It has been a terrible time for the high street. Since 2008, when the fall of Woolworths sent shock waves across the UK, 32 major retailers have closed their doors for good, with the loss of 115,000 jobs, according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS).
Last year brought more pain, with an estimated 85,000 workers affected by the failure of 1,000 businesses large and small, including Toys R Us and Maplin, and the closure of stores by other retailers trying to cut their losses.
High street retailers have been hit by a combination of the financial crisis, competition from online shops and large supermarkets, belt-tightening by consumers and a feeling that we as a society have reached “peak stuff”. And that is before considering rising business rates and rents.
The resulting job losses have led to some disquiet, but there is a feeling in some quarters that they have not attracted the same political action that is triggered whenever manufacturing posts are under threat. Two years ago, the thinktank the Fabian Society predicted that a million retail jobs could disappear by 2020, and called on the government to put the sector at the heart of its industrial strategy.
Below, we hear from some of those who have already lost their jobs.
Jacqui Martin, 43
Things started to go seriously wrong for the card and poster seller Athena in 1995, but some shops lived on as franchises. The last one closed in 2014.
Being in a big student city, Athena was the place to go. Freshers’ week was like Christmas, and we’d sell a lot of film posters, especially Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings. We still had the tennis girl and L’enfant, the one with a man holding a baby, right until the end. They were a bit of a cult thing.
Athena was big for its framing service, and people would bring in photos and pictures – things they had bought on their holidays – and we would talk to them about where they bought them and how the colours would fit in their home. My house is full of frames from Athena.
I had about six members of staff. We’d all go out at Christmas and on birthdays. It was very social.
It didn’t come as a shock when we closed. Athena had become a franchise not long before I started, and they were gradually closing. We were the last one in the whole country to go.
The last day was awful. We used to have music playing in the shop, and we put on Everything Must Go by the Manic Street Preachers just to add to the melancholy. I remember locking the door for the last time in tears. I don’t want to sound overdramatic, but it was like a bereavement after such a long time.
I got redundancy pay as I had been there 15 years. I stuck with retail, and was assistant manager in a shoe shop for a while, but that also closed. Then I worked in another shop, but now I’m a bank cashier. It’s still customer-facing, which I love, but I have been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, so I needed a role where I wouldn’t be on my feet all day.
We have seen more shops closing in Exeter recently. The high street is so different now, and shopping isn’t as pleasurable because you don’t have the variety to go and look at. The choice is online. Shoppers are so used to getting everything instantly at the click of a button. In my heyday, there was time to talk with customers and build a rapport, and they would come back because of your service. Sarah Butler
Emma Murray, 48
The 88-year-old department-store chain BHS went out of business in 2016, with 11,000 people losing their jobs.
We were a new store, a fancy upmarket one, that was really done out nicely. It was a nice place to work. We just enjoyed it. We always had regulars, and the girls I worked with were chatty and friendly. You would get widows coming in and standing talking to the girls, just to get out and have a conversation. They knew they would get a warm welcome. It was like a community.
We were all shocked when we found out it was going. Even the customers were shocked. I don’t think anybody saw it coming because BHS had been there for years.
When we were closing, customers got nasty because we weren’t taking returns or vouchers. It was horrible. They were not interested that you were losing your job, only in returning some curtains. You had to grin and bear it. Some people were holding hundreds of pounds of stock and couldn’t get a refund. Some of the girls were in tears.
On the last day, we all had to go in and clean the store and move all the fixtures to the back. It was emotional. Some people had been working for BHS for 15 or 20 years. I had been there for five. We all went down the pub and got drunk.
I’ve gone into school meals now, for the council. Losing my job was horrible, but it did me a favour. I’ve now got a better job that fits around my family.
The BHS location is still empty. They were going to put a gym in, but it hasn’t happened. Losing the store was big for Widnes. There’s nowhere you can get nice bedding or towels; it has really dive-bombed. It’s either pound shops or charity shops. SB
Paul Castle, 39
Maplin, the electronics specialist, shut its doors last spring with the loss of 2,500 jobs.
I started in 2012 as a part-time sales adviser and ended up as an assistant manager. I applied to Maplin on the off-chance – I’d never been into one of the shops, but they sold the kind of things I was interested in. Everyone there was really friendly, and it was a nice environment. The full-time staff tended to stay for years – my manager was there for 11 years. We had regulars who would come in for technical advice, and some of the more mature customers who would like to come in for a chat.
In the last seven or eight months, there were concerns about the footfall. It had certainly dropped off since I had been working there.
There were many reasons why we closed. One was the pound shops that would sell iPhone cables for a few quid when we were charging a tenner. There was a difference in quality, but if people were paying a couple of quid they didn’t mind if it didn’t last.
We were told the company was in administration this time last year. The final three months were pretty awful – people would come in, and ask, “When are you closing?” and, “Can you do this any cheaper?” In the end, we got a call on a Friday saying we were closing the following Tuesday. The shop closed, and the next day we had to strip it – there wasn’t allowed to be any sign of Maplin left inside. When you’ve spent time building something up, building a good reputation, it’s awful to have to tear it all down.
I was out of a job for about a week. Some of my colleagues had things lined up, but I didn’t because I didn’t know when I’d finish, so it was a huge relief to get something so quickly. Hilary Osborne
Donna Marie Howard, 30
The clothes store Littlewoods was sold to Primark in 2005, and its high street shops were closed or rebranded soon afterwards.
I started working at Littlewoods in 2005. I had a sleepover on my 16th birthday, and my mum opened the door and said: “Happy birthday! Get a job.” Then she wandered off down the hallway chuckling.
I went into Portsmouth and asked around, then filled out an application form for Littlewoods – and got the job. As I was doing my GCSEs, I only worked on Saturdays. The first day was bleak. I was carrying a load of beige women’s coats to the front of the store and imagining that all my friends were having fun somewhere.
It was a bit of a family affair. My line manager was called Trudy and her mum worked there, too. There was also a set of twins. One was a manager and the other worked in the storeroom. We never saw her, so there was a bit of an in-joke about that.
It was a very quiet shop – it had two entrances, and people walked through it to get to the shopping centre. In the autumn, we heard that there might be some changes. Then we were told we were being made redundant. In the run-up to the shop closing, it got quieter and quieter. They were selling off everything – underwear would be moved from one shelving unit to another, then they would put a price tag on the shelving.
My last day was Christmas Eve. The manager gathered us all around and said thank you, and that she was sorry about what was happening. We were all allowed to take a chocolate bar from the till.
The shop became a Primark, and I ended up working there. When it opened, the queues were ridiculous. I worked in the fitting room. At Littlewoods there were only three, and a handful of women would use them each day. It was different at Primark – the number of clothes I can carry on one arm is astonishing.
I am a freelance producer now, working on video and theatre projects. Quite a few of my family work in supermarkets, so I do worry about the high street. HO
Neil Park, 41
Allsports, Harrow and Watford
Sportswear retailer Allsports called in the administrators in September 2005.
When I left school, I decided university wasn’t for me, so I started looking for jobs. I saw an advert for Allsports for a “designate manager” – essentially a trainee – and I got the job. I was 18 at the time, and they ran me ragged. This is what they did with anyone who was any good.
I started in Harrow, then I went to Watford. They would make you assistant of a medium-sized store, then move you to be manager of a large store, then back down to assistant manager. If you were doing too well, you would be moved somewhere harder.
I used to drive to stores and make sure they were ready for inspections. There were these really strange rules – in the staff area, every notice on the noticeboard had to have four pins in it, and every toilet had to have 12 toilet rolls. The standards were really high. They had white tiles in the stores that had to be clean. The managers used to tell these poor kids who were earning very little that they couldn’t leave until the shop was clean.
They would give us two cassettes to play all day for a month, with a fake radio station called Allsports FM. By the end of the month, the tapes would be worn out. At the time, they were opening about 45 stores a year, competing with JJB Sports and the like.
I left after two years, in 1998. I now work at Jarrold, a department store, in Norwich. It’s a 249-year-old business, which is still family run. We’re moving into experiential retail – there’s a wine bar and a spa. You can have a free gait assessment.
I think retail can survive. But, if you do it badly, there’s not enough grace in the economy for you to keep going. HO
Woolworths, St Albans
Everyone in St Albans knew Woolworths – they may not have all shopped there, but it had been on the high street for a long time. It was the place to get toys, pick ’n’ mix and all of your stationery for school. It was my first paid job. It was the summer after my GCSEs, and I’d applied for lots of roles and not got any of them. Then my mum suggested I volunteer at the Oxfam bookshop to get some experience. Four weeks later, I got the call from Woolworths, and started in September 2008.
I was doing my A-levels, so I worked Saturdays at first, then did Sundays, too. I didn’t like my manager very much, but my other colleagues were great. Most people were young, probably under 25, but there was one woman who had been there maybe 15 years, and she was like the mother of the shop.
I was a cashier. It was always very busy on a Saturday and the time flew by. Sundays were a bit quieter, but it never seemed as if anything was wrong. We sold everything in that store – the entertainment area had the latest CDs, PlayStation 2 games and CD players.
In around November, we started to hear that the company was in trouble. It was the customers who told us what was happening – there was no communication at all from head office, and we didn’t speak to our manager about it. Then we started to see the posters going up saying when we were closing.
In the weeks before we closed, the shelves got emptier, but we started to get stock we had never seen before. There were lots of Woolworths-branded electronics that they must have got out of a warehouse somewhere – Woolworths hairdryers, Woolworths hair straighteners. The atmosphere was a lot gloomier. My colleague who had been there for years was visibly upset, particularly on the last day. She’d been there so long – it was her life.
On the last day, we were offering 90% off everything. I wandered round and picked up some stationery, but that was all. One of my colleagues had hidden some things in the store room, including PlayStation games. He must have known that there would be higher discounts at the end, and he brought them down and bought them really cheaply.
I went on to university and did a master’s, and now work in the civil service. That job got me my next job, at Sports Direct, and from there a job at Office. But it also gave me my first experience of dealing with people and learning some basic skills, such as time management.
My dad used to make fun of my being made redundant. He said: “It only took you three months to bring Woolworths down! With that record, no company will employ you!” HO
Mike Moss, 51
I joined Virgin in 1997 as a store manager in Edinburgh. Then I set up a new store in Glasgow. It was a really big event. We put on a free concert for 6,000 people. Travis played, Richard Branson came up for the launch and opened the store with Mel C. We would put these huge hoardings round the shop that said: “A gift to Glasgow,” and we literally unwrapped it.
We would put on all kinds of in-store events. We did a Coldplay show once before they were big – there were about 10 people watching, and we had to put some of our colleagues in coats to increase the size of the crowd. Towards the end of Zavvi, we were still getting people including Steven Gerrard and Ricky Tomlinson in to do signings.
I ran a store on Sunset Boulevard in LA, then I went to New York as an area manager, before coming back to be head of retail in the UK. We were taken over by Zavvi, and the business was flying – we were opening new shops and doing refits.
Things started to go wrong when Woolworths went into administration in November 2008 – our supplier was owned by them and all the Christmas stock was frozen. We were living hand-to-mouth, trying to get the latest games, DVDs and music from other suppliers into stores, but Zavvi was new, and we didn’t have a lot of buying power. At the same time, the supermarkets were doing crazy offers where they were practically giving away new releases if you spent enough on other things.
I got the call at 9am on Christmas Eve to say we were going into administration. Boxing Day was when the misery started – people who had bought gift vouchers were streaming into stores, and we couldn’t let them spend them; they were really angry.
After Christmas, it was my job to organise the weekly closures. I’d get a call with a list of shops to close that week, and I’d organise for a Zavvi representative and administrator to go in on a Thursday. Staff knew if no one came to the store then they were staying open for another week. I remember watching the team at one store, looking down the high street anxiously as I turned the corner with my accomplice. Every week, I dreaded waking up on the Thursday, knowing I was about to shatter people’s hopes and, in many cases, put an end to their labour of love.
I was made redundant on 23 February 2009. It was devastating. But you don’t need a head of retail when there isn’t any retailing. I spent the first weeks applying for roles that were clearly already taken, waiting for email replies or for the retail agencies to return calls.
Since 2013, I’ve worked for Topps Tiles – it’s a terrific business. I don’t think physical retail is dead, but there needs to be more support for it. HO
Julia Cronie, 59
The electrical firm Comet went bust in 2012, closing 240 shops in the UK.
I worked for Comet for 22 years. For the last eight years, I worked at the Huddersfield store as a senior administrator.
When Comet was bought for £1 [in 2011], things carried on the way they had been – the stock was always coming in, on time. There was no sign anything was wrong. The day we went into administration, I was having my breakfast and watching the news – that’s how I found out. I was on a 12pm-8pm shift that day, but I went in at 9am.
We couldn’t open for the first five or six hours because we didn’t know what we could sell. We couldn’t sell Dyson vacuum cleaners, we couldn’t sell Hoover products. Big vans started to turn up at the back door to take away stock. The only company that seemed to still have faith that we would sell stock was Apple.
I don’t think any of us were under the illusion it would be bought. We were told we would close on 18 December and what we needed to do before then. The first thing I thought was: “I’m in my 50s. What am I going to do now?” I hadn’t had a job interview for 20 years.
It was physically and mentally exhausting. We were packing things up all day, moving boxes, moving stock. And the exchanges with some of the customers were exhausting too. They were trying to haggle over prices. One man came in and wanted a refund for some batteries – there were signs everywhere saying we couldn’t do refunds, but when I refused he said: “I’m glad you’ve lost your job.” My reply wasn’t very ladylike.
One of the saddest things was losing my colleagues. We were like family in the shop where I worked. Eight years is a long time, and we’d gone through a tragedy in my family, and these people were my rock. After a couple of months, I got a job at Card Factory. I’m still there – it’s a great place to work and I’m getting the trust back that it won’t all be broken up again. HO
Jamal Forrester, 31
The camera chain Jessops closed its doors in January 2013 after going into administration. The name came back to the high street months later after it was bought by the entrepreneur Peter Jones.
I came back from an internship in 2012, and got a summer job at the Canary Wharf branch of Jessops – I’m into photography, so it was a company I knew about. It was a small store – there were about 10 of us – and it was fairly quiet, outside the lunchtime rush. I did everything: serving customers, selling cameras, using the photo printing machines.
When I went back to university in the September, I moved to the Kingston upon Thames branch – they needed someone to work printing photos, and because I had experience of that, I transferred. I used to work Saturdays and Sundays. It was pretty straightforward, the staff were really friendly and it was pretty relaxed.
In the Canary Wharf branch, it would be busy between 11am and 2pm, but outside the lunch break not many people came in. Kingston was busier, and it was more high-end. People would come in and spend a lot of money on the cameras, and buy more prints – and larger ones.
People did come in and have a look at things and then go and buy them online – they openly said that they were going to. If I could save £100 on a camera by buying it from Amazon, I’d do the same. Memory cards that were, say, £30 in Jessops, you could get for less on Amazon. Even the Jessops website was selling some things cheaper than we did in the store, and I’d tell customers that.
In the Christmas before we closed, there was no sign of any trouble. The store was busy and we were getting overtime. I’d worked in Halfords before when it was having difficulties and there was an overtime ban, so I had seen the signs.
My sister saw it on the news first and messaged me to say she was sorry about my job. I went into the store the next day to find out what was going on, and no one knew. They had hired a new area manager the day before. The shop closed on the Friday – just a couple of days later. I didn’t have a locker there, so I didn’t need to go back. I saw some of my colleagues afterwards, and they said that they’d had to help pack all the stuff up to send back to the companies.
The Kingston shop is a Game store now, but there are Jessops in other locations. I’ve kept the staff jacket just to have in the car or use for DIY – not because I miss the company. HO
Adam Richardson, 37
Borders, north London
Bookshop chain Borders failed in 2009 after a deal to sell some stores to WH Smith collapsed.
I joined Borders in 2007. It was my first job after moving from York to London and it was a pretty good one, with friendly people. I was in charge of the art and photography section with lots of beautiful and expensive books.
By autumn 2009, we knew it was over. The credit crunch had affected everyone financially. It was noticeable how much emptier people’s baskets were.
I stayed right to the end. The last week was insane. I had got used to the Christmas period being quite manic, but it was even more so. We had these kind of vulture shoppers. When there weren’t enough books to fill the shelves, we sold the shelves. There were a few trips to the pub, but we closed on Christmas Eve. I got straight on a train to York.
I was on the dole for six months and my experience at the jobcentre was pretty positive. They helped me to stay on my feet and find a good new job. It’s not like it is now.
I ended up working at a business to business publisher helping them put their content online. Then I was made redundant again. In 2012, I joined BBC Worldwide which is now BBC Studios. I’m still there.
When I go back home to the north, it is devastating to see how massively those high streets have been affected. York has bounced back recently, but it is strange as empty retail units have been filled by teashops and eateries. It was always a tourist city, but now it seems reliant on them. SB
Jo Short, 49
Blockbuster, Great Yarmouth
Entertainment rental firm Blockbuster came into the UK market with the purchase of Ritz Video in 1989. It closed its UK stores in 2013.
I trained as a librarian, but they were cutting back on positions so I was looking for anything. I had an interview at Blockbuster and ended up staying there for more than 13 years. People think that in retail you just flit in and out, but quite a few of the people had been there for years – some since it was Ritz.
I ended up renting videos to people who had come in as babies – I would see them and think: “How can you be old enough to rent an 18?” I was at the Great Yarmouth branch for most of the time, then it closed about a year before the others, and I moved to Gorleston. When Great Yarmouth closed the customers started a petition for it to stay open – it didn’t work, but it was nice to know that you had their support.
I saw lots of changes. When I started it was laser discs. I was 29 at the time and not into gaming, but I went through the launch of three PlayStations. I can remember DVDs coming in and Blu-rays launching. There were consoles that never caught on, for example 3D Blu-ray – one customer came in saying that they’d just spent £1,000 on a 3D TV. I thought: “That’s not going to last long.”
It was a complete balls-up, really, although I don’t think any of us saw it would be all “Netflix and chill”. The way we found out how we were losing our jobs was awful. We’d had emails and calls about going into administration, and then one day I was at home before work, and my manager called me in floods of tears. She said she’d just opened a box of point-of-sales stuff and it all had “closing-down sale” on it. There’s no good way to find out you are losing your job, but that is one of the worst.
We stayed open for six weeks. During that time, we were getting in hundreds of items of new stock that we had to sell. On the last day, we worked until 9pm, then we had to go in the next day to strip the store. It was miserable. I had to walk past the shop every single day, and it was empty for four years. People kept asking me what was going to happen to it. Luckily, I got another job. If it had happened now, I don’t know it would be so easy. I see news of shops closing, and I think: “I know exactly what you are going through.” It is terrible. HO