Call for action as shoppers desert high street

Princes Street, Edinburgh. Picture: Jon Savage
Princes Street, Edinburgh. Picture: Jon Savage
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Business leaders have said action is needed to stem a slide in shoppers on Scotland’s high streets and a further increase in the number of empty stores.

Fresh figures published today reveal that footfall north of the Border dropped last month while shop vacancies rose.

A more concerted effort is needed to drive footfall

David Lonsdale, SRC

In July, footfall numbers in Scotland were 2.4 per cent lower than a year ago, unchanged from June’s rate, according to the latest Scottish Retail Consortium/Springboard monitor. That is well below the UK-wide, year-on-year, decline of 1.1 per cent.

Meanwhile the town centre shop 
vacancy rate in Scotland hit 10.6 per cent, up from 10.4 per cent in the previous quarter.

That compares with a UK vacancy rate for last month of 9.8 per cent.

The Scottish Retail Consortium (SRC) has called for action to tackle the issue.

David Lonsdale, director of the SRC, said: “This is a rather cheerless set of figures, heralding a third successive spike in the shop vacancy rate in our town centres coupled with a further drop in shopper footfall.

“Almost one out of every nine retail premises in Scotland now sits empty. Encouraging shoppers back is crucial to reducing the number of vacant premises, however shopper footfall shrivelled once again last month albeit against a strong comparable in the same period last year. July was the third successive month in which shopper footfall contracted.

“A more concerted effort is required to drive up footfall and reduce the number of empty retail premises in our town centres.”

He said that retailers have a role to play but argued that government at all levels should consider what further steps could be taken.

“For example local councils should place more emphasis on accessible and affordable parking and a building standards system that better facilitates retail refurbishment and expansion,” noted Lonsdale.

“At a time when retailers’ margins are thin or non-existent government needs to get a firmer grip on tax and regulatory costs which have mushroomed, starting by making it less costly for firms to invest in commercial premises.”

Diane Wehrle, marketing and insights director at Springboard, said vacancy rates are likely to continue to worsen unless action is taken.

She said: “The more severe drop in footfall in Scotland’s high streets and shopping centres compared with the UK is likely to be one of the reasons for the worsening of the vacancy rate to 10.6 per cent from 10.4 per cent.

“Many retailers are rationalising their networks as high street leases come to an end, and as retail parks are able to easily capitalise on the demands of shoppers in the omni-channel trading environment they inevitably act as a magnet for retailers who are able to trade successfully out of town.

“The growth in activity in retail parks in Scotland – which started five months earlier than across the UK in August 2013 and which is escalating – is likely to lead to a further deterioration in the vacancy rate over the coming months unless some key initiatives are implemented to boost town centre trade.”

Town and city centres have had to cope with the opening and subsequent expansion of several major out-of-town retail and lesiure developments, including Glasgow Fort and Edinburgh’s Fort Kinnaird.