The Boohoo models are pouting in desperation. Even Asos can’t sell fast fashion fast enough. Despite low unemployment and rising incomes, people are shopping like it’s 1899 and retailers are increasingly worried. There’s all kinds of speculation about why this might be – from the looming clouds of Brexit, to the atrocious December weather or the more fundamental idea that we’re approaching "peak stuff".
But step off Carnaby street in London and you’ll find a different clue. The Choose Love store is a collaboration between Help Refugees and Glimpse that has been wildly busy this Christmas. It’s one of two stores (the other is in New York) in which people can buy real products for refugees – things such as blankets, tents and babygrows. We’ve borrowed the style and convenience of retail to help people learn about refugees and do something practical to help.
Last year the store raised £750,000 and attracted over 12,000 customers. This year it’s raised more than £1.3m already, and, at the time of writing, there’s still four days until Christmas. This is a new concept in retail, and it’s gaining momentum at a time when almost every other store is slowing down.
Could this be a glimpse of the future? Imagine if there was a Choose Love store on every high street, where instead of shopping for yourself you could enjoy the experience of helping others. Imagine if charity shops weren’t seen as a sign of decline but a sign of progress: that our society was becoming more compassionate, more outward-facing, more fulfilled.
And perhaps this could be a major new opportunity for modern retail, where the incredible creative talent that we have in Britain is adapted to a different aim. You might think this is ridiculous, or hopelessly naive. But why not? Young people coming into this industry are getting fed up with the "pile ‘em high, sell ‘em cheap" mentality, and are demanding change. Consumers (actually, let’s call them citizens) are looking for ways to align their personal values with their spending habits. And what else are we going to do with all those empty shops?
Every big cultural shift starts somewhere. It looks small and insignificant for a while, until it seems so obvious that people can’t imagine how things were before it happened. If you’ve got a moment between now and Christmas, head down to Choose Love and spend some time in the store. Speak to people. Watch their faces as they happily open their wallets. This is a long way from how the rest of retail feels right now, and it just might be the start of something big.
James Turner is co-founder of Glimpse, a collective that aims to bring creativity to social and environmental causes