Does it matter that Debenhams and the Arcadia group have gone under this week, taking 25,000 jobs with them and leaving large gaps in the high street? In normal times we would be minded to say no. The failure of businesses — large ones, included — is part of a healthy market economy. It is a routine aspect of the renewal process, whereby good upstart businesses drive out tired and stagnant retailers, to the benefit of consumers and employees alike. If unemployment were as low as it was at the beginning of this year, the redundant staff would not have had to wait long, or search far, for alternative employment.
But it is impossible to look at the current shake-out in the high street without seeing that traditional bricks-and-mortar retailers have been dug an early grave thanks to the government’s Covid restrictions. It is true that Debenhams, Dorothy Perkins, Burton and Topshop were failing for a long time, having struggled to get to grips with online shopping (Next and H&M did far better). But, that said, Covid rules could not have been so biased against traditional stores had they been drawn up by Jeff Bezos. In the spring most stores were ordered to close at a stroke, and remained shut for three months while Amazon’s delivery vans were allowed to crisscross the country with abandon.
In June, when shops were permitted to open again, they invested heavily in following government instructions to make their premises ‘Covid safe’. In November, they were ordered to shut again — and are estimated to have cumulatively lost £2 billion a week. Even as lockdown is relaxed, Professor Lucy Yardley of Sage has told the public to spend no more than 15 minutes in a shop.
How is a business supposed to thrive when the government seems to be going out of its way to suppress it and boost its rivals? Even before the crisis, high-street stores were at a huge disadvantage through a business rates regime which, just like Debenhams, has never really got to grips with the internet age.