What's next for Scotland's town centres?

Town centres: the shopping experience is embracing changed times.

Paisley is bidding to be the UK City of Culture in 2021.
Paisley is bidding to be the UK City of Culture in 2021.
Paisley is bidding to be the UK City of Culture in 2021.

Retail is an exciting, diverse and dynamic industry, and one which is undergoing transformational change. As a sector it plays a significant part in the Scottish economy, comprising more than 20,000 businesses, providing 250,000 jobs and adding up to a £7 billion market, yet the headlines tend toward the negative.

More often than not the focus is on empty units in town centres, which have suffered the most from the unstoppable rise of the internet and the mobile shopping culture.

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Just ten years ago it was a different 
story. Scotland’s towns were still experiencing a period of growth for retailers, with retail parks and shopping centres opening, and the sense was one of general regeneration.

“The story of the last five years is that coming to an end and going into reverse,” says Andrew Murphy, chairman of the Scottish Retail Consortium and group productivity and change director for the John Lewis Partnership.

“Space is being shed by retailers and that has created a challenge for local authorities, landlords and retailers themselves.”

He says the result is a far greater focus on repurposing that vacant space and broadening the remit of retail businesses to offer more than just goods.

“In technology that might be a ‘geek squad’ type service that helps the customer use their product,” he explains.

“You also see food service, travel agents, pharmacies, travel money, opticians, particularly in department stores. Financial services and retail is coming together.”

Murphy points to big names like Tesco, Sainsbury’s and John Lewis, all of which have branched out into banking and insurance.

“All those trends are being driven by the fact that the traditional retail model is no longer enough to sustain a business.

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“Retail has to offer things that make the visit to the physical premises more worthwhile and particularly, they need to offer things that can’t be offered by the internet.

“With food service, for example, the internet can’t do that – you can’t have a cup of coffee on the internet.”

The dramatic change in Scotland’s retail landscape has, more recently, been accelerated by the steep and somewhat unexpected rise in business rates. Smaller retailers in particular have been hit hard.

“Business rates are a financial burden of the very worst type given the challenges that retailers face,” says Murphy.

“Retailers have another option now – selling on the internet reduces your business rate burden by about four-fifths and they will get out of leases if they are due for renewal because there is no economic argument to maintain them.”

The reduction in employment opportunities in retail as a result of this period of change has become stale news and Murphy says it will be non-skilled, often younger workers who will suffer most as a result of the changing nature of retail jobs.

For many people, manning the checkout or stacking shelves will be their first step into the world of work and increasingly those roles are being replaced by jobs in contact and distribution centres, which might require more specific skills such as a driving licence or training to operate machinery.

These tales of woe in town centres are not uniform across Scotland, however, and some local authorities are taking the reins and acknowledging that reinvention is essential for survival.

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Alan Anthony, managing director of Threesixty Architecture in Glasgow and chair of REVO Scotland, points to Paisley, where Renfrewshire Council has moved the library and museum on to the high street, creating a focal point and giving shoppers another reason to spend time and money in the area.

“Town centres like Perth, Paisley and Falkirk have an increasing population,” explains Anthony. “They are becoming almost dormitory towns for the larger cities because they are more affordable to live in.

“Some of the towns are cleverly taking advantage of that, for example a number of new restaurants have opened up in Paisley and it has been shortlisted for UK City of Culture.

“Even if they don’t win, it is a very self-fulfilling prophecy in terms of showcasing the town and it is an example of a 
local authority taking responsibility.”

It is all too easy to overlook these positive signs of change in Scotland’s towns. Certainly the downward trajectory of vacant units in shopping centres and town centres is promising.

The retail vacancy rate for Scotland’s towns continues to fall and is sitting comfortably below Wales, although above England.

According to a 2016 report by the 
Local Data Company and the Institute for Retail Studies at Stirling University, the Scottish national vacancy rate for retail and leisure in towns is 11.7 per cent, down from 11.8 per cent in 2015 and 
13 per cent in 2012.

Throw diversification into the mix and slowly but surely things look to be moving in the right direction.

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To fill vacant space, shopping centres are embracing the night-time economy, reaping the rewards of having a cinema and casual dining restaurants on site.

“Shopping and retail centres need to reinvent themselves to be an experience and not just a straightforward transactional retail destination,” says Anthony, whose firm is working on six projects across Scotland where shopping malls are adding a leisure element.

“We have to respond to a more diverse demographic. When shopping centres were built in the 1980s and early 1990s, they had one target audience: middle-aged housewives.

“Now the retail sector is providing a positive experience for people with young children, youths, the ageing population and the disabled – every aspect of society – to make it more of a stage for communities to interact.

“It’s about social responsibility, not just economic benefit.”

As an architect and as a consumer, Anthony recognises the need for shopping centres to go one step further than simply attracting a more diverse range of tenants. “They need to reinvent themselves with more texture, more attraction,” he says, referring to the need to think more carefully about lighting, themes and 

“If I’m eating ‘mall-fresco’, I don’t really want to be sitting in a sterile mall environment. I think Princes Square [in Glasgow] is doing it really well with their restaurants. Other centres have not quite picked that up yet.”

Anthony also says there’s a next wave of retailers taking up space in shopping centres, and town centres too; it’s the street food revolution.

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“It’s happening in America and it’s quite a sophisticated model in Scandinavia,” he explains. “We call it close-grain retail, so street food and markets.

“We are seeing the reinvention of small units as short-term lets which are adding vibrancy to these spaces.”

Social responsibility comes into play once more with this trend enabling van-based vendors to start selling from their first unit and making a more permanent base an affordable option.

Time Out magazine’s food market in Lisbon and Copenhagen Street Food are prime examples of this kind of retail environment working well.

Closer to home, Anthony points to Govan’s indoor street food market which rolled into town earlier this year and has been dubbed Glasgow’s answer to London’s Borough Market.

“It has a complexity that adds to the quality of the experience within the retail centre whether that’s a high street or a shopping centre,” he says.

“I think that’s the next big move and it’s happening already.”

These covered markets selling everything from home-made cakes to spicy wraps.

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Local crafts are popular because they are authentic and it seems that for Scotland’s towns, drawing on their heritage, architecture, local produce is key to securing their future.

“Town centres need to give a much more authentic experience,” says Anthony. “They need to play on that theatre, on their history, on the cobblestones on the high street and think about how they can drive a night-time economy there.

“Society is embracing authenticity. There has been a rise in the sale of physical books against e-books, there has been a rise in the sales of vinyl records. I think people respond well to authenticity and experience.”

This article appears in the AUTUMN 2017 edition of Vision Scotland. An online version is available here. Further information about Vision Scotland here.