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There’s an awful sense of déjà vu while watching the current death-throes of yet another large, well-known high street retail chain.

As this is written, the final outcome of the Wilko collapse is still undecided; the futures of some 12,500 employees across around 400 retail shops (and two distribution centres) are still in the balance. However, based on past experience it’s likely that most of those will disappear, along with most (if not all) of the physical stores, even if someone does acquire the name for use as an online retailer.

Just the latest in a very long line of once-familiar names that used to be in our shopping centres: Woolworth’s, BHS, Debenhams, etc, etc. Victims of what is now being called in some quarters the ’retail apocalypse’ – largely put down to consumers switching to online shopping, accelerated by the effects of the Covid19 crisis and a subsequent increase in the number of people working from home, and a dozen other factors that put together just amount to ‘changing times and changing habits’.

As someone who has (at least technically) ‘worked from home’ for most of the last 40 years, and who also has a life-long aversion to anything other than very quick, deliberate, trips to the shops to buy something that has already been researched and chosen earlier, it was actually quite a shock to visit a large, town-centre shopping centre with my wife just a week or so ago.

For a start, it was odd to see that what I used to think of as a personal ‘refuge’ – the HMV record shop – (one of the few to remain open after that chain initially collapsed) was gone, as what until recently had been a large M&S store. Both former shops were now empty, along with a few others that I couldn’t even recall which chain had occupied. Among other things, Her Ladyship was looking for a new phone case and charging lead for her mobile – which happens to be neither an Apple nor a Samsung, and is all of three years old.

So, we pop into two of the mobile networks’ retail shops: no chance of finding a phone case (even though they both sell the latest models by that phone manufacturer); a single charging lead would be either £10.99 or £12.99. Pop in to an independent phone accessories retailer (which had been recommended by the sales assistant at one of the phone company’s shops) and again, no cases, but £14.99 for a cable. Finally, to a large and well-known department store; no cases of course, but the lead was there at £19.99 – although at least it looked ‘quality’! We bought nothing.

Back at home late that evening I look at eBay: dozens of cases, and at least three pages of charging leads from £2.99 upwards. Quick look at Amazon: again dozens of cases and no fewer than 400 pages of USB-‘c’ cables to choose from; eventually settling for a twin-pack of very good quality ones for £7.99 – with no delivery charge. Both items ordered around 9.00pm and arrived before lunchtime next day. Job done.

Being of a certain age, I couldn’t help but think of Wile E Coyote and the Road Runner cartoons: where Wile E would often think up another scheme to capture the Roadrunner, but needed a certain piece of equipment to do it. Invariably he’d take a quick look at the ’Acme Corporation’ mail-order catalogue and almost instantly the desired gadget would be delivered to him in the remotest part of the desert. Internet shopping is really fantasy made reality. Not only do those giant companies stock more hard-to-find or obscure items than any physical store could possibly manage, but their delivery systems are extremely efficient (well, usually…) and the costs are a fraction of what high street retailers (have to) charge.

Now petrol retailers are fortunate that their key product can’t really be sold this way – although it’s not completely inconceivable that someone could try to do the ‘sales’ online via mobile phone apps, and have the physical collection from a ‘petrol station’ anywhere in the country. But even then, there would still be a need for a physical presence, although that might be fully-automated as well. Presumably somebody has looked at that model already, and discovered that the savings/profits don’t justify all of the effort. However, ‘petrol stations’ as we have known them for over a century do face an existential threat – although it sometimes seems that some owners are oblivious to it at the moment.

Whenever I visit a newly-refurbished forecourt, it’s both surprising and disappointing to see how many of them have not put any EV charging points into the redevelopment despite seemingly having plenty of space in which to do so. And no – I don’t have an EV, and don’t want one! Speak to forecourt owners or operators and the most common response is a vague muttering about ‘waiting’ for something; waiting to see which charging systems win out, or offer the best deal, or waiting to see whether hydrogen fuelling becomes a commercial reality. Or simply waiting’…

That is a mistake. You may believe that the EV approach as espoused by governments here and around Europe is a technological dead-end that will be seen within a generation in the same way as we now look back at the push to diesel fuel 10 or 15 years ago. I wouldn’t disagree. However, car buyers are still buying these things in increasing numbers today, and governments are still committed to banning the sale of new petrol/diesel vehicles within a few years. Yes, it’s possible that hydrogen fuelling might be rolled out by the big energy suppliers (probably our old friends the oil companies); but there’s no sign of any real government support for that – the politicians have attached their ‘green’ credentials to EVs and everything else is ignored.

Meanwhile, your customers are switching from fuelling to charging and the supermarkets are already taking them from you. Even those food retailers who’ve traditionally not had any interest in the petrol market (eg Lidl) have started putting fast-chargers in prominent locations within their store car parks; and it seems that almost every time I drive into a any large supermarket car park these days, there are yet more parking spaces that have been converted into EV-charging areas.

Already there’s a generation forming of car drivers who have no intention of going back to fossil-fuelled vehicles, and who only visit petrol stations that have charging points readily available – along with the facilities (coffee-vending and a place with wi-fi and some seating) to make the charging wait bearable – when they absolutely have no alternative.

If the supermarkets or whatever is left of ‘retail parks’ offer those facilities in increasing numbers, this generation of motorists will only go searching for ‘petrol stations’ if they’re desperately in need of re-charging, and if the app on their phone tells them that that there’s one nearby that offers that. By which time many existing sites that don’t adapt and adopt the technology will be as long-gone as the local Blockbuster store.

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