The homogenisation of the high street has been the subject of debate and concern for several years now. Some might even argue that despite resistance from independent retailers and shoppers, the process is more or less complete. But is it?
Yes, it is true that your average UK shopping drag will most likely as not feature a line-up of familiar British fashion fascias - Next, Marks & Spencer, Topshop and so on - but in recent years there has been an injection of interest withthe arrival of international brands, such as Inditex's portfolio led by Zara. And in London, at least, it feels as though there are as many Gaps as there are Starbucks (and therein perhaps lies some of the brand's problems).
Such has been the success of brands like Zara that its presence on major high streets or insignificant commercial centres is largely expected and it has almost attained the status of a national institution, even though it is a Spanish company. Over the past 12 months, however, wehave seen a fresh wave of global retailers chancing their arm in the UK and it will be most interesting to see how things develop.
French womenswear and girlswear chain Comptoir des Cotonniers, for instance, dipped a toe into the UK with a small store on London's South Molton Street and has since expanded with three more stores in the capital. What is interesting about Comptoir's approach so far is that it has chosen upmarket locations for its stores, namely Wimbledon Village, Hampstead and Westbourne Grove, which has led some consumers to believe that the brand is an exclusive independent boutique. On the back of that perception, and the fact that the product is well made and looks more expensive than it actually is, the retailer has built up a loyal following already - me included, but then I had discovered the brand on a holiday shopping trip to France several years ago.
However, the truth is that in France this is in fact a major chain, with more than 220 stores nationwide and a global presence that stretches as far afield as South Korea. If Comptoir aims for that level of coverage in theUK, which has roughly the same population as France, will it still manage to retain its air of exclusivity? At present, it is difficult to say. But there is no doubt that some consumers, once they have got over the initial excitement of the new, do get bored.
As a consumer, I can't decide whether or not it is a good thing that so many international retailers are attracted to the UK. I've spent a fortune in Comptoir since it arrived on these shores, so pleased was I to see it, and a man I know has already been on the web to compile a shopping list in readiness for the opening of US store Abercrombie & Fitch in London later this month. On that evidence, it would appear that I'm all for it. And yet, I'm not so sure.
It's dull enough that many high streets in the UK are all starting to look the same, but when this starts to happen on aglobal basis, one does start to worry. And, when you can buy all the same stuff in the UK anyway, it does rather take the fun out of shopping while you are on holiday.