An Ode To The High Street And The Shops We’ve Sadly Waved Goodbye To

It's the end of an era for many stores as we know them, and Denise Curtin can't help but lament the 'once was'. 

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If there’s one thing we’ve seen clearly throughout lockdown, it’s the resilience of the Irish consumer. Nothing will stand in the way between a woman and her love for a new pair of Penneys’ pyjamas. She will queue in a freezing Dundrum Town Centre carpark at 4am if that means getting more elbow room to browse the aisles, and she will have no problem doing so. Day trips to the high street, the hunt for a bargain and the absolute chinwag that’s had while doing so is practically a national sport and throughout lockdown, we’ve seen people returning to shops in their droves. Queuing in support, out of love, for enjoyment, and because the high street is where some of their fondest memories lie.

Growing up, there was nothing like hearing you’re going on a shopping trip to Dublin. The excitement that used to radiate off me was unmatchable. As a young Corkonian, heading up to the Big Smoke was the equivalent of jumping on a jet to New York City. ‘They don’t make shops down here like they do up there’ I’d tell myself, and throughout my later teenage years, you can be sure I’d have a crisp €50 set aside for the “damage” I planned on doing in the mecca for young shoppers that was Forever 21. Those days were the best. And let me tell you, there was no feeling that matched coming home and telling your friends that your new top was from one of those “trendy Dublin stores,” my god, you may as well have told them it was custom made on the French Riviera.

There’s such a sense of pride that comes with shopping. From picking up something you love, to trying it on, doing another lap of the shop before heading to the till, taking a quick coffee break, and then bringing the bags to the car. Anyone who has laid out all their bits on the bed after a successful shopping trip will know exactly what I mean. It’s a feeling that will unfortunately never compare to any parcel received in the post. But today, it’s more Fastway vans in the drive than hangers in our hands. Despite our efforts to shop in stores when we can, the global pandemic and its various lockdowns, plus the competitive online retail industry is making many high street chains either less profitable or completely obsolete all together. Now sitting as empty lots, one stroll down the high street looks a lot different to the once yellow brick road we skipped on as teenagers. It’s heartbreaking to see, it’s hard to be a part of and it’s worrisome to think of its future.

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Over the past year alone we’ve seen the likes of Accessorize, Aldo, Burton, Cath Kidston, Debenhams, Dorothy Perkins, Monsoon, Oasis, Warehouse, Topshop, Topman, and Wallis all collapsing or going into administration since the beginning of the pandemic began. And unfortunately, that’s not where it ends. Every week there seems to be more news about stores reducing their units, cutting staff and trying everything they can do to stay afloat. From Pamela Scott to Easons, who’ve had to close seven stores in Northern Ireland last year, they told The Irish Times that “the devastating impact of Covid-19” alongside a number of “other significant factors on the future prospects and sustainability of the business” lead them to their pretty stark reality. And it’s one that’s being felt around the country.

The closure of high street stores, ones that are synonymous with the coming of age, weekend rituals, and a reason to take the “good handbag” out for a spin, is nothing short of heartbreaking. Speaking to those who’ve been affected by the closures firsthand, Maria MacFarlane was a personal shopper and visual merchandiser working for Topshop for the past three years. ‘I was made redundant when ASOS took over the company,’ explains Maria. ‘It was definitely something that I think all staff were aware was coming. Even in the three years that I worked for Topshop, the business changed every year. There had been store closures and many members of staff kept on furlough for prolonged periods, as well as a decrease in footfall. It was very sad to see the brand come to an end in its original format as it was such a high street institution, with many members of staff working there for several decades.’ And an institution it was. Growing up for many of us, Topshop was a total luxury and a place where we gained some of our finest fashion inspiration. Remember the rush for Kate Moss’ first collection for the brand in 2007? Or the feeling of pride when you started to build a Joni jean collection? Topshop seemed indomitable.

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But as Maria states and much to our knowledge too, ‘online retail and the accessibility of next day delivery, discount codes and a wider selection will always be a big competitor to high street shops.’ Now working as a freelance stylist and digital marketer, Maria doesn’t doubt that this climate will continue to hurt the high street, but holds on to hope and love for the brick and mortar retail industry. In a similar vein, former Debenhams employee Lara Haddaoui is sad that when the high street reopens she won’t be a part of it. As a staff member of the chain for nearly three years, Lara, like many others was let go when the brand closed its retail operation in March. ‘March started badly as fears of Coronavirus started to creep in,’ explains Lara. ‘Some workers began taking precautions and the shop was eerily quiet. We knew we would be closing due to the restrictions, but no one ever thought it would be their final days in there. The worst part about it all was that we were robbed of the chance to say goodbye,’ she adds. Like Maria, Lara noticed a decline in footfall during her time in Debenhams, explaining that over time ‘Saturdays became less hectic and some Sundays felt like the shop was closed.’ Yet, despite noticing the bustle diminish and losing her loved job, Lara still wants the high street to succeed. ‘I think the pandemic has forever changed the overall demand for shopping on the high street, as we’ve all become so accustomed to shopping online, but I do think that there will be always be a need to visit stores in person and hope other high street stores try their very best to stay open,’ she adds.

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We could all tell the story of our lives through these stores and so, it’s only natural that we don’t want to see them slip through our hands. To see more empty lots appear in place of shops that once filled us with so much serotonin and inspiration. And although times are changing, those feelings stay with us. The high street is still there and although we’re fearful for what’s to come and what has left, we do know that when the time is right we’ll don’ our best coat again, spritz on that perfume and head for the high street to do what we do best, shop.

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