Anne Hailes: Empty units and 'do it yourself' culture driving shoppers off our streets
RECENT news puts a real damper on anyone who loves their town or city. It used to be a pleasure to go into Belfast or Coleraine or Enniskillen, but now we're more often than not faced with grey shutters splashed with graffiti. And they blame us for shopping online and putting the high street at risk! Do 'they', whoever they are, ever stop to think why?
It isn't always easy to get into town, buses aren't as frequent as they used to be, parking is a nightmare – and that's even before the bendy bus – car parks charge the earth and, certainly in Belfast, taxies are limited as to where they can go: not allowed into pedestrian areas, so hard luck if you've been on a shopping spree in Castle Court (back door only) or Boots in Donegall Place (walk to Donegall Square North).
There's no doubt we are being driven away from independent living when it comes to travel, even last week we were advised by the powers that be to walk or cycle rather than take the car – sorry, not possible.
And when the Glider buses do come into operation next week, well the already experienced chaos will be multiplied three, four or five-fold.
And it's not only in cities here in the north. I was in the delightful little town of Ardara in Donegal a couple of weeks ago and that usually vibrant place looks depressed.
Since the Ulster Bank closed their doors, against all opposition, the knock-on effect has been dramatic. I watched lots of people, mainly visitors, going up to the doors to be faced with blank windows and a 'for sale' notice – not even a cashpoint remains.
Other shops have taken up the challenge and will allow card transactions, but there's a lot more to banking than getting €50 out of a machine.
Apparently, within 18 months 10 outlets have closed; flower shops, a clothing shop that had been there for 50 years, a pub. I'm told a large part of the blame lies with the closure of the bank.
Although Ardara will cope and win in the end, there's talk now of the Ulster Bank in Killybegs closing, so in future customers from the Ardara area could face at least an hour's journey to Donegal Town or on to Letterkenny.
Granted, there's a mobile bank twice a week which means takings have to be held on for days, which is obviously a security risk.
The Credit Union still operates and at the moment the Post Office takes lodgements, but there again there's talk of post offices closing throughout Ireland.
My own post office has begun to take lodgements: is this a portent for future banking cut backs?
:: Do It Yourself Culture
I was in Boots looking for a Max Factor foundation. I was in a hurry for an appointment and expected just to lift it and pay. It wasn't on the shelf, so I looked for an assistant but there was no one around and I had to go.
Called back an hour later, still no assistant so I asked at another counter.
"They don't have anyone attending their counter any more, you just lift what you need."
I can't find what I need.
"The girl comes in sometimes to stock up the shelves but I don't know when she'll be back."
Not much good to me. Instead of what I wanted, I took something similar and at the checkout I lamented the fact there was no one in attendance for information and advice.
"No, you're right but it's not just here, apparently they've withdrawn regular staff from all the stores."
If this is true, it's what's called 'the thin end of the wedge': soon there will just be dehumanised stores where you pick what you want and then pay at a self-checkout.
And because we use these self-checkouts in large supermarkets, staff have been cut. You do your shopping, arrive at the pay point, begin to put items through and, more often than not – for me anyway – I have to call for help as the machine scolds me and won't co-operate!
It can be very frustrating.
With the pace of life today convenience is important, but if we turn more and more to home delivery from supermarkets we'll end up with warehouses, a van and driver. So, full circle to mail-order.
Apparently, today £1 in every £5 is spent on mail-order. Why? Because no matter where you live there's the option to 'go online', although only if you have a computer or smartphone.
Using a catalogue is easier because you can telephone the outlet and talk to a person – an actual person – but although delivery is swift and efficient, the cost is prohibitive.
I spoke to a manufacturer about a couple of items I was interested in and the postage and packing to my address came to more than the two items put together: forget it.
:: What's The Answer?
I asked some shoppers about what can be done to preserve the high street:
"It would help if the shop assistants were polite and knowledgeable.”
"I remember the days you could buy a dress and have the alterations done in the shop."
"I'm sure shop assistants are worried about their futures but if they are dismissive of me and my wants I'm not going to return and that threatens them."
"These young people should be trained and taught their please and thank-yous – and 'sorry' when you have a complaint."
"Serve a glass of wine!"
This is the story all over Ireland. With bendy buses and Brexit looming, it's scary biscuits! However, on a positive note, I am finding our restaurants' standards of service are improving every day.