Monday, 6 May 2013

The Passing Of Ocky White

The chances are very high indeed you've never heard of Ocky White and likely never will again. It's a relatively small independent department store located in the sleepy Pembrokeshire town of Haverfordwest, a town famous and notable for nothing whatsoever. Well, perhaps for being the nearest town to where my mum lives.

If self awareness is the key to success, by the way, being a department store that can't spell department store on its own website might hold at least part of the clue to the puzzle of Ocky's passing...

Ocky White originally opened its doors in 1910, a sort of Welsh version of Mr Selfridge without, perhaps, quite as much glamour. Its founder Octavius had his name shortened by the locals, presumably because it made it easier to compose limericks about him.

It's got all you'd want in a provincial department store. It's got a perfume section and a slightly brash gifts section, a glass and chinaware section and a kitchen section. Upstairs, there's lots of nice Windsmoor clothing and a men's department. It's got a cafe that smells of frying food and slightly seedy pasties.

It is a store steeped in tradition and therefore bound to fail. And fail it has.

The passing of Ocky White takes place this coming week with a sale starting Wednesday for invited guests and Friday for the 'hoi polloi'. As people flock to pick over the leavings of its failure, almost 50 staff will lose their jobs and Ocky White's will become another shuttered shopfront in a high street that is slowly collapsing into something you could use as the set for an Ulltravox video. Sorry, showing my age there.

The final nail in old Ocky's coffin was the out of town Withybush shopping development that brought Marks and Spencer to Haverfordwest (and, oh! the excitement!), lulled Boots out of the town centre and is now to see the opening of a branch of Dubai's favourite little corner of England, Debenhams.

It's hard to see what Ocky White's management could do in the face of this onslaught from major brands clustered around plenty of car parking in a low-rent out of town site. How can an independent retailer possibly compete with those massive supply chains and colossal buying power?

It could, of course, have modernised - thrown out all that old fashioned Windsmoor stuff and put together collections of stunning clothing and precious things, but you're really just pushing back at the tide. Because at the same time cars are taking shoppers out of town, our shopping habits are changing and we're giving more of our time to online - we've got less time in our lives for strolling around town centres or retail parks and browsing around as we spend more of that time glued to eBay, Amazon and BuzzFeed. And that's assuming its not pelting down with rain, a not uncommon occurrence in Haverford.

During our time in the UK at Easter we visited two big out of town 'designer outlet' centres, Bridgend in Wales and Banbridge in the North of Ireland and were struck by how desolate they seemed compared to when we saw them last. There were many units to let - and precious few shoppers flocking to all those bargains. Both seemed as desperate as Haverfordwest Town Centre. You sort of felt yourself waiting for the tumbleweed.

British high street retail has never looked so shabby and unkempt. Not only has the recession created havoc in the high streets - the money's moving out of town or online. Now even the out of town sites appear to be losing out because just as they decimated the high street, online is decimating them. Cheaper prices and free delivery mean that retail footfall no longer guarantees you a transaction, it just guarantees someone a transaction as buyers do their research and then go online to do their business - now something people do while they're actually standing in the store, thanks to mobile.

This, in fact, is what ecommerce means to physical retail. So what does ecommerce - the great nascent market of the Middle East - mean for Dubai's mall culture? I have to confess, I'll be sorrier to see the passing of Ocky White... 

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