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Things are not jolly on the British high street this holiday season (the "high street" is the shopping street in any town, or any large neighbourhood if you're in a big city). In the past 24 hours, three well-known store chains have "called in the administrators," i.e. gone bankrupt. Many others are teetering on the brink.

In the country famously described as a "nation of shopkeepers"--whether originally by Napoleon or Adam Smith, no one knows--this does not make for yuletide cheer.

More beneath the fold.

The three stores to pack it in just now are Whittard of Chelsea, Officers Club, and Zavvi. Whittard is the kind of place you buy presents for your gran--tea and a nice mug, or a cute teapot. Zavvi is what used to be the Virgin Megastores music/film/games chain, which only changed over to trading under its new name recently. Officers Club is a low-cost men's clothing shop. Why worry? Well, none of these is a "high-end" retailer. They're places that sell affordable items that most people in work can afford.

And that's the problem--you need to be in work to afford to buy DVDs, or a new jacket, or some nice mugs. I happen to live at ground zero of rising unemployment in the UK, apparently--my ward (neighbourhood) is at 14.5 percent unemployed now and going up.

Other shops have also been closing down in the weeks running up to Christmas. The biggest of these was Woolworth's. I had the sad "luck" to be walking past one at the very moment when employees were given the news. The manager had gathered the staff in the front of the store. I could see his back and their faces. A couple were crying. The story didn't make the news til the next day, but I knew just from the shocked expressions they wore. They're running the mother of all closing-down sales now. My son and I went to the nearest one earlier this week, and it looked like the locusts had been and gone.

The Pier, which I believe is the same as the Pier One chain in the US--same type of merchandise--was also in the process of being stripped down to the fixtures the last time I passed. Whilst doing my Christmas shopping, I noticed two other low-cost regional retail clothing chains were running out of stock and had "for lease" signs up in the shop window.

Every single store, even the posh ones, is running the kind of sale usually reserved for getting rid of whatever's left after the Xmas rush. 20 percent off at Marks & Spencer, 50 percent off at the Gap, 70 percent off at Woolworths. Everywhere you go, employees can be spotted huddled together and talking in low, worried tones.

I knew there was big trouble brewing around October... my son wanted to get his first proper job, as a Christmas helper at someplace like Zavvi or its big competitor, HMV. They weren't hiring. At all. We soon noticed that the stock was short, and items customers had changed their minds about were not being put back on the right shelf. Twice I wasn't charged for items I had bought. Employees seemed harassed and distracted.

So let's bring this round to why it matters. I don't really care about any of these stores, but there are at least 50,000 jobs involved in just the closures I've mentioned. And as these major shops close, the knock-on effect is building. I chatted with the Asian guy at the chippy today, who has relations running small shops. I mentioned that I had avoided the city centre and done my last-minute shopping in a nearby neighbourhood high street. "A lot of those shops will be closing after Christmas," he said sadly. "We'll still be here, people will still still buy chips. But a lot of people are going to be out of work." Each storefront that empties reduces the foot traffic that passes the others. If you're unlucky, your neighbourhood turns into a desert, with a scattering of charity shops (they can afford the rent since they get their merchandise for free and all workers are volunteers), maybe a hairdresser and a chippy, maybe a pound shop selling plastic junk from China. Probably a liquor store and a bookie. Maybe two or three bookies.

We don't actually make much of anything here anymore. The mines are almost all closed, the motorcycle and auto plants are gone or foreign-owned, agriculture has disappeared to the extent that finding food grown in Britain is a surprise. I spotted a squash today that was grown in Tonga! The British government has staked our future on two industries: finance/banking, and the service industries. In case no one noticed, one just melted down.

And the other is imploding on the busiest shopping week of the year.

Oh yeah: my "safe" pension is, I've recently learned, heavily invested in shopping mall real estate.

Bah humbug indeed!

Originally posted to expatyank on Wed Dec 24, 2008 at 01:12 PM PST.

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