Kristy Dorsey: Town centre traders face challenge

Within hours of its online release earlier this month, millions had watched the latest holiday instalment from John Lewis. Picture: Contributed
Within hours of its online release earlier this month, millions had watched the latest holiday instalment from John Lewis. Picture: Contributed
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EARLIER than ever the festive season is getting into full swing, with some of the UK’s biggest retailers already more than a week into their television advertising campaigns.

Within hours of its online release earlier this month, millions had watched the latest holiday instalment from John Lewis. Social media was awash with commentators either loving or loathing “that penguin”, and the unofficial start of Christmas was under way.

Aldi has likewise launched its bid to become the go-to place for affordable yet scrummy festive food. Sainsbury’s four-minute epic from the Trenches of 1914 is a poignant tear-jerker, though critics have derided it as cynical and disrespectful. Whatever your views, the increasingly lengthy run-up to the holiday season clearly underlines how vital this trading period is for the vast majority of retailers. The biggest will release updates by early to mid-January, and these will be picked through on the way to identifying the “winners” and “losers” of Christmas 2014.

But what of those smaller traders in the towns and villages struggling to keep their centres alive?

The challenges faced by high street retailers – particularly the independents – are well-documented: competition from out-of-town locations and the continuing rise of online sales has eroded footfall through the centres. Shoppers who do venture forth have less disposable income than in recent years past.

Attempts to reverse this decline have been on the go for some time. It’s been nearly three years since the publication of the Portas Review by Mary Queen of Shops. Scotland’s Towns Partnership (STP) marked its second anniversary earlier this month and is gearing up for its main event of the year, Scotland’s Towns Week, which kicks off tomorrow.

Leigh Sparks, head of retail studies at Stirling University and chair of STP, has long argued that the demise of town centres is not just about stores, but the decentralisation of a range of activities. Cinemas, schools, housing, hospitals and football grounds have migrated to the outskirts during the past few decades, leaving little reason to head into town.

Some communities are now looking at creative ways to fill those gaps. In a step beyond patching up and painting over, they are trying to create new reasons for being in the town centre.

Peebles Community Trust is one of 15 groups so far to take the Can Do Towns Innovation Challenge, which is open to groups across Scotland. The trust’s efforts to turn the Kingsmeadows Estate into a community hub are typical of the kind of projects the challenge supports.

High street retailers are certainly hoping for jingling tills this Christmas, but saving the country’s town centres is going to take more than a festive spending frenzy. Not all of these experiments will succeed, but they need the opportunity to either thrive or fail. «