Most real estate businesses and urban landlords welcomed the pricking of the dot.com bubble with relief. To freeholders of prime commercial property, the high priests of dot.com came on like firebrands preaching the end of bricks-and-mortar businesses and the razing of high streets. Landlords, for their part, greeted them like the crack of doom. Thank goodness that the bread-and-butter rental incomes of many urban landlords, which these days derive from media businesses and 'PR-type set-ups', survived the high-tech hand-on-wallet epidemic.
But now, landlords are baying for fresh blood. The buzzword is 'destination', estate agent parlance for local businesses with small premises and local rents but national reach. A good example, if not new, is Lidgate's, the butcher in Holland Park, whose queue is its best advertisement; customers happily drive past at least five other butchers and risk a parking fine to join it. Or a menswear accessory label like Duchamp, whose tiny boutique in Notting Hill is a portal hardly larger than the wardrobes of its customers but sells global ties and cufflinks and inspires megastars to divert their schedules just to press their noses against the window. Or the Parisian baker Lionel Poilane, who supplies 30 top restaurants daily and has been approached by Sainsbury and Waitrose for his bread, yet all he has is a single oven and three French bakers toiling beneath his micro-bakery in the gastro-gulch of Elizabeth Street in Victoria.
Most of us are emerging from the consumer age of mass production. We have more real wealth than ever before with which to indulge ourselves. As this rises, the disposable parts of our incomes rise pound for pound. What do we spend it on?
Personal service and high-quality goods. Ironically, now that we all live within five miles of either Sainsbury or Tesco, we want to truffle out local merchants and small businesses that 15 years ago we went to great lengths to destroy. Having been washed away over the past two decades, local shops whose owners attend to you personally are undergoing a resurgence. Location, location, location still counts but not in the conventional sense. Businesses are looking for new elite high streets rather than beta-minus thoroughfares. For shoppers and customers, shopping for food, clothes and furniture at places like Westbourne Grove, Elizabeth Street and St John High Street can be great fun. It brings out the hunter-gatherer in us, even if it can be incredibly time-consuming.
It's all about reducing the gap between point of production and point of sale and, ideally, the point of consumption too. The higher up the luxury scale you go, the more important it is to know your point of production. If you're buying a Rolls-Royce or Bentley, it's a good idea to go up to Crewe and see it being produced and customised. Part of the fascination of buying a suit on Savile Row is knowing that the chap who made it is sitting cross-legged downstairs, and not cross-eyed in Shanghai. In a restaurant, it would be nice to know that the chef is just beyond the kitchen door and not in a warehouse in Wolverhampton, but sadly this isn't always the case. When Julian Metcalfe founded his Pret a Manger sandwich empire, a selling point was that the sandwiches were made on the premises and not prefabricated.
This is the new chapter in the book of retail therapy. The experience of buying from the factory is far more powerful than buying from a middleman. If you go to a chateau in France or an estate in Italy and buy a case of wine, you'll never forget it; buy the same wine from a supermarket or wine shop and it's a non-event.
I was reminded of this invertedly at the peak of the foot-and-mouth epidemic.
Talking to a restaurateur whose main selling point is that he specialises in beef of every conceivable strain and cut, I asked him where his happy herds come from, which foot-and-mouth-free valleys they were gambolling about in and which lifestyle option they'd been granted before being brought to table. He smiled sheepishly, or was it cowishly, and said: 'I dunno. The end of the telephone.'