Much of the media coverage over the past ten days or so, following the inevitable but slow demise of both Debenhams and Topshop stores, is the most recent reminder of an unusual social phenomenon (but which has surfaced on regular occasions over the past couple of decades)
It has reignited what I can only describe as the UK national ‘collective nostalgia’ for retail brands that are either long gone or rapidly disappearing from the UK’s town and city centres – or as many inaccurately, describe it as ‘the High Street’.
This first outpouring of this ‘national retail grief’ happened back in 2009 when Woolworths closed over 800 UK stores. With almost 30,000 retail jobs lost it was a huge blow to both the retail sector, and all those employees whose jobs were lost as well as the economies of the towns and cities across the UK where Woolworths stores suddenly closed.
This nostalgia then reappeared in 2016 when BHS went bust with the closure of 160 large store across the UK, many of which of course ‘anchored’ shopping centres and retail parks. Both the closure of Woolworths and BHS stores left huge visual holes in the retail landscape of our major town and city centres. Sadly, over a decade later, many of these have still yet to be reoccupied or redeveloped.
And as have I previously mentioned, this week’s demise of Debenhams and Topshop retail brands have once again rekindled this collective nostalgic response (which of course is now amplified and accelerated through social media)
This is not in any way meant to undermine or underestimate the serious economic reality for the 25,000 or so hard-working Debenhams and Arcadia Group store employees who now face losing their jobs. In the current economic climate, it clearly won’t be anywhere as easy as in the past to find another role in the retail sector and the Government need to quickly both recognise and support this unemployment crisis in the retail sector – still the largest private sector employer.
However, I believe the outpouring of regret from shoppers (most of whom clearly had not spent money in either Debenhams or Arcadia Group stores for some time) is out of proportion. For example, a week or so ago, the Guardian carried an article by a columnist who described Debenhams as ‘more than a shop’ and that its closure was ‘a blow to the heart’
Nostalgia (whether for TV programmes, music, or retail brands) does not relate to a specific memory, but rather an emotional state which we put within an era, or a specific time frame, and choose to idealise, sifting or screening out any negatives. But what is about retail or shops, that generates such a high level of nostalgia?
I think its foundation is based on several factors. We all take part in shopping in some way, everyone has done it, and so we all have a view (and memories) of shops, and in particular shopping as a social activity. As children, shopping was generally a positive experience, with reward and gifts and of course there is also a strong nostalgic link for many between shops and the seasonal excitement of Christmas.
Then, as teenagers and young adults, shops and shopping represented independence, and a first choice of where and what to spend our money! A sense of place and community where we bought out first records or spent our Saturday afternoons looking at clothes.
So, even reviewing a brief list of UK retail brands that no longer exist in ‘brick and mortar format’ (for example Woolworths, Littlewoods, Hepworths, Blockbuster Videos, Fine Fare, Timothy Whites, Texas DIY, MFI, Our Price Records, KwikSave, Radio Rentals, Sockshop and C&A) always immediately generates some form of nostalgia, mostly good and always seemingly linked to a specific period on our lives. They are gone but not forgotten.