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Say goodbye to the “university of selling”

02 December 2020 – The death of the British high street will have severe ramifications, not only for our economy but for life as we know it.

In recent days, we have seen retailer after retailer enter administration. Companies like Peacocks, Debenhams, Jaeger, Arcadia-owned Topshop… these brands have been around for decades, lighting up Britain’s high streets and providing training for the next generation as they enter the workforce.

These shops have long been the unofficial “university of selling”. Most of us have had a job in retail at some point in our career. You learn so many skills: how to talk to people, the art of the soft sell, the importance of good presentation, how to work in a team, and what it means to hit targets. Retail launches more people into employment than any other industry, according to the National Retail Federation.

I started working for menswear brand Cecil Gee when I was 13 years old. That was where I learned to make a decent cuppa. That was where I learned to use a vacuum cleaner! Most importantly, it was where I honed my skills as a salesman. Those skills are vital, whether you go on to be an entrepreneur or not. In fact, the art of negotiation is necessary in every facet of our lives, whether it’s fighting a parking ticket or getting a better deal on broadband.

Not so long ago, Topshop had a branch on almost every UK high street. It was an institution. Many people began their careers there: my daughter worked there when she started her career. She has the gift of the gab but she learned how to make it a professional skill during that role. In fact she won an award for getting the most sign-ups to the Topshop newsletter (I know, a proud father never forgets).

A while ago, I posted about the need for more investment in high street shops. I found myself in M&S’ flagship store in London and discovered a ghost town with few staff, dirty changing rooms, and dingy décor. Now, I’m wondering whether M&S will be another casualty of COVID – or whether it’s new deal with Ocado will be enough to save it.

It makes me incredibly sad to see all these stores go to the wall. I know that the move to online shopping has been accelerated by COVID-19 but I also believe that we are only going to realise what we’ve lost when it’s gone. I think we will miss the in-store shopping experience when it’s no longer an option.

I also wonder where young people today – and tomorrow – are going to learn the tricks of the trade now. You can’t learn anywhere near as many interpersonal skills working in a warehouse or doing online marketing from your bedroom. The pandemic has caused so much upheaval for young people, hurting their aspiration and job potential. The death of the high street is just another burden they must now bear.

Martin Port

2nd December 2020

BigChange

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