While online-only brands like ASOS, Boohoo and Missguided chip away at our formerly fashionable high streets, is the same true when it comes to second-hand?
Do charity shops, vintage boutiques and thrift stores suffer at the hands of online marketplaces such as eBay and Depop?
In December 2011, Mary ‘Queen of Shops’ Portas launched an independent review – recommended by the government – into the future of British high streets, researching the decline she believed to have ‘reached a crisis point’. Adamant at the time that business was the bottom line of the decision-making process, with sentimentality playing no part in her desire to turn the failing high street around, the findings were used to implement her campaign to Save the High Street.
With the scheme declared a failure less than 18 months later, and Portas herself claiming the government used it as a PR stunt, maybe a little bit more heart would’ve gone a long way in improving the outlook. On a personal level, many of us aren’t mourning the decline of our high streets for the economic implications (boarded up, neglected lots in our hometowns advertising a degeneration leading to loss of community cohesion, and money gravitating away from town centres.). Nor do we have to lament the loss of variety or convenience in a digital age of Deliveroo and Amazon 1-hour delivery, no longer having to lug all our shopping back from the butchers, bakers, and candlestick makers. Job losses come into it, of course, but we’ve plenty of villains who we’re quite entitled to hold to account for these (business rates and Brexit springing to mind).
No, for the most part we shed tears for a picture postcard high street and associated (fabricated?) memories of a time when we left our front doors unlocked and you could get the full ten sweets in a 10p mix. We romanticise a high street of the past with a nostalgia Portas was keen to repudiate; we choose an emotional response to permanently shuttered shutters and names like Ethel Austen, C&A and Woolworths becoming obsolete.
Natasha Preskey finds a healthy balance somewhere between idyllic and authentic in her ode to a halcyon Newport (Isle of Wight) high street evoking joy and a unanimity with my own memories of Liverpool in the 1990s. When she writes ‘every corner of the high street had a story that became part of our shared mythology’, I felt that. I, too, look back and recall a high street that was a backdrop to some of the most charming memories I hold. Saturdays that passed in moments while we loitered in HMV, Virgin and Our Price fingering CDs we couldn’t afford, plotting our futures with boys we couldn’t talk to.
Disclaimer: I can’t speak for anyone else but my own emotional response – like any wistful yearning for former years – can be attributed to the disillusion that if I could do it all over again, somehow things would be different, and better.
People are quick to blame online retailers for the demise of our high streets but they are just one aspect to the crisis, if you will call it that. Others include the changing tastes of consumers, too much debt and too many shops, rising overheads and squeezed incomes. Regardless of whether or not you feel it a devastating blow to our communities and society as Portas claimed, it is a very real phenomenon.
But when it comes to vintage and second-hand shopping, do we see the same decline? Apparently not. They are booming at a time when sustainability is sexy. According to Marketing Week, ‘the global resale economy is growing at a rapid pace fuelled by changing consumer attitudes to sustainability, luxury and the concept of ownership.’. It seems to me that the ‘desirability effect’ actually trickles down from those styled-out Depop sellers online, only serving to increase the demand for niche items like 90s Adidas and Tommy Hilfiger offline.
And yearning for that time of whiling away the hours in CD shops discovering the newest, coolest sounds (we didn’t have YouTube or Instagram drip-feeding us emerging talent), a lot of my generation relish spending an afternoon on a treasure hunt for secondhand apparel. The challenge excites us, the experience is just as rewarding as the acquisition of new pieces.
If there is a decline to come then it may well be due to a lack of donating rather than lack of buying interest. At a time where the pressure is on to be our own fe/male bosses, why would we donate our old clothes to charity when we could hawk them on eBay or Depop, earning pounds in our Paypals and kudos for entrepreneurship and sustainability efforts?
It would be easy to get hung up on a myth that internet shopping will kill the vintage and second-hand fashion industry but that doesn’t give credit to the evolving nature of consumer habits. Supply and demand are the fundamental pillars of the free market, and we, the shoppers, make up half that duo. And the Amazon effect, a combination of lower cost structure and lower prices leading to exponential growth overtaking and overshadowing physical shops, is unlikely to be replicated in the resale clothing industry where there is a finite number of pieces that cannot be cheaply reproduced.
I have known a digital world since I was old enough to Ask Jeeves where the nearest Tammy Girl was, and now I can ask Alexa where my nearest independent vintage boutique, charity shop or donation centre is. If I want a faded Pacha t-shirt to take to Ibiza, or some genuine 2000s Calvin Klein dungarees, I can type my search into attractive and user-friendly apps like Depop. I belong to a generation that champions sustainability, knowing how to make eco-friendly fashion look good. Really good. We are pursuing ‘the rare, cheap and fabulous’ any which way we can, and in doing so we reinforce the idea that it is desirable. Supply and demand folks. Simples.