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When the high street meets the internet

Sometimes when we talk about a place we are actually expressing an idea beyond it. The British press isn’t Fleet Street. There’s (slightly) more to Hollywood than the American film industry. Whitehall isn’t the government. This figure of speech – when we describe something using a word or phrase associated with it – is called a metonym.

The digital world is minting new metonyms all the time. There are no objects to touch or places to go: “records” aren’t. “Film” isn’t. “Television” doesn’t require one. But we are physical beings, whose tongue (in the metonymic sense) is intimately connected to the real world. And so we find ourselves on the “high street”. By which I mean shopping online from a selection of reasonably priced, trusted brands.

Of course I support Mary Portas‘s crusade to breathe new life into Britain’s actual high streets, but the term has evolved and so must the places. They always have before. When Simon Spencer introduced the UK high street’s first own-brand label – St Michael at MS – it was revolutionary. The man who coined the phrase “The customer is always right” certainly pleased his: profits increased 1,000% over his tenure.

So I applaud Asos’s record rise in sales (up 47% to £208m in its final quarter to the end of August). Its customers are right, too: online retailers are part of the high street. The bricks-and-mortar version must offer experiences, products and services that online retailers can’t, whether that’s advice, a bra that fits or a place to socialise.

These spaces are also invaluable to brands – retailers have the chance to create a multidimensional experience that online outlets can only dream of. The flagship store isn’t just a shop – it’s a brand’s shop window. A store with the right atmosphere can become a place of pilgrimage, which is part of the reason that the newly relaunched HMV Oxford Street is mimicking successful independents, such as Rough Trade, which puts customer experience at the centre of what it does (and one reason why Topshop Oxford Circus has never experienced its neighbour’s recent woes).

Brands which are getting their “IRL” stores right include: Whistles, with its flawless product, phenomenal service and calm, spacious boutiques, and Zara, which was crowned Britain’s favourite retailer in a survey of 40,000 women last year. Its stores are the upscale equivalent of a jumble sale – because of the incredible turnover of stock central to Zara’s success, aesthetes prepared to browse rather than search for a particular item will always leave happy.

Then there is Bravissimo, which started life in a living room in 1995. As well as providing properly fitting unmentionables (the cornerstone of a great look), it’s been top 10 in the Sunday Times best companies to work for list since 2007. And, of course, John Lewis. The deputy PM famously called for a “John Lewis economy”. It’s debatable whether the model would work elsewhere, but the 75,000 partners who own the company have certainly made it synonymous with good service. The chain has become a national treasure, and a peek at its Christmas advert has become an annual tradition even if you slag it off afterwards.

I feel about John Lewis the way Audrey Hepburn’s Holly Golightly feels about Tiffany Co: “The quietness and the proud look of it; nothing very bad could happen to you there.” I have been known to frequent the haberdashery section during times of personal strife.

So long as there are shops that can provide this kind of escape for me – and other customers – the British high street will be more than just a metonym.

Follow Lauren on Twitter @LaurenLaverne

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