What Doncaster tells us about the world of online shopping

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Amazon currently accounts for just 2% of the UK’s retail spending, set to grow along with the country’s online shopping obsession.

To understand the turbulent world of the British high street, Sky News went to Doncaster in South Yorkshire, a town where one in five shops sit empty. 

The town was once supported by money from the coal mining industry.

Even as late as 1980, around 17,000 men were employed in the pits and it was one of the last places in the country to close all its collieries.

But now, Doncaster has found a new industry to anchor its economy – online shopping.

It is home to distribution centres for a series of big retail companies, playing on its strong transport links with the rest of the country.

And among those companies setting up home is the world’s biggest, wealthiest retailer – Amazon.

The company has a series of warehouses on the edge of town.

In one, we filmed robots silently gliding around, collecting products and preparing them for distribution round the country.

What’s noticeable is that there are no human workers alongside them.

The machines work alone.

“Automation enables us to increase efficiencies so there are benefits for our customers,” says Stuart Morgan, general manager of the warehouse.

He says that the future will not be about robots working alone to sort our shopping, but rather “greater interaction between both automation and people”.

Amazon’s robots are improving efficiency, but they also do something else – they prove the depth of resources available to a company that is presently valued at slightly less than a trillion dollars.

It can build as many warehouses or automated machines as it wants.

One of its other warehouses in Doncaster is the size of 15 football pitches.

How, you might wonder, can any other retailer hope to cope in a world where Amazon is becoming a byword for easy shopping?

This is a time of flux for our retailers.

Big names have closed down, and analysis from the Local Data Company, first reported by Sky News, reveals that the number of high street shops is now in decline.

Down the road, in the middle of Doncaster, we walk down Silver Street, once lined with stores but now a building site dotted with pubs and fast food joints.

Through one well-loved doorway, you walk into the Direct Carpet Company, run by Sandra and Ray Bowskil.

Their shop is about to close down after 95 years on the same site.

The customers, who once packed the shop, have been drawn away by big-name rivals based in out-of-town locations.

“We knew we either had to make a decision to leave or stay and realised that if we stayed then by the time Christmas came we would be owing money so we decided that now is the time to leave,” Sandra says.

But others are more optimistic, convinced there is a way to thrive in an Amazon world.

Rachel Whittaker thinks she knows the answer.

She started her jam and chutney shop, The Jam Horse, nine months ago, backed with rent subsidies from the council and a desire to concentrate on local markets.

“You have to position yourself as something different from the competition,” she said.

“Amazon are not my competition. My produce is all made locally with locally sourced ingredients.

“You can buy artisan products on Amazon but you have to pay to have them delivered.

“I shop online but I also support my local businesses. I would never dream of buying my meat or vegetables online because I have a market on my doorstep.

“That’s what I’m hoping people will do with the products here – not only are they supporting local, they are supporting local people and the economy, and that’s not what you do when you buy from Amazon.”

And perhaps that is the key – not to think of the way to beat Amazon at what it does best, but to think of what it doesn’t do, or can’t provide.

That might be chutney, or fruit or, in the case of Keith Wortley, fun.

He took over the former BHS site in Doncaster’s Frenchgate shopping centre and converted it from a failed retail premises and into a trampolining and activity centre, nestled among the shops.

“I’ve been in retail most of my life, and I wanted a venture that I knew you couldn’t get online,” he said.

“It’s very difficult to exercise online.

“It’s a question of perhaps looking at the opportunity and thinking what service can I provide, what goods and services can I provide that Amazon can’t.”

For him, it is working.

In the middle of the afternoon, his trampoline centre was busy.

His mantra, of looking for the things that Amazon can’t do, is worth remembering – not least because we might end up with shops that are more thoughtful, focused on their customers and, perhaps, more interesting.

At the moment, the American giant is responsible for just 2% of retail spend in this country.

But that will grow, and so will our addiction to online shopping.

The Amazon effect will change our high streets – but there’s just a chance, it might change them for the better.

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