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Is the High Street beyond saving?

By Gordon Young, Editor

February 21, 2012 | 3 min read

Unloved, unwanted and abandoned next to a bin on a cold winter’s day, the object looked to be in a sorry state. But I picked it up and took it home. And after cutting through 40 years of village shop grease and grime I found something of beauty.

It was a 1950s Adwel adding machine; effectively a mechanical calculator. The only power the Norwegian-built contraption ever required was the strong-arm of the local sub-post mistress.

Why is this relevant to readers of The Drum? Because to me it represents a great metaphor for what is happening in sectors such as media and retail. The Adwel is fiendishly complex. Still in perfect working order it contains over 1,000 manufactured parts; each one would have been designed and drawn by hand.

The complex cogs, springs, levers and keys allow one to add, subtract and multiply. In addition its mechanical cache can carry sub totals, before – with the pull of its handle – the whole unit, in a marvel of precision engineering, dumps its total on a till receipt roll. So complex is this machine it could have driven a saint to drink. But it was no doubt the pride of some Norwegian factory. I can just imagine them spending these dark Scandinavian winters refining their design – perhaps replacing a spring here, the angle of a cog there.

And then some bugger invented the calculator. Overnight this mechanical marvel – which no doubt evolved over decades – was as dead as a Dodo. Suddenly machines which would have cost the equivalent of £100s in today’s money were being simply abandoned next to bins.

The same thing is happening for similar reasons in our mainstream economy. Many are fooled into thinking the current stresses and strains are all down to the credit crunch. But in reality the economic pressures are simply accelerating a transition which was underway in any case.

Take retail. With the growth of online, (and emerging disciplines such as Performance Marketing which is featured in a special report published in the latest issue of The Drum) there is simply less need for traditional shops. Many high streets, despite the best efforts of the likes of Mary Portas, will inevitably go the same way as the Adwel adding machine. And the same is true for any printed newspaper that believes it is still in the business of breaking news.

That is why I will keep my Adwel in sight; it serves as a reminder that nothing – not tradition, craftsmanship or even ingenuity – can save a product that has lost its purpose.


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