A Bygone Era

Time for more reflection …

Everywhere around us we see evidence of former household names disappearing into the ethereal mists of commerce. How many UK readers will remember the grocery outlets of Liptons, George Mason and International Stores? Slightly later we welcomed the name of Gateway on to our High Streets. For most DIY materials, we either relied upon the local family store or visited a builders’ merchant. That was until the advent of Texas Homecare stores which were the first mainstream chain of out of town outlets.

Then we had men’s tailoring outfitters such as Hepworths (once the UK’s largest clothing manufacturer and now trading as Next), John Collier, Hector Powe, Austin Reed and the budget chain of Burton’s. Most have long disappeared and any remaining are but a shadow of their former selves. There a few bespoke tailors remaining and I suspect that if one wants a suit made to measure, it will be a unique shop that has to be found together with a hefty price. Of course, some big names still remain, amongst which are Marks & Spencer and BHS, formerly known as British Home Stores, but even these are no longer the bastions of Britishness that they once were.

Back in the bustling 70s, our once buoyant high streets were awash with names like Rediffusion, Granada, and Radio Rentals from where you could rent the latest colour television. For a quick snack, you had Lyons Corner House or a Wimpy Bar, and how many readers remember The Golden Egg? The high street boasted numerous building society names, many of which would be local to the town or surrounding area. There was the friendly Midland Bank, plus the smaller and long-forgotten Martins Bank with its grasshopper logo! Of course, the Midland became part of the giant HSBC whilst Martins was swallowed up by Barclays but still retained some of its identity during the early part of the 70s. Another long-standing name that disappeared was that of Timothy Whites, a cooking utensils and hardware outlet that was owned by Boots. This business was eventually amalgamated into Boots under the brand of ‘Boots Cookshop’ and most standalone outlets closed. The hardware division of Boots has subsequently ceased to exist meaning that a once cherished business is no longer represented in our town centres.

Whilst it survived into the early part of the 21st century, undoubtedly the biggest high street name to finally disappear was Woolworths. This store was once the mainstay of traditional town shopping due to the variety of products stocked at attractive prices. Invariably, Woolworths would become a first port of call for household products and knick knacks, not to mention the latest 45rpm record plus some pick’n’mix sugary delights! In essence, our high streets offered a cornucopia of different brands, most of which may have been traditional but nevertheless were reassuring and trusted.

It is easy to look back to a bygone era with affection and future generations will no doubt mourn the passing of such giants as Apple, Starbucks, and Waterstones in years to come. Please note that I only use these names as examples and in no way am I suggesting their imminent demise! However, as previous times have shown, no giant of the high street (or shopping mall and retail park of the present) is likely to have eternal life. As fashions and lifestyles change, so does the face of our high streets, and already the facility to shop for most things online is having a devastating effect upon traditional retail businesses. To be honest, I make most of my purchases online already as it’s so more convenient and takes away the hassle of marauding crowds and the struggle to find a parking place even in expensive car parks. Currently internet commerce is growing at a phenomenal rate so only time will tell what might happen to our modern shopping malls and retail parks.

Earlier I mentioned that Marks & Spencer still adorns our high streets. I remember the days when large banners displayed inside their stores proudly stated that over 90% of everything they sold was British made. Sadly, I would guesstimate that no more than 10% of the products they sell today are British, and most of that will be in the food category. Their reputation for quality and price is fast being reflected in their regular downfall in sales across clothing with only their food business propping up the business. We do all need to eat after all and in this department, they now compete more equally with the mainstream supermarkets. So whilst it is still very much British owned and named, it no longer flies the traditional British flag!

I would be the first to endorse the convenience and relative comfort of shopping malls but these are so impersonal compared with the high street. I remember fondly the times when one would hop from shop to shop, sometimes dodging the inclement weather, but almost always guaranteed to bump into someone I knew. There was something very sociable about high street shopping which has been lost with the advent of superstores, malls and retail parks.

Those were the days as back then the consumer had real choice. Today we are bombarded with countless different products but in reality they all look very much the same. One only needs to look at fashions (or the lack of them!), motor vehicles and computers to name but a few!

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One thought on “A Bygone Era

  1. I agree there is some amount of affection in looking back at the companies you mention and I don’t miss their demise. I remember, for example, the inflated prices Radio Rentals charged and how Midland Bank gave terrible service until it became HSBC. I think companies disappear for a reason. There is a very old and large family-owned shop in Reading called “Jacksons” that is now closing down after 100+ years but I could have told them years ago that they had no future.

    M&S is a great example. My aunty used to make clothes for them and when they stopped buying British she predicted their demise and stopped shopping there. Now, apart from flashy adverts, they don’t distinguish themselves from any other shop.

    It’s funny you mention Burton’s as a budget chain as that his my impression of them though they did manage to reinvent themselves for a while as a youth store while alienating all customers.

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