As the retail ritual of closing up, bending down to secure the floor bolt then reaching up for the top bolt on the double doors of Knight and Lee was enacted for the last time at 5pm on July 13th 2019, a crowd of around 50 middle-aged, middle-class shoppers suddenly looked as if their spiritual heartland had been nuked.
The scene was made both more poignant and absurd as it came at the end of a set sung to the collected mourners by Rockchoir.com, which had included classics such as (ironically enough) I’m Still Standing, a mournful version of Only You and the spiritual hope of Hallejujah. It was (as it should have been) like a religious service in commemoration of a departed loved one.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m sad to see Knight and Lee go from Palmerston Road. Its stalwart service to the local community is well known. Its position in the corner of Palmerston Road and Clarendon Road, opposite the soon-to-close Debenhams that was once Handley’s Department Store together created a presence – a bit like the great statues in the Lord of the Rings as the Fellowship arrives in Gondor. These two shops did not announce to invading hordes “You shall not pass”, but were sentinels guarding a near-lost civilization called High Street Retail.
Yet the loss of this aspect of civilization at least in part lies at the feet of these very retailers.
Yes, Amazon most definitely enjoys an unfair advantage in cyberspace – not having to pay the same levels of staff, able to operate out of warehouses with considerably lower business rates, not needing to use expensive space to put items on display – and perhaps most importantly for Amazon, being able to avoid paying tax, and thus giving absolutely NOTHING back to local communities.
But Amazon’s advantage to one side, there is also a hard lesson retailers have failed to learn. That lesson is you can’t out-Amazon Amazon. You have to offer something different from what Amazon offers. And let’s face it, what DOES Amazon offer? The answer is stark – it offers cheapness and fast delivery with no fuss.
The High Street was never going to be able to compete on those terms of mass storage, immense ordering power and wafer-thin bottom lines that empower Amazon, and what it failed to do was change.
In a world in which more and more people are shopping online, we are equally seeing a world in which there is less and less face-to-face human interaction, and more and more isolation. Anxiety, societal dysfunction, depression, these are all symptoms of society no longer fitting together and functioning properly. That isolation has led to record levels of suicides. Human beings are social creatures. We may not acknowledge it, but we need people. The reality is, the chat in the Post Office or outside the butcher of the old days was as much a part of the shopping experience as the retail high shoppers used to get in the 1980s laden with designer goods on their ways home from Oxford Street – and probably still do at Westfield, Oxford Street, Gunwharf and other destination shopping complexes. But those are different creatures from the town High Street, that now needs to find its own model.
It’s no surprise that businesses that are thriving on the High Street are classically those businesses that focus on uplifting vibes.
Coffee houses where people meet, barbers, hairdressers and nail bars where people can chat – and charity shops where you can buy stuff you just can’t get anywhere else and which catch your eye and leave you feeling clever for being the one who snapped the bargain – all these have at their hearts the same thing: good feelings.
What retailers like Knight and Lee need to learn is that in a world which is increasingly global we need to offer locally those things the globalist offer can’t give.
That means face-to-face contact in a real location with real people. In fact, the answer to globalism is that old word localism – though I don’t mean it in the David Cameron context of Big Society or any other thing that has the initials B.S.
Portsmouth and Southsea are actually extremely well placed to offer that approach to locals and visitors alike.
We are, after all, fiercely proud of our local identity. I’ve often been told by visitors that Portsmouth has a sense of self in a way many other English towns don’t, whose High Streets have already been cloned into mini faceless shopping streets that are now on their last legs. To counter the bland flavours and products made in China that play the numbers game, making tiny profits per transaction from clone products that sell to billions, we in Portsmouth need to go the other way. To recognize our uniqueness and make that our selling point.
So, good luck to Knight and Lee and its staff. I am sorry to see you go. Let’s take our hats off to the service you provided. But now it’s time to start taking our lives back from the globalists who are shaping our lives. Not through silly nationalist notions, because globalisation isn’t going to go away – that’s just not a possibility unless you have in mind dismantling the internet and disinventing the jet engine – but by going local and making a celebration of who we are and our uniqueness – as a counterbalance to ever-present globalism – to thus give people the choice and the rounded experience they want and need as they go down to the marketplace.
Time to build community pride and offer world class products and experiences you can’t get elsewhere. We already have so many of them in Portsmouth. The Dockyard is an extraordinary world class experience. The Solent Forts are unique. Businesses such as the Portsmouth Distillery are offering something truly special. The Victorious Festival, the way we did D-Day 75 despite all that interference from Washington in the planning – these are the things we should be looking for to show the way. There are so many others – the list is very long of big and small, local businesses offering something special, right on our doorsteps. We do great things here, and they are uniquely ours and this is what we should be focusing on.
unlike on Amazon, people ain’t going to get THAT Pompey vibe anywhere
else. Our local identity – that is our greatest asset.
RIP Knight and Lee.