, curious about what they wanted, and read with a growing sense of consternation.
Shake Shack? In-n-Out? Sure, they do good burgers - but I'm pretty sure I miss Burger Fuel more now than I'll miss either of those two if I ever return permanently to NZ. Pinkberry? Okay, it's awesome, but Mint Trumpets are more awesome. H&M? Asos? Huh?
Some of my reaction might be because of where I am right now (mentally and physically). A loyal Kiwi living in New York probably is going to consider the New Zealand foodstuffs she misses vastly superior to those she can get any day (although In-n-Out is still West Coast only - and insider tip, there are a couple of way better inexpensive burger places in the Bay Area). But some of it is completely justified, no matter who you are or where you are. H&M have a massive following for a reason, but hit a certain age and you quickly realize that it's a polyester filled hellhole*. And Asos? Asos don't even have stores - they're online only, and yes, excellent - but online. They're already in New Zealand. Because the internet is global. For that matter, I'm pretty sure you can buy H&M clothes online, and if you can't yet, it can't be far away.
I want Auckland to be different from New York, and I want New York to be different from London, and I want London to be different from Stockholm - and to date, I have mostly got my wish. You can certainly go to bits of each city that, according to the shopfronts, are the same, but you can also easily avoid that. But if we ask for all the things we enjoy about other cities to be available to us every day, we'll stop enjoying them, in other cities and our own. And that's the second factor that will help create our dead high street - even if the shops are there, we won't care, because we can see those shops anywhere, and we can probably get it cheaper online anyway.
All of this should not be read as a rant against globalization, or the internet - I actually think both are good things (very good things, when it comes to such sites as Net-a-Porter). But I think there is an in-between, where online gives us access to the world's best (and H&M if you must) and our high streets give us access to our own best, and I think we need to make a concerted effort to develop and maintain that, all playing our part - even if it means sometimes paying $10 more for a
CD DVD book - to prevent the death.
*Full disclosure: All my tights come from H&M, but to be fair, more often than not you want them to be composed of manmade fabric.