Shut the door

Help shops save energy

As winter finally arrived in north London, I spent hours this week blocking off the icy blast that creeps under my front door and around my windows. Having done that, I went out Christmas shopping – only to find that the chain stores all keep their doors wedged open.

I looked about me into the dense fog shrouding Hampstead’s shops and rubbed my chin with frozen fingers. Something didn’t make sense.

At Gap Kids, thinking I could do something to stop this madness, I shut the door behind me. But moments later a member of staff quietly wandered over to open it again.

Next stop, Jigsaw. This time I shut the double doors with a deliberate air of well-meaning prudence – the smug expression Gordon Brown uses to present his budgets. Whereupon a woman I took to be the manager nodded towards a security man, who walked to the doors and set them open again.

I marched to the manager and asked what was going on. “It’s our policy,” she said. To freeze her customers and staff? “We would be in big trouble if we left the doors shut,” she said.

I went back to Gap Kids and asked for the manager there. When she appeared, I gave a brief overview of climate change, and added that even if she didn’t believe carbon emissions will kill us, she would anyway save money on utility bills, to the satisfaction of head office and shareholders, if she shut the doors.

She was sympathetic. I wasn’t the first person to tell her this. A woman had come in recently and talked hysterically about polar bears dying out.

She said her staff got terribly cold, but they couldn’t shut the glass doors in case somebody walked into them by mistake, or even on purpose. “They might sue.”

I suggested that perhaps the glass could be frosted here and there, or covered in stickers, to prevent any such tragedy. She smiled, took my name, and promised to pass on my comments.

Over the street, at Waterstones, it seems the doors are not transparent enough. They have heavy black frames and only the top half is glazed. Anecdotal evidence, Waterstones’ manager tells me, indicates that customers think the shop is shut if the doors are closed, and sales suffer as a result. So the doors must stay open. I suggested the shop invest in an old-fashioned reversible sign bearing the legend: “Open/Shut”.

Like others I spoke to, he said he was personally in favour of shutting the doors – “I’m pretty green myself” – but he had to follow company policy.

At Gap (the adult branch), a shivering waif in Gap T-shirt, working by the door, pointed me towards the manager, who said the store’s air-con was kaput just now. Only by keeping the door open could customers be saved from grisly death by suffocation. (Not quite how she put it.)

The woman in charge at French Connection submitted yet another explanation. “It’s a fire exit, so it has to be open,” she said primly.

And yet the few remaining independent shops in Hampstead – Louis’s Tea Rooms, Hampstead Healthfood, Ritz Pharmacy – all manage to keep their doors closed. As do those great corporate satans Starbucks and McDonalds. I popped inside McDonalds to ask how come they were so much more responsible than their neighbours. The startled manager explained that it would be wasteful to run the air-con with his doors open. And the extractor fans wouldn’t work so well. It was a shame that people couldn’t smell the food from outside (I disagreed but said nothing) though on balance he considered that McDonalds customers know well enough what the product is like and have a pretty good idea of its opening hours.

How about that: McDonalds has greater confidence in the intelligence of customers than Waterstones does.

According to the Royal Commision on Environmental Pollution, retailers use 275 kilowatt-hours per square metre. That’s vastly more than, say, local government offices (which use 39kWh per m2) or factories (47), warehouses (81) and commercial offices (95).

One explanation for the waste is lighting: many stores are lit to the same intensity as TV studios. (And few use energy-saving bulbs. Believe me, I’ve checked.) Another substantial contribution is made by supermarkets installing freezers that have no doors. These cost about £15,000 a year to run, and need to be balanced by in-store heaters. And of those heaters, the craziest must surely be the ones installed over the open front door, which typically have a rating of 500 kilowatts – roughly seventeen times as powerful as a standard domestic fan heater.

Environmentalists say the best way for consumers to tackle retailers’ wasteful emissions would be to stop going to shops altogether and buy everything online. Department of Transport studies show that replacing shoppers in private cars with delivery vehicles would reduce traffic by 70 per cent. And without customers to dazzle and roast in shops, retailers could become wholesalers and reduce utility bills on their premises.

As somebody who gets local, seasonal food delivered to my door, I’ve already given up on supermarkets. And I can certainly live without ever again traipsing round clothes shops. But it does seem a little bleak to forego every other kind of shop too. I’d much rather they changed their wasteful ways.

The worst sector, my own research suggests, is fashion. To be specific, Accessorize, Hobbs, Kurt Geiger, LK Bennett, Molton Brown, Nicole Farhi, Nine West, Petit Bateau, Reiss and Whistles all had their doors open. Each one presumably justifies keeping doors open on the grounds that rivals do the same. At any rate, that’s what Jigsaw’s press office told me: “We take this approach to stay competitive in a very difficult market and you will notice that most of our competitors have the same policy.”

Only doing it because everybody else does: an excuse used by naughty children at school. But better than arguing, with store managers and war criminals, that you’re only obeying orders.

Having done a certain amount of research, I probably shouldn’t have been surprised to find, at the bottom of the hill, that the once-ethical Body Shop likewise blasts hot air into the street through open doors. But I was surprised. The apologetic manager, like so many others, advised me to contact head office.