A day after it was revealed that internationally known television chef Jamie Oliver would be closing multiple restaurants throughout Britain, the major retailer Marks & Spencer announced that it is planning to close 110 stores UK wide. This is clearly bad news in terms of jobs loses, but at a time when the UK economy is doing well by the standards of every other economy in Europe, there is an important story behind the retail/hospitality rut that is not being told.
Of course it is easy and in many ways accurate to “blame” the internet both for the decline of traditional retailers and in the restaurant sector. But while it is possible to order anything from a meal to a grand piano online with supreme convenience to the buyer and often at a better price than at a traditional “brick and mortar” shop, this only tells part of the story.
The idea of the modern hospitality chain whether in restaurants, bars, children’s entertainment etc., began in the United States and took its modern form in the 1950s. Prior to that, with the exceptions of major department stores, medium and small sized shops and virtually all restaurants were small business rather than national chains owned by fairly big companies.
As both fast food and more importantly casual/mid-market dining chains became big in the US, similar business models inevitably spread to Canada, Australia, Britain and ultimately to continental Europe and economically developed parts of Asia.
And yet, although the restaurant chains of the 20th century, much like their retail counterparts did not have to contend with the internet, they still managed to offer a better buying/dining/entertainment experience than most shops and restaurants have been able to manage in the 21st century.
One of the reasons that the second half of the 20th century was the golden age of retail and hospitality chains in the United States is because many of them had something original to offer. It wasn’t so much that the quality or even style of food served or products sold differed between one company or another, the difference was in the presentation and the overall consuming/buying experience.
The most successful chain stores and hospitality outlets of the 20th century had a distinctive theme, style and presentation. This helped to attract new business and endear existing customers to such establishments.
As was the case with the phenomenon of music and video downloads and streaming, the internet was just as much an effect of what the old retail/hospitality sector had brought upon itself as it was a cause of the long term decline in brick and mortar businesses.
By the late 1990s, the music sector had grown arrogant. Rather than investing in the cultivation of new and original talent, higher quality sound formats and more interesting immersive listening experiences, the industry became retrenched in bland soudalike pop acts while even legacy bands were ignored in spite of a sustained fan base. At the same time, little investment was made into formats beyond a compact disc format that had already become stale by the year 2000 in the eyes of consumers living on the cusp of the contemporary internet retail revolution.
As a result, when a format as free and as bland in terms of mediocre sound quality as file sharing came out, there was no real incentive for ordinary people (especially the young) to go to record shops in order to buy a product that had become bad value for money.
Had the music industry at the turn of the 21st century taken a long view of the challenge it faced, it would have bought out platforms like Napster rather than waste money and incurring ill will from the public by suing them. Secondly, the music industry could have taken steps to modernise and add excitement to the music listening experience in terms of sound quality and artistic variety. Instead, the music industry dug in and expected that time would move backwards rather than forwards. The industry is today a shadow of its former self as a result.
If one wonders why Amazon and other major online retailers took off like rockets, it is not only because of greater variety, convenience and prince competitiveness vis-a-vis brick and mortar shops, but it is because the retail industry took its consumers for granted at the turn of the 21st century in much the same way as the music industry did at the same time.
Now, countries like Britain are seeing sustained retail decline in spit of decent overall economic health and restaurant chains are simply the latest brick and mortar operations facing this reality.
When one realises that many of these shops and restaurants now closing looked the same, offered the same products, offered equally bland customer experiences and did not have a distinct identity beyond slight differences in signage, it is no wonder that even those with cash to spare are not sufficient to keep such establishments afloat.
When one floods the market place with too much of the same thing, people will simply look elsewhere for their tables and chairs, their music, their film and their food. In the age of the internet, one will not leave the house for non work related matters unless there is an experience to match the product itself. Whenever a major business sector experiences a downturn during a time of otherwise decent economic trends, one must blame the sector itself for its own demise.
The fact that retail shops had more character in the 60s and 70s than they do today at a time when character is the only thing that brick and mortar shops can do that the internet cannot do better, it is actually amazing that large scale changes to high street shopping and hospitality did not occur sooner.