THE high street is dying, and it might be my fault. Or at least, it might be the fault of people like me, whose 21st-century shopping habits are putting a major strain on big-name retailers.

But if the customer is always right – as the man who founded Selfridges famously proclaimed – why are the sellers managing to get it so wrong? Instead of grousing about the internet stealing their business, shouldn’t they be making more effort to keep up?

The news this week that a rescue bid for House of Fraser has fallen through will only add to the unease of retail workers across the UK. The potential benefit of big-store closures to smaller rivals on the high street (less competition, more sales) is likely to be massively outweighed by the risk of shoppers simply staying at home.

“Use them or lose them” is the constant refrain about high-street shops, the assumption being we must all be keen to retain them despite rarely visiting them. For decades now we’ve been warned our city centres are becoming ghost towns thanks to out-of-town shopping malls luring away customers, and the rise of online shopping has only exacerbated the perceived problem. But if traditional stores are no longer meeting customers’ needs, maybe it’s time for them to make way for more creative-minded retailers.

I confess I’m a major contributor to the UK’s “phantom economy” – estimated at £7 billion every year – of purchases made and then almost immediately returned. Sometimes I’ll buy online, other times in store when time allows for a quick browse but not for the fandango of trying things on in a weirdly-lit fitting room. Sometimes I’ll buy multiple sizes and return those that don’t fit, and on occasion I’ll even buy multiple apparently identical items, knowing there will be huge variation in the actual measurements. If free, no-quibble returning was not an option, I’d struggle to find time to do any shopping at all.

Thanks to the cookies I’m constantly clicking to accept, House of Fraser adverts follow me everywhere I go online. I check the news – and there’s that dress I looked at last Tuesday. I log into Facebook – and there’s a further reduction on that skirt that looked nice before I zoomed in. But the technology is not yet smart enough to target me only with adverts for products that are still in stock in my size. It’s also not quite tailored enough to know what I consider chic and what I’d dismiss as frumpy. Big Brother may be watching me, but Big Sister would know better than to suggest I’d be interested in that body-con dress with a frill hem and bell sleeves.

By contrast, Instagram’s algorithms are spookily well targeted, despite the fact that I barely use the app. Up pops a babygro with bunny ears, because I post photos of rabbits and like pictures of friends’ newborns. A “girl power” slogan T-shirt is suggested because I share feminist memes. High-street stores should learn from this, rather than being demoralised by it. The holy grail for shoppers like me is a tailored recommendation from a seller I can trust.

Not for nothing is YouTube crammed with videos from stylish and entertaining vloggers who place bulk orders from obscure retailers, film themselves trying on the clothes and give the resulting videos titles like “Is this Instagram fashion site a scam?” As much as shoppers appreciate bespoke fashion tips, they are suspicious about buying dirt-cheap dresses from China-based stores. And while a prominent “influencer” might encourage them to take a gamble, it only takes one parcel to go astray – or a few items to be of unwearable quality – before taking a punt to grab a bargain becomes a false economy. And despite the stereotype of the vacuous, thoughtless “fast fashion” consumer, many do seek assurances that the items they buy are ethically sourced. A price that seems too good to be true might seem to indicate sweat-shop conditions, but equally it could suggest well-known brands are offloading surplus stock with the labels removed.

So how can the humble department store compete with the unstoppable onward march of technology in an increasingly globalised world? It’s surely pretty simple. If Instagram knows I like rabbits, feminism and fit-and-flare dresses, there’s no reason why a multi-brand retailer with physical stores couldn’t learn this, and more, about my tastes and then alert me any time relevant items come in stock. If managers were savvy enough to schedule mini pop-up shops tailored to some of my interests, I might even make the time to come in for a browse.

If an ordinary woman with a webcam and a credit card can attract millions of followers on YouTube or Instagram by showcasing the wares of online retailers, it’s surely not beyond the wit of those holding decent budgets to innovate and compete? Crossing your fingers and hoping that Holly Willoughby wears one of your brands on This Morning is not the kind of social media marketing strategy that guarantees long-term viability, and nostalgia for a bygone era isn’t enough to keep customers loyal (not even in Glasgow, where draper Hugh Fraser first set up shop on the corner of Buchanan and Argyle Streets back in 1849).

It’s now make or break time for the UK’s department stores. They can move with the times, and try to beat their rivals at their own game, or they can keep doing what they’re doing, and perish.