IT was once the most prestigious shopping destination in Scotland.
In its heyday shoppers flocked to Princes Street from across Scotland knowing that they could get the best, and the widest choice, that the high street had to offer in its department stores.
As today’s rapid changes continue to play havoc on the high street, with consumers moving online or taking to the fringes of the city to make use of free, guaranteed parking spaces, the famous street faces a more uncertain future.
Last year’s closure of Frasers saw Princes Street lose one of its flagship department stores, in a sign of just how much the retail landscape has shifted.
And today the Evening News can reveal serious concerns about the future of shopping on Scotland’s most famous street ahead of next year’s scheduled opening of the £850 million St James Quarter.
An investigation by this newspaper has found property experts believe that many of the big name stores on Princes Street may be lured to the St James, the shopping section of which is on course to open in October next year.
Industry sources have identified 13 Princes Street stores – all based on the section from Hope Street to Hanover Street – which they believe are highly likely to make the switch including well-known names such as Mountain Warehouse, New Look, Zara and River Island.
By studying factors such as breaks in their leases and the profile of stores which the St James is likely to target, they have also identified a further 19 that they think could also be lured to the new precincts in the east end.
The worst case scenario would see six stores in a row in the middle of the street quitting for the St James.
With the number of new high street openings on the decrease nationally, and the St James bidding to attract any new stores which might move into the Capital, with the offer of premises near the all-powerful John Lewis, there are concerns about what might replace any stores which decide to leave.
One source said: “The big fear is that you will end up with a wave of empty units or a wave of tartan tat shops. With the £150m Johnnie Walker whisky centre opening in the old Frasers building there will be lots of tourists in the West End, so tartan tat is the obvious thing. They will be the only shops which will be able to afford the rents.”
The opening of the St James will see a fifth of Edinburgh’s shop floor space move to the new quarter, making that the undoubted core shopping area, ahead of Princes Street or George Street, particularly the West End.
There has been talk for many years of the need for the city council to update its shopping policies to allow Princes Street and the West End to diversify, with perhaps top floor and ground floor restaurants on Princes Street, and other non-retail uses being encouraged. However, despite fast changes in consumer behaviour, the council has yet to show any sign of keeping up.
Roddy Smith, chief executive of Essential Edinburgh, said: “There is a trend in terms of retail on Princes Street with its phone shops and tartan shops and there’s no doubt that St James is going to alter the dynamic.
“I’d like to see the council regenerating by having different sorts of uses. Yes, we want some food outlets and restaurants but we need new space for offices, residential and for accommodation providers.
“Princes Street needs to adapt because it is the premier retail street in the city. It needs to diversify. There needs to be a long term vision of what the street could be.”
Business expert Graham Birse, of Graham Birse Consulting, told the Evening News: “Princes Street is obviously a prime site and ought to be performing better than it is. It may be that the council need to consider a mix of retail and food and beverage use which would attract visitors at all times.
“But it’s a glass half full because of the new development there’s more opportunity for development along Princes Street with a bit of creativity and a bit of investment.”
Cllr Kate Campbell, Housing and Economy Convener, said: “Princes Street is performing well relative to similar iconic streets throughout Europe and has almost no vacant properties. But we know retail is facing huge challenges on all fronts and we can’t afford to be complacent. Keeping the city centre thriving goes way beyond economic development. Planning colleagues are looking at how to attract a better mix of businesses to central locations so that people continue to have reasons to visit.
“Along with the Scottish Government we’re supporting Edinburgh St James and other developments which will bring thousands of jobs, a major new shopping centre and cultural opportunities to the east end. Diageo’s announcement for a Johnnie Walker experience centre in the former Fraser’s building in the west end should provide an effective balance. But we’ll keep monitoring the impact of these on other areas of the city centre and review our strategy in response.
“We’ll continue working with all stakeholders to find new uses and attractions for Princes Street so that we keep it vibrant for generations to come.”
One source, however, suggested the council needed to be far more proactive. “I wouldn’t want to point fingers, but it’s clear that somebody’s been asleep at the wheel on Princes Street,” the source said. “Everybody’s known for years that the opening of St James is both a massive change and massive challenge for Princes Street. Despite that, there’s not a shred of evidence of any action being taken to tackle the planning issues it raises.”