Author Mark Richards
We are doing more and more of our shopping online – and increasingly, we are buying regular, ‘everyday’ items. Specialist suppliers are sending us everything from bacon to razor blades: but what does this say about the long-term future of the British High Street?
What’s that they say about life imitating art? Just two days ago I wrote about Tesco cancelling some customers’ credit cards in the run-up to Christmas in an apparent bid to prevent online fraud. I duly sympathised with the customers who were now struggling to buy Christmas presents, finished the article and thought no more about it.
Karma: the Gods did not take long to punish me…
Last night I was woken up by a text message at one o’clock in the morning. And, of course, I thought what any parent thinks when they get a text at that time. ‘Oh no. One of the children. What’s happened? Are they alright?’
It wasn’t one of my children: it was my bank. They had very kindly woken me up to tell me that my debit card had been stopped because they suspected fraudulent activity.
We need to verify some recent transactions on your card which is now blocked. We will send you a text.
So they did. Another text – just to make sure I was properly awake.
£1.00 CureSimple 00:14:05 Declined
So at 14 minutes past midnight someone – I had no idea who – had tried to take a pound out of my account. And there was another one. £19.99 to Amazon. I didn’t remember that one either.
I stumbled downstairs, turned my computer on and checked my bank statement. £19.99 to Amazon. Slowly the fog cleared from my brain. The boiler at the office had blown up and I had been forced to buy a fan heater. But CureSimple? I had no idea. Maybe Vladimir Putin was helping himself to £1 as a prelude to emptying my account…
And then it came to me. Bacon. I had signed up for a trial offer of bacon-through-the-post. Traditional bacon, no water, thick slices, smoked or unsmoked from outdoor-reared healthy, happy pigs. And my first pack for a pound.
Or it would have been my first pack for a pound if the bank hadn’t stopped the payment. Bleary-eyed I texted the bank to tell them the transaction was not fraudulent and was just drifting off to sleep again when they texted back to say I could use my card again.
The bacon will arrive on Saturday. Excellent. As my waistline will testify, I am rather partial to a good bacon sandwich.
And like many men, I am partial to a good shave as well. I have always used a traditional blade and over the years I have tried all the big name brands, advertised by impossibly good-looking men with impossibly rugged chins and an impossibly beautiful woman just waiting for him to be clean-shaven…
Bluntly, none of them have worked. Maybe my jaw was the wrong shape. Maybe I wasn’t very good at shaving. Or maybe the company concerned should put more money into the razor and less into paying the celebrity…
Shaving is big business: they can afford to pay the celebrities. It is estimated that the razor business (notice how I avoided the temptation to describe it as ‘cut-throat…’) is worth around £25bn a year. And it is a captive audience: unless you grow a beard, you have to get shaved. Like many men, I do not shave as often as I used to – but if I want to avoid what my daughter charmingly calls my ‘elderly wino’ look I have to reach for my razor. And pay for razor blades. It is generally thought that Gillette – founded by King Camp Gillette in 1901 – controls around 60% of the market, with Wilkinson Sword having another 18% with BIC and King of Shaves also being major players.
So it was no wonder that competitors started to emerge. The Dollar Shave Club was the first one to appear: it has been wildly successful and is now in the UK – along with a host of smaller companies, one of whom regularly sends me the best razor blades I have ever used. Every so often I am treated to a free handle. They fall through my letterbox every month and I will never buy razor blades in a supermarket again.
What else? We have a monthly delivery of coffee at the office, again from a specialist company offering a variety and quality you simply cannot find in the shops – at least in the town where I live. Cheese, vegetables, jams and chutneys, meat… The list goes on. Improvements in packing technology mean that a much wider variety of products can now be sent through the post and/or delivered to your door.
Is there anything I can’t send through the post?
‘Yes’ is the short answer. The delivery companies obviously have their own policies, but you will not be surprised to hear that the Post Office has a long list. You cannot use Her Majesty’s mail for anything illegal – so firearms, counterfeit money and obscene material are out. You supposedly cannot send drugs either – which has clearly dealt a savage blow to the suppliers on the dark web. Anything which might burst into flames is logically on the banned list, as is anything that might make everyone else’s post smell – so perfume and after-shave cannot be sent by post. So far, so much common sense… But you cannot send a lottery ticket through the post and you cannot send anything made in a foreign prison. You cannot send dry ice – how spectacular would that be when it dropped through the litterbox? And thanks to a policy decision presumably taken when Scrooge was a boy, you cannot send Christmas crackers through the post.
What does this mean for local shopping?
In the long run, it has to be bad news for the British High Street. It has become traditional to bemoan the death of the high street and pine for the return of small specialist shops run by people who really knew their product. The good news is that those shops still exist, the bad news – at least for the high street – is that they are online. And as the Chancellor struggles to find a solution to the problem of increasing business rates they are likely to stay there, meaning I can continue to shop in my PJs as I wait for the razor blades to come through the door. After all, no-one wants to start the weekend looking like an elderly wino…