CHARLES GRAHAM - Fall of the high street

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SOME find it a lot harder to avoid sentimentality and regret than others when times move on.

Some are prepared to march in step with the remorseless tread of progress; others feel they are being trampled under foot and then left behind sitting in the road wondering what on earth happened.

Many will now have slipped seemlessly into the habit of ordering all manner of goods online that previously you would have walked into a shop for. I can’t deny this has had its uses personally of late, helping to secure at the touch of a few buttons, some desirable object as a gift or personal indulgence hitherto thought to be out of retail reach.

Sometimes it also proves a bargain, sometimes a total rip-off. But we’ve always had that in the High Street and know to vote with our feet if taken for a ride.

This online trading certainly did for HMV - a company which thrived on the nation’s love of music for the better part of a century yet now looks like it might go the same way as Comet, Woolworths and JJB Sports.

A dispassionate view would be that this is just the latest example of the business world’s natural selection process in action, the demise perhaps only slightly hastened by recession.

We have little time now for the telegraph operators and pigeon post staff who were consigned to the history books by Alexander Graham Bell’s new-fangled telephone invention.

Indeed it’s not that many years ago that this classical music-lover was cursing HMV (along with other big CD retailers like Virgin) for putting so many independent retailers out of business; retailers who had far more imaginative selections of music than these big “bullies.”

That is, unless you went to a city store where a myriad of compact discs covering whole centuries, continents and genres of art music were given a room of their own.

But all that then began to shrink too and, delighted as I was to see HMV finally open a store in Wigan six years ago, not being a musical “crossover” fan of star-led compendia, I was never going to find my ideal shop on my doorstep.

I shouldn’t, however, stray into personal beefs about repertoire inadequacies. Great swathes of people have stopped buying both CDs and DVDs in the stores because they could get what they wanted, perhaps sometimes cheaper, at their computer terminal.

And that such a big and long-lived company has going into administration this week is sad indeed. My 10-year-old is particularly upset. He loves trawling HMV (not for my type of music, I should add) and not only because it is a refuge from all the “boring” clothes, shoe and accessory shops beloved of mum and sister (there are still flipping thousands of them!).

There is something nice about thumbing through racks of discs and coming across something interesting and surprising. Of course you can still happen across the unexpected on a computer but I think greater navigational skills - coupled with good luck - are required.

And, returning to the original assertion about those people left behind, how are our citizens who aren’t conversant with the latest technical wizardry going to be served in future? It’s all very well for those who have the money, enthusiasm and natural flair for technology to get exasperated and say that those who don’t only have themselves to blame for not keeping up.

But while there are “silver surfers” out there, and both reasonably-priced training and free library access to IT, there are a heck of a lot of people, many of them older, who just don’t have the energy, patience or financial wherewithall to keep abreast of all these technical advances.

Only in yesterday’s paper did we feature an older gentleman who was keen to benefit from a new council deal which could reduce his fuel bill. He rang the hotline in the expectation of speaking to someone who could talk him through the process only to get a recorded message referring him to a website.

Norman Kay is not good on his feet, is not remotely interested in computers, doesn’t have an e-mail address let alone a PC, iPod, tablet and indeed why should he?

They take a heck of a lot more getting used to than picking up a phone and dialling a number, which was what folk had to cope with at the advent of the telephone. The current equipment is also very expensive and usually obsolete within two years.

Granted, the council says Mr Kay shouldn’t have been referred to a website and the problem is being remedied. But the technological gulf between the haves and have-nots is getting progressively wider and in a time when money is tight for many, expense is one of the biggest causes.

No-one is going to keep HMV afloat just out of sympathy for those left by the high-tech revolution. Even the most sentimental wouldn’t expect that.

But that doesn’t mean that everyone is in a position, as they might have been able to in cheaper and simpler times past, to keep up.