The changing face of shopping


A memory of childhood – walking along the main street  in the centre of town where I’d pass  MacFisheries the fish shop, Liptons, The Co-op and Timothy Whites the chemist. And a wonderful selection of independent stores: Spencer’s for records, Fairests the toy shop, Biggs the greengrocers, Pophams for Ladybird children’s wear (oh, those awful plaid dresses – every year, every colour. Heavens was I glad to get a Saturday job and a sewing machine!) and Hollingtons department store – the ‘poshest’ shop in town.  If you went in there with your pocket money to buy a pretty handkerchief for your mother’s birthday, a lady, smartly dressed in black and wearing pearls would, with the greatest of care,  wrap your precious purchase in tissue paper and pop it in a little white paper bag. In those days a shopping list could necessitate visiting a dozen shops. There is a certain fondness in that memory but the reality is that I don’t have time (nor the inclination) to shop like that today – in and out of a dozen different shops.

In the early 1970s the shops were cleared for the building of an indoor shopping centre. It seemed very sophisticated! For some reason (I’m not sure that anyone ever discovered why) it was home to several palm trees – somewhat exotic for a manufacturing town in the Midlands. The independents all but disappeared as a proliferation of chain-stores moved in . But now, several decades on, we’re even losing those. Our town centre is dying. Since M&S left last year, Thorntons (the chocolate shop) has closed and the shutters are down on several other ‘units’ as they are now referred to.  Anything new which does open is yet another ‘bargain shop’ selling clothes, cards or bric-a-brac. Various of them sell a small selection of foodstuffs – mostly carbohydrate snacks or tinned foods, often brands which one never sees in the mainstream supermarkets and there is no ‘proper’ food store. There are a number of chain coffee shops and we still have Debenhams but it’s a poor relation to the branches in some other towns, and rumours abound that it too survives on borrowed time. If the number of people whom I ever see in there is indicative of its future, I’d say that those rumours are not far off the mark.

Of course, our situation is not unique; it is replicated in towns across the country and we are are all responsible for the high street demise. We buy online, we buy in the ‘one stop shop’ super-large supermarkets, and we travel to out of town shopping parks to the, larger, better stocked branches of the multiples. We still have what was once the jewel in the town’s crown – an independent shoe shop which was once undoubtedly upmarket  but today, although it still sells some classy, expensive brands, in order to find them you have to fight your way through a multitude of sale racks filled with the leftovers of several seasons and over-full display stands of cheap shoes. I  just can’t be bothered.  There’s a reasonable sized Next but it stocks nowhere near the choice held by those branches on the big retail parks, and when I saw a tunic I liked on a poster in the window of Roman, I was told that it was only available on line. So, the town centre that I once patronised at least once a week,  I now rarely visit more than once a month, and then only because I need to go to the bank and building society.

It’s not just the shoppers deserting the towns who are at fault; parking costs are often high which is off-putting, and the shop rents and business rates are exorbitant. Businesses just cannot sustain those costs when is so much competition for their wares. What chance an independent children’s clothier when the supermarkets sell such a large range and for much lower prices. It’s all very well to talk about them not being British made and exploitation in third world sweatshops (actually, it’s not well at all, but you know what I’m saying here), but try telling that to the hard-up parent worrying about the cost of school uniform for three children.  It’s not just clothing; I was looking for a solid wooden chopping board for a present and chose a very weighty rubberwood one from Asda costing £10: no rough edges, perfectly smooth surface and great value. It wouldn’t match the quality of the Divermenti oak, ash or maple ones costing between £40 and £70 but I couldn’t have afforded (or justified) that anyway. The quality of supermarket wares gets better and better and the convenience of being able to buy thick fluffy towels or a new kettle at the same time as a bag of frozen peas is not an unattractive proposition for someone with little time.

So what is the answer to the ghost-town centres, some in a far worse state than ours. How do we answer those who call for regeneration? Instead of trying to hang onto the past perhaps it’s time to accept that what was the norm fifty years ago is no longer. Here’s my radical solution: turn them into homes. Convert empty shops into living accommodation. It’s a lot less expensive than buying land and building from scratch, and perhaps putting people among the shops will ignite a renewed enthusiasm for local shopping – no travel, no parking costs – just open your front door and there you are. Maybe not what families want, but try asking those who have no home. I’ll bet they’d jump at the chance.







  1. My memories of shopping in the 1950s are wonderful ones, with lovely department stores, clothes and shoe shops (and for all purses) and the new TV shops selling the latest sets in wood cabinets!
    But times have changed and shopping has changed. I don’t think people would want to spend the time and energy going from shop to shop these days, every week, for their food – the butcher, the baker, the fishmonger, the grocer, not to mention another shop for chocolates, another for greetings cards, then the pharmacy and perhaps an off licence for a bottle of Cyprus sherry! Who remembers the ghastly Emva cream! A lot of things are actually better today, and going from shop to shop, perhaps from boutique to boutique, would be a novelty we might enjoy once or twice a year, but not for our everyday needs.
    High street have changed, towns have changed, but sadly not always for the better. Indeed, I can’t think of anywhere that I’ve visited which is better than it used to be when it comes to the shops, only perhaps Totnes, which is a special case, with few empty shops.
    Perhaps turning empty shops into accommodation might be the way forward, but I think a collection empty shops together would be needed in order to make this viable. I’m sure a lot of us would welcome the day when all the betting shops, the tattoo parlours, the estate agents, and even some of the charity shops moved out and proper shops selling things we needed (and at a price we could afford) moved back in.
    The 1950s, even though we were still struggling in the aftermath of World War Two, was a golden age for the department stores. I have very fond memories of them and of the cosmetics and perfumery counters and yes, even the children’s departments! And who remembers those lovely record shops, when we could listen before we bought, the records being piped into a little booth where we stood and put on headphones! Burtons the Tailors (or Montagu Burton as it was originally) Timothy Whites & Taylors, Home & Colonial, International Stores, David Greggs, McFisheries, Hepworths, Woolworths, British Home Stores, Littlewoods, Richard Shops … all now gone, How glad I am to have lived when they were pillars of the high street. Even former banks in Torquay are now wine bars or branches of Prezzo!
    Margaret P


    • I like shopping as a leisure activity, wandering around a pretty seaside or market town, but for day to day needs don’t have the time to go to every shop. Lifestyles change and our shopping habits follow. Emva cream- I’d forgotten its existence but remember it being in the cupboard at my grandparent’s house but we had Tio Pepe at home. Nowadays the only sherry I get is a sweetish one for a trifle. Shopping with my mother in a store where the money was sent along a wire in a container is another memory. How quaint that now seems. Yes, lots of banks seem to have become eateries or bars.


      • Try port in trifle, I think its nicer than sherry and you can then drink the rest of it as a port&lemon! Port a nice aperitif over ice, too, as is a dessert wine.
        Margaret P


  2. Shops and shopping malls are closing, here, too, due to online shopping. I suppose it is the present day equivalent of mail order shopping, which people used to do. I generally don’t shop online, but, I did order some quilt batting online, to be picked up at the store, one time.


    • I shop on line quite a lot as it is often less expensive. There are often discount codes available. Added to this, the choice in the shops is dwindling a many brands offer additional lines online.


  3. Our town centre is like that too. Loads of charity shops, fast food and coffee shops. No butchers or greengrocers so we have to go into the supermarkets for meat and veg so as you said easy to pick anything else up at the same time. We did have a great market when we moved here 31 years ago but now there is just a couple of stalls and the fruit and veg is not as good quality as the supermarket. I can walk to the town centre but I have to drive to the retail parks and there is no bus service to them. I like to see what I am buying but end up buying on line.


    • We had a brilliant market too. Then the council moved it and it deteriorated. They moved it again but by then many of the stall holders had given up. Oh yes, I forgot to mention the charity shops – we’ve lots of those too.


  4. I recently lived in a location where town centre shops were being converted to housing. There was a subtle irony though in that there were no longer any shops left in the town centre to buy food and so residents had to get out to the trading estates for the big supermarkets. As the buses weren’t that convenient – cars were still required.


    • I suppose if there were enough residents then a few small food shops might open up. But perhaps it’s too late. Our shopping habits have changed and I’m not sure they would change back. Buses aren’t really very convenient when carrying enough shopping for a family. I’m really not sure what the answer is.


  5. There are quite a few buildings converting to flats in Leeds city centre, but I think there should be more. You also get ‘food deserts’ in some towns and cities (or the ‘new towns’ attached to villages) where you have to travel some distance to find a shop that sells proper food, even a corner shop, which makes life so much harder for those on a low income. Things need to change, but I don’t know how.


    • That’s pretty much how it is here too. It would be difficult to buy the foods needed without going out of town to the supermarkets. There isn’t one in the town centre.


  6. It is so sad to see the High Street in such decline but, as you say, with the increase of online shopping and the choice available it is not difficult to see why. In our local town, I have often struggled to find what I needed. One of my latest purchases was a new school coat for Lily. We went to the store and tried one on for size and she decided she would like a purple one which, unfortunately, they didn’t have in stock. I asked if they could order one in for me but I was told to just go online and order it myself. It’s hardly surprising that many High Streets are now being taken over by coffee houses and charity shops. X


    • The story of Lily’s coat sums up the difficulty of finding what we want without going online. It’s a catch 22 siruation. We’re all responsible, but often there is no alternative. So often I just can’t get what I want in the shops.


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