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Mark Hughes

Some 200 years ago Napoleon described Britain as a nation of shopkeepers. Shopping still plays a huge role in the recreational life of the nation - for proof, pay a visit to Oxford Street, the high street in the centre of the capital, in the weeks before Christmas.

But this is changing, with the relentless growth of Web commerce forcing many retailers to the wall. It seems that only shops offering services unavailable on the internet are immune.

In the apocalyptic words of one report, the abandonment of many high streets is turning the nation into 'Ghost town Britain'.

The latest statistics show that between 1997 and 2002, specialised stores - including butchers, bakers, fishmongers, and newsagents selling confectionery, tobacco, and newspapers - closed at the rate of 50 per week across Britian. General stores have been closing at the rate of one per day.

It is not just the internet that is to blame. The arrival of a big supermarket nearby typically heralds tough times for many high-street retailers, although the impact may be hidden by a time lag of two to three years before smaller stores are forced to close.

Then there is the sudden growth of fake local stores under the big supermarket brands, presenting yet another threat to small independent retailers. For example, Tesco's smaller Express stores have reportedly caused drops in business of 30 to 40 per cent for other local shops.

John Clare, chief executive of Europe's leading specialist electrical retailing group, foresees a grim future for the high-street store. His firm, DSG International, employs 40,000 people, has 1,450 stores, and online shops offering products in 27 countries.

'Three years ago I said internet sales would account for 10 per cent of our electrical sales eventually,' he told a business conference. 'More than 60 per cent of our customers to stores today have visited our websites first.

'The threatened revolution of the internet bubble is now here. All of the increase in retail sales in the last three years has been online.'

Indeed, DSG made one of its shops, Dixons, an exclusively online operation last year - and Mr Clare says sales have exceeded expectations.

British shoppers spent GBP7.66 billion (HK$ 117.5 billion) online in the run-up to Christmas, 54 per cent up on the previous year.

This move from retailing to 'e-tailing' has led to a halving of second-hand bookshops, a once-familiar feature of the high street, from 1,200 to 600 during the past five years. Since 2000, one in 10 travel agency branches has shut.

The growth in online shopping has been led by electrical goods. Less threatened are coffee bars, restaurants, opticians, and clothes and shoe shops - the latter three because most customers still want to try their goods on.

Even sleepy seaside towns, where many of the residents are retirees, are not immune. Malcolm Breton ran a shop selling goods for babies such as prams and cots just off the main street in Kingsbridge, on the Devon coast. He found he was losing business to websites with their lower overheads and consequently cheaper prices.

'I decided it wasn't worth my while to continue. Now I buy and sell goods on eBay and make much more money,' he said. 'Who needs bricks when you can get all you need with clicks?'