CREDIT: ALICE WHITBY
Idid try. But after buying – and wearily returning – six pairs of dungarees from various online stores over the past few months, I called off the search. These voguish overalls, I concluded, just weren’t for me. In my head I was a chicly androgynous Danish sculptor, while in the mirror I was a rotund children’s TV presenter. What’s more, there’s only so many times one can stand holding a returns package in insanity-inducing post-office queues before turning into Michael Douglas in Falling Down.
Then I did something I hadn’t done for a while – I went into an actual shop on an actual high street, like in the olden days. With an hour to spare between meetings, I mooched around the womenswear floor at John Lewis. And then, bing! I found the perfect pair. They were from Whistles, in soft black denim, and after trying them on, I had the sneaking suspicion that they actually looked good. I conferred with a shop assistant. Yes, she assured me, they’re flattering and grown-up. I could’ve married her. Instead, I whizzed to the till and skipped out of the door.
These days, when Net-a-Porter will deliver your purchases just hours after you click to buy, shopping in real life is an underrated activity. It also seems a quaintly retro one. On any given Saturday afternoon in the late 1980s or early 1990s, you’d find me loitering around Chelsea Girl, Mark One or Etam, with a giggling gang of mates. Often we couldn’t afford to buy anything beyond a Rimmel Coffee Shimmer lipstick in Boots, but shopping was our favourite leisure activity, a thrilling way to pass the time before the evening’s youth-club disco.
That passion for perusing continued into my 20s. By then I was earning a wage and living in the city. Could I stretch to a slinky Karen Millenfrock to wear clubbing? What was the best day to raid Portobello Market for vintage bits? What time shall we start queuing for the designer sample sale? My sartorial tastes had evolved, but I still loved the simple act of going shopping.
Then things changed. Net-a-Porter and Asos both launched in 2000 and soon all our favourite high-street brands were online. Shopping became efficient, functional and flexible. We began working through wishlists and planning ahead like a fashion editor. We revelled in the freedom to shop on our terms – a new handbag before breakfast? Done. Bikini and sandals delivered to your office the day before your holiday? Sorted. No need to stand in Topshop’s three-mile changing-room queue. Vive la révolution.
Seventeen years on and it’s still going strong, with Office for National Statistics figures showing online sales increased by a fifth between 2015 and 2016. But despite it sometimes feeling like everyone buys everything online now, e-commerce still accounts for only 15 per cent of all retail spending, meaning there’s plenty of room for further growth.
Coupled with the explosion of those shiny new websites came changes to my own life that essentially meant the high street was now a no-go zone. Work got busier. (It’s hard to enjoy a spot of retail therapy in your lunch break when you don’t get one any more.) Small people arrived. (Have you ever tried to take a baby and a toddler shopping? Don’t.) Any purchasing had to be laser-focused – got 10 minutes between finishing chores and collapsing into bed? Quick, hop online and nail that school uniform, new running shoes and, eek, a dress for the wedding on Saturday.
Don’t get me wrong – I love online shopping as much as the next woman, and will never tire of looking at pictures of pretty dresses. Yet I find myself hankering after the old ways. For me it comes down to the human interaction: give me a smiley, helpful, honest shop assistant who’s a nifty stylist and I will absolutely spend money with you (of course, you have to pick your brand carefully – that’s not likely to happen in Primark).
And then there’s the deliciously whimsical aspect. You walk into a store, spot the dress/jumpsuit/jacket of your dreams and stop in your tracks. You touch the fabric and swoon. And then you try it on and just know it’s for you. A shopping-habits survey by US industry news site Retail Dive found that by far the most popular reason for shopping in-store was ‘to see, touch, feel and try out items’. You just don’t get that tactility via a computer screen.
Then there’s the biggie: the luxury of time, the permission to mooch, to wander aimlessly. When does that ever happen any more? Over a glass of wine, my friends and I sometimes fantasise about what we’d do if we had some – any – free time, devoid of work, family and household responsibilities. The number-one choice for this mythical day off? A shopping trip. Yet I wonder if we added up how much time we spend processing online returns, would it actually be more time-efficient to clear a morning to stalk the high street nailing exactly what we want in one fell swoop?
And so once again my feet have hit the street and I like what I see. At a time of tough trading conditions and ongoing store closures, retailers are having to work ever harder to lure us away from our laptops and mobiles. But whatever you do, don’t call them shops – they are now ‘spaces’ or ‘lifestyle stores’. Or in the case of Arket, the grown-up, minimalist new brand from the H&M group, ‘a modern-day market’.
The newly launched London flagship on Regent Street includes a Nordic restaurant featuring collaborations with local bakeries and greengrocer’s, homeware, books – and, oh yes, clothes. Fitness brand Sweaty Betty has just opened a three-storey townhouse on Carnaby Street, complete with yoga studio, hairdresser, health-food café, and – oops, almost forgot – clothes. ‘Retailers are creating spaces that focus on the things you can’t get online: experiences and human interaction,’ says Petah Marian from trends forecaster WGSN Insights.
Online brands are increasingly turning to bricks and mortar. Matchesfashion.com recently opened a standalone west London store for its own brand Raey, and still has four other boutiques around the city. ‘Physical retail spaces are hugely important to us,’ says Ines Lareo, customer experience director. ‘Our stores are a barometer of our customer, what he/she likes and how they shop.’
Cult fashion-editor favourite Kitri, which launched online earlier this year, has also opened a pop-up store in Marylebone. Here customers can try out samples that have yet to go into production and vote on their favourites. Fellow online brand Finery, founded by Asos and Topshop alumni in 2014, can now be found in-store at John Lewis, as can Boden. ‘If you’re launching a new brand, it’s important that people can get a sense of who you are as a business, and a store helps you do that,’ Marian says.
That’s all well and good, but as Marian points out, there’s a world of difference between retailers’ swanky city concept stores, and their smaller, less financially viable branches in provincial towns. What will the high street of the future look like if these shops continue to close? ‘High streets aren’t just about shopping; they’re a place for community interaction. The question is how you repurpose those closed-down stores so the high street doesn’t become a dead-zone,’ she says. So, for the sake of future generations, get thee down to the high street immediately. Meet you outside Miss Selfridge at 2pm, OK?
What type of shopper are you?
The online binger
Can be found: On Asos with 32 must-have items in her basket. Or by 9pm, after a few glasses of wine, on Net-a-Porter, seriously considering an £800 clutch bag and some canary yellow culottes.
Most likely to say: ‘Thanks for calling but, no, my credit card hasn’t been stolen. Those purchases are all mine. Er, yes, even the 2am one.’
Can be found: Stalking the floors of John Lewis, Debenhams or M&S, complete with detailed list and recalcitrant husband.
Most likely to say: ‘For goodness sake, Jeremy, why don’t you amuse yourself in the electronics department while I try on some Hush Puppies?’
The hit & runner
Can be found: Whizzing anxiously through the rails of Zara or Topshop, with 20 minutes to secure a new party dress before her train leaves/ lunch-break finishes.
Most likely to say: ‘I’m so pleased with my new Zara coat – do you like it? What?! It’s so popular it’s got its own Twitter account? Gah.’
The concept- store queen
Can be found: Working out in Sweaty Betty’s yoga studio, Instagramming the interiors of the latest pop-up shop or eating coconut yogurt at the Dover Street Market café. Shopping? Nah, she does all that online.
Most likely to say: ‘Yeah, Arket is pretty cool but, to be honest, I prefer Merci in Paris. You haven’t heard of it? Oh, shame.’
The mother of teenagers
Can be found: Standing in a dismal queue outside Hollister, wishing she’d remembered her night-vision goggles and earplugs. And Valium.
Most likely to say: ‘No, you’re not having your ears pierced in Claire’s. No, you’re not having a crop top. No, you’re not having an iPhone. Shall we go home now?’