How would one iconic High Street fare in the high-tech future? Are we all doomed? Should we panic?
The last series of BBC-TV's 'Dad's Army' aired 35 years ago, but it remains one of the most celebrated sitcoms, with fans around the world continuing to delight in the misadventures of the Home Guard defenders of Walmington-on-Sea during the Second World War.
This fictional seaside resort boasts a quintessential British high street amid which many of the show's plots unfold. The shopkeepers depicted were arguably already on the way out in the 1940s, as retail evolutions - many technology-led - changed the way the public was buying its necessary goods and services, along with the shape of the traditional shopping thoroughfare.
So how well would the characters featured in this classic comedy have fared during the economic upheavals of the last 70 years? In tribute to the retailers of Walmington, E&T looks at the trading challenges they might have faced since the 1940s and at what the future could hold for their respective lines of business.
1. W.M. Hodges, greengrocer and fruiterer
The independent greengrocer and fruiterer has become a rare sight on UK high streets, having faced a tough time staving off supermarket chains, not to mention farmers' markets and budget corner shops. One ambitious option open to Hodges' heirs would be to relocate the business to an out-of-town site as a farmer's shop, complementing its traditional range and selling organic produce sourced from local farms, diversifying into horticultural products as a side-line.
2. James Frazer, funeral director
Although the exterior might remain austere, what goes on behind the scenes could be set for a shake-up due to the emerging alternatives to cremation and burial such as dissolution, promession, resomation, aquamation, and 'corpse composting'. The decades since the 1940s have seen periodic waves of interest in cryonic and cryogenic preservation options especially for those suffering from potentially fatal medical conditions; but the cost is high - some estimates are in the £90,000 range.
3. Jack Jones, butcher
Although we are eating less non-prime animal flesh, demand for premium organic and rare-breed meat is growing. An online store would seem like a logical step toward meeting this market, but handling international online payments threatens revenue margins for small merchants. A supply-strapped Jack Jones would watch with interest Chinese scientists' recent genetically-modified lamb Peng Peng, which reportedly contains a 'good' type of polyunsaturated fatty acid.
4. The greening of Walmington seafront
'Dad's Army' chief warden Hodges' famous catchphrase was "Put that light out!", which has a curiously familiar feel in these days of municipal energy conservation. In homage to this, local environmental activists have adapted the slogan for a campaign to have the bulbs used in the seaside town's promenade illuminations replaced with low-energy alternatives - "Put that incandescent light out!" is their cry.
5. Green transport
The iconic vehicle of 'Dad's Army' was Jones's van. Its modern equivalent might feature an electric battery in the place of a war-scarred fuel tank, helping the butcher to meet carbon reduction targets. A small electric van is estimated to cost £100 less in fuel for every 1,000 miles compared with a diesel. Recharging its battery via a rapid charging point (outside the bank) would make the van ready for action in no time.
6. Tea and coffee shops
Traditional refreshment rooms like Walmington's Marigold Tea Rooms and Anne's Pantry have been on the wane for decades, but the demand for over-the-counter coffee and snacks has certainly not. Demand has been met - indeed driven - by the rise of coffee shop chains. Free Wi-Fi access has boosted through-the-doors footfall, but also brings key long-term challenges - not least driven by the growing demand from business customers and others who are primarily seeking a place to work, as the modern day home guard (aka home- workers) and the mobile enterprise brigade go in search of free Internet access.
7. Timothy Whites, chemist
The Timothy Whites pharmacy chain was taken over by Boots in 1968 (the year the Dad's Army TV show began). Facing stiff competition from supermarkets, the chain pharmacies of the 21st century have been compelled to diversify, with larger branches resembling walk-in health centres with in-store opticians, dentistry and orthopaedic surgeries, in addition to sophisticated user- operated body-mass index machines. Such branches now often contain considerable amounts of state-of-the-art medical tech.
8. Joe Walker's store rooms
Modern equivalents to bespatted rogue Joe Walker might well be running a slightly iffy eBay shop in the here and now (positive feedback: 68 per cent), as well as being regulars at Walmington's car-boot sales. Trade in knock-off and counterfeit goods still thrives - despite comparative affluence, we're still tempted to compromise prudence for what looks like a bargain. The prospects for illegally copying in a digital society, allied to the Internet's propensity for bringing buyer and seller together in an unregulated way, suggests the future's bright for the grey market.
9. St Aldhelm's Church
The advent of the Internet has been a godsend for forward-thinking clergy who see the advantages of keeping religious communities in virtual touch with both church activities and other parishioners. Whether it's providing information about virtual services, republishing sermons, coffee mornings (all welcome - Wi-Fi access available), or the next jumble sale, church websites have proved valuable ways to raise awareness. The church's technologists will continue to investigate ways in which geographically-dispersed congregations can be united for services perhaps using high-definition videoconferencing systems operating over public broadband links.
10. Swallow Bank
Famously the workplace of Captain Mainwaring, Sergeant Wilson, and Private Pike, local banks were once vital to small high-street business dealing almost entirely in cash with customers whose identity was rarely challenged. Cyber security has been a major issue for banks since online banking arrived, and the popularity of mobile payment systems will only inherit many of these problems unless systems designers master the art of building security into the technology from the very outset. Online banking security concerns are particularly acute for an ageing population unable to make alternative provisions at the remaining bricks-and-mortar branches.
11. Town cinemas
Following decades of audience decline, it would be unlikely that any of Walmington's cinemas would have been open by the end of the 1980s. The technology of cinematic presentation is starting to go through profound changes. The economics of striking hundreds of prints of a movie for wide distribution are unsustainable, and cinema chains are investigating ways to distribute in high-definition digital formats - either stored or streamed directly to the cinema using high-speed wide-area communications links. This is particularly compelling as more films are originated in HD digital formats, or converted to digital intermediate versions for post-production. Celluloid purists may decry this change, but market economics will make for a more compelling proposition. Converting cinemas to all-digital will require big investments, but HD broadcasting of sport and cultural events could bring lucrative sources of additional audience receipts.
Download our Walmington on Sea high street of the future map as a PDF.