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Nick Fletcher: After the pandemic, large companies need to take more corporate responsibility

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Nick Fletcher is MP for Don Valley.

Since the imposition of the first lockdown in March last year, our high streets have suffered enormously while online retail outlets such as Amazon have made huge profits.

I am in no way wholly against internet shopping, and I am pleased that the Housing Secretary also recognises that how we use our high streets will change over the coming years.

That said, polling data and my own experience with constituents demonstrate that the public wants to keep our high streets and believe that the companies who have been able to profit from the lack of competition now must give back more to the communities they serve.

In other words, such online business giants need to revisit what it means to be corporately responsible and how that can be best put into practice.

My feeling that this is more necessary than ever was sparked by the opening of the first Amazon shop in London in March. While some business commentators were eager to promote the concept, I am deeply concerned that the opening of this kind of store will have a negative impact on our society. The store that opened in London last month only requires a customer to pick up an item and leave. They are monitored by CCTV and charged for what they picked up accordingly.

While some may admire such a shopping experience’s supposed efficiency, this experience requires no interaction whatsoever. Is this what the public wants or needs, as we come out of over 12 months of lockdowns and isolation?

Stores such as these will exacerbate the decline of high street shops. The decline of the British high street has long been an issue but was made worse by the pandemic. Even more worryingly, the nature of the Amazon store will lower customer satisfaction and maintain the sense of social isolation that many have been feeling over the past twelve months.

As a Conservative, who believes in the necessity and utility of societal bonds, I firmly believe that we cannot allow huge corporations to create a dystopian environment where individuals speak to each other less and less, and are merely atoms within a system where everything is transacted on one’s phone.

The high street was in serious trouble before the pandemic. But Covid-19 has done a tremendous amount of damage. According to the Local Data Company (LDC), in 2020 more than 11,000 outlets permanently disappeared from UK streets. It is expected that this will continue, with 18,000 more shops, restaurants and leisure outlets potentially being vacated by the end of this year.

Yet if we are to turn the tide of this, and help rejuvenate our battered streets, these new Amazon stores, or similar ones like it, are not the way to go.

There are a couple of reasons for this. Firstly, a system that enables customers to come into a store and order anything they need will decimate the surrounding independent or more specialist stores within the vicinity. The rise of the Amazon store will do to our DIY stores and phone shops what the supermarkets did to our butchers, grocers and fishmongers. However, the scale of damage will be even more significant and will risk turning our high streets into nothing less than wind-swept, uninviting pickup centres.

While of course, I welcome that companies such as Amazon want to invest in our high streets, a far better approach would be for Amazon to open shops that showcased new products rather than selling ones in the store. This would still benefit the company, with consumers being able to try out or inspect new products, which if they liked, they could go home and order as usual. This approach would be the best of both worlds. It would enable Amazon to showcase its new products while also ensuring that its store did not suck up business from the smaller stores close by.

Some may argue that such an approach would be backward thinking and unattractive to consumers. However, rather than it being backwards, it is instead a reasonable compromise. Not least because data shows that consumers themselves are increasingly against any moves to increased automate of their shopping experience.

In a survey of 340 people by marketing agency iD, 70 per cent of respondents said that digital experiences do not compare with the ‘real thing’. Furthermore, the BBC’s research in 2017 was clear in its conclusion that most customers dislike self-checkouts and prefer proper, more traditional customer interactions. Limiting the amount of social interaction between shop staff and customers is therefore not wanted by consumers themselves. If we are to revive the high street in the pandemic, it would be nonsensical for the next breed of shops that emerge to be ones such as the new Amazon shop.

This brings me to my second reason for opposing the concept of the new Amazon store, and why I believe that further such stores of this nature are damaging. Not only will such stores accelerate the decline of the high street by making surrounding shops redundant and the shopping experience unpleasurable, but they shall also further exacerbate feelings of social isolation. This is something which large companies should avoid.

The shopping experience offered by the new Amazon store will no doubt further feelings of isolation, which are currently at dangerously high levels. According to a survey of over 4,000 adults by the Mental Health Foundation, the number of people in the UK experiencing feelings of loneliness has more than doubled since March last year, with a quarter of the 4,251 adults surveyed in February saying they felt lonely. This compared with only ten per cent in March 2020. Among young people, a staggering 48 per cent reported feeling alone, as lockdowns affected young people the hardest when it came to loneliness.

I am sure that most people will agree that these are troubling statistics, and we should not be encouraging large companies to employ business practices that make such figures even worse.

Instead, companies such as Amazon, who have done well out of the pandemic, should now be expected by Government and wider society not just to make a profit, but to think about how they can be corporately responsible as we come out of it. With the public concerned both about the future of the high street and increasing social atomisation, it is only right that we expect business giants such as Amazon to think more about the society and economy that they are building.

If we don’t push such companies to act responsibly, the consequences will be unfortunate, if not dire.

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