First it was death by a thousand cuts; then it was death by a million mouse clicks.
It will take more than the retail Superwoman, Mary Portas, to save our high streets. Now, with people running scared at national and personal debt levels, there is a refusal to spend on all but the bare necessities.
Just a few years ago, the shopping ‘experience’ of going into town on a Saturday was something that all the family (except perhaps dad) looked forward to. That, I fear, will never come again. And councils have certainly helped to put the boot in by levying extortionate parking charges and granting all those out of town shopping centres where, of course, the parking is free. It is easy to forget that we are now in the fifth year of the recession
They tell us that it is not a recession until two quarters have passed with negative growth. By that yardstick, then, these four and a half years have not been a recession at all. Indeed, we have only qualified for six months by that definition and have seen flat-lining, marginally increasing, growth ever since. But tell that to the marines. For if this is not a recession, then they need to invent another word.
Calling it a downturn is to insult what people are going through. The whole scenario has been made worse by the constant diet of bad news which has fed into people’s psyche, inducing a ‘doom and gloom’ outlook. This, in turn, has helped reinforce people’s perceived need to batten down the hatches where spending is concerned.
It is difficult to believe that three and a half years have passed since Northern Rock became the first bank ever to seek help from its country’s central bank in September 2007. A bank in trouble? That was something new. Though it was relatively small beer in world banking terms, it represented the first significant shock to the global financial system. The collapse of a monster bank, Lehman Brothers, in America proved seismic and many have argued since that it was that much-touted phrase ‘too big to fail’ and should have been saved.
Throughout the autumn of 2007, we, in Britain, maintained an air of business as usual, even optimism, following the long stretch of apparent success that we had enjoyed since the Millennium began and in the few years before that. After all, had not our own prime minister told us that he had cracked the politician’s equivalent of the alchemist’s age-old dream of turning base metal into gold by ending ‘boom and bust’?
But four months after Northern Rock sought rescue from the Bank of England came the truly scary sight, just before Christmas that year, of depositors trying to get their money out of the bank. And it has been downhill ever since.
I have my own small shop on Plympton Ridgeway and for the first year of the recession (I insist on calling it that) I didn’t notice a thing, though many others did. I lulled myself into a false sense of security by saying that I was trading in necessities such as repairing shoes, cutting keys, fixing watches – things that even the Internet could not threaten.
Yet I felt immense sorrow for those businesses which did not enjoy my level of perceived protection, such as restaurants, builders, kitchen and bathroom fitters, furniture and carpet suppliers, taxi firms, fast food outlets and countless others including professionals.
But then came 2009, and I was brutally disabused of any notions of immunity; I had to take my share of the pain. During that year I took an enormous hit. I took a similarly big hit the following year. I prayed that it would not continue into another, for if it did I knew I would be up against it. Mercifully, the revenue decline bottomed out and the takings for 2011 matched those of the year before.
Now I am waiting on baited breath as the results for 2012 start accumulating. It’s very nerve racking, I can tell you. And right across this fair land of ours, retailers and so many others are suffering the same kind of anxieties.
But there is hope. America – that early invention of ours which bears a lot of the initial blame for our current woes with its reckless sub-prime lending – is showing real signs of recovery. That great can-do nation may yet lead us all out of this mess.
Only Europe – and it’s a very big ‘only’ – continues to cast a pall over future prospects, and that conundrum of the ‘one size fits all’ euro has yet to be resolved. If your biggest customer, by far, is in trouble then so are you: another good reason why we should diversify and market ourselves more effectively in the world beyond Europe.
We have such a huge advantage over all the others with our universal language, our Commonwealth connections and our all round understanding of the world that we cannot help but succeed, if we try hard enough.
We, for our part, are doing all the right things and this is reflected in our AAA credit rating. Despite our trillion-pound national debt, the markets still believe in us. We are, they consider, a safe haven for other people’s money. (As a point of interest, we are the only major nation – along with the US – never to have defaulted on our debts. They do not forget this.)
It will be an irony of the highest order if our European partners, who were so smug, even scornful, of the Anglo-Saxon economic model at the beginning of the crisis, have to sit back and watch us surge ahead while they continue to flounder in the swamp of the failed euro experiment.
And that may not be so fanciful a notion as you might think; the OECD, no less, has predicted that by the year 2050 we will be the third richest per capita nation in the world, beating Germany and just about everybody else. Whoopy!