There are simple questions, complicated questions, and deceptively complicated questions.
Among the latter, beware anyone who asks you ‘Are you happy?’ – there is no good answer.
You might reckon, in an economic slump, that asking how many shops closed in Wales last year should be easy. You could take it as a major indicator of how that slump has bled through to the high street.
Just try asking: the Office of National Statistics have got the figures of what they call births and deaths – the number of businesses that start and end their lives. But they include all businesses, not just shops – and the last figure’s for 2009. Even my calendar tells me we’re two months away from 2012.
The British Retail Consortium do have figures – not for closures, but for vacant spaces in the high street and what they call footfall – the volume of customers who pass through the shop door. The latest figures are just a couple of months old, and footfall fell inWalesmore significantly than anywhere else. About nine per cent down on this time last year.
So go from the abstract, the statistics, and turn up at Robert Gwyther’s country store; his outpost in the Marches which will soon be the last of a small rural empire.
The stores he had in Knighton and Welshpool are going, as soon as the Christmas decorations come down. The reason for his retail 12th night? A toxic combination of bigger business rates, larger overheads, smaller profits, stir in a few extra bank holidays and the margins shrink away – and the thing that complicates all of this is that among the shops going is the one his father started back just after the Great War.
In the back of his shop you see a huge old set of cobbler’s tools – machinery once made by Britain and exported all over the world. You bought a pair of shoes, got them mended by the local cobbler. And then the disposable society disposed of the idea that you keep things going.
Now most of us buy shoes, wear them out – and don’t get them repaired. In pride of place is a gigantic brogue – same vintage as the date the Knighton shop started in the twenties – you’d need to either be twenty eight feet tall or an expert coracle-sailor to use the thing, but it was made as artful decoration – to show the customers just how talented a man can be when he takes a strip of leather and turns it into a shoe.
It’s packed, crammed with stuff – whilst it might be an old Powys business, it’s about to be one of the slump’s newest casualties.
The flip side of all this: travel high on a hill inMontgomery. There you’ll see an old fashioned ironmongers – stuff stretching inside and out, duck your head because there’s various pots and buckets tied to the ceiling, a maze of corridors and things kept in old wooden drawers and that smell of linseed oil and hay – you’re back in the retail world before the interweb was a gleam in Sir Tim Berners-Lee’s eye. And for them it works: people come to experience life in a different retail way, where the only search engine is having a bit of a rummage and hoping you’ll find the right bits. It’s been going for almost 120 years – now its past is its future.
So one old business that’s going, and one that’s thriving. Any guesses as to what’s the High Street trend here? No: me neither. Which is why – if anyone can point in the middle of a slump, to what sort of firm is going, and what is thriving – who should get business tax breaks, who needs gentle encouragement to expand and take on more staff – those statistics might come in handy.
Ask how many shops in Wales shut their doors last year and right now – who knows?
Take a walk down your nearest High Street and count the for sale or closing down signs – and then maybe you’ll have as good an idea as anyone has