Edinburgh Business Day: Hi-tech meets high street

The high street is under threat. The ease of online shopping, the growth of out-of-town malls and the expense of parking are a damaging cocktail which dissuades many consumers from city centre retail.

The poposed redevlopment of the St James Quarter suggests retail will continue to thrive. Picture: contributed

But all is not lost. Edinburgh is evolving its retail offer with a number of new stores including Apple and the planned St James redevelopment.

And experts believe that backing up a strong online presence with a physical store is essential for survival in this brave new world.

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Graham Birse, director of the Edinburgh Institute at Napier University, said: “We have seen the retail landscape change beyond belief in recent years, as former household names like Comet have disappeared. Consumers are more engaged than ever in where their products comes from but the reputation of a brand is important, as people will not tend to buy the cheapest item if they do not trust it.

“People are still looking for quality and they are ­making sure that what they are ­consuming isn’t from a source they don’t trust.

“What that says is good ­quality retailers of food will continue to prosper and we can see that in places like ­Morningside and Stockbridge, with butchers and bakers, and wine merchants and green-grocers, who are providing ­better quality produce and a personal service.”

The main challenge lies in non-food retail where big brands have to find “a blended platform” of digital and non-digital offerings, he said.

He cited John Lewis as a good example of this approach, which offers a click and collect service so customers can have the best of both worlds. Mr Birse said: “If we think of John Lewis or M&S, when it comes to buying bigger goods them both having a showroom is important so people can come in and try out products and talk to staff.”

High rents are forcing firms to reduce their number of branches or offer shoppers something different alongside their traditional wares.

Mr Birse said: “Edinburgh has a high-quality experience for shoppers when you think of the surroundings of places like Princes Street and George Street. It should be a full experience which includes offering food, drink, nightlife, recreation and retail.” Out-of-town shopping centres such as the Gyle and Ocean Terminal in Leith will continue to prove popular with consumers who wish to take advantage of using their cars for big buys, he said. But there is cause for optimism as retail sales in the Capital were up 12.9 per cent in July compared to the same time last year, according to the Essential Trends report produced by Essential Edinburgh and the city council.

Andy Neal, chief executive of Essential Edinburgh, said: “Retail is constantly evolving, and the pace of change has increased with the growth of the digital era. For the large numbers who still see shopping as something experiential, as a leisure activity, retailers ­appreciate the customer ­experience must be rounded and positive. This is where the variety and ambience of the city centre scores so successfully, offering shopping plus great food and drink, and entertainment.” And with shopping 
centres such as the £850 million St James Quarter development due to open in 2019, shoppers are expected to keep pounding pavements for a few years yet.

Pharmacy does more for patients

ONE business going further for its customers is Barnton Pharmacy, which offers a dementia-friendly service.

Co-director Leanne Carey said: “It all started as we had a lot of patients coming in who are in the early stages of dementia.

“They were popping in and asking for things which you couldn’t buy in a pharmacy, or asking for things they had bought the day before.

“There seemed to be a lack of support for these patients.”

Around 18 months ago Leanne and her business partner Sally Arnison put their staff through dementia awareness training by Alzheimer’s Scotland, so they were able to spot the signs of the disease and to treat the customers senstively.

The initiative has been such a success that other businesses in the area have come to the pharmacy for training.

Leanne said: “If we support these patients to remain their communities then they will remain as customers.

“We want to provide a service which is equally inclusive to all customers and being dementia friendly is about delivering great customer service for all.”

The support depends on the patient – whether it is encouragement to write down their medication or to point them in the right direction of services.