Bill Jamieson: Reports of the High Street’s death are exaggerated

The internet is changing the high street, but may not kill it. (Picture: Michael Gillen)
The internet is changing the high street, but may not kill it. (Picture: Michael Gillen)
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Shops are closing as the internet takes over but a different kind of high street will emerge, writes Bill Jamieson.

Blow upon blow upon blow: for dozens of Scottish towns and high streets, decline has turned into a rout. Amid signs of a Christmas spending bonanza for online retailers such as Amazon, came more chilling news – branch closures by RBS and Lloyds, and cutbacks by retailers ranging from Toys R Us to Thomas Cook.

More than 1,360 retail outlets have shut this year, bringing the total over the past ten years to 29,300. This total does not include small independent retailers or temporary shops. There is every sign this attrition will worsen.

RBS has come under fire for its planned closure of 62 high street branches in Scotland, with a total of 259 shutdowns across the whole of the UK – a big blow for many small business customers, charity organisations and individual customers in

need of cash deposit and paying-in services and over-the-counter help and advice at their local branch.

But it also poses even more sharply the bigger question: who or what is going to replace the depressing rows of boarded-up shops, bleak metal grills and empty premises? What hope is there for our rural town centres? Is ‘The Death of the High

Street’ an unstoppable trend?

Or, are we overlooking a promising rebirth and the prospect of this epochal change clearing the ground for a different high street – and a sustained recovery?

Let’s not gloss over the magnitude of the change underway, one for which millions of us – not the faceless conglomerates and remote commercial property owners – are responsible. We shop differently and revel in the convenience that online armchair shopping has brought. Clothing and footwear, furniture and bedding, home electronics and kitchen gadgets, crockery and cutlery, books and manuals, jewellery and accessories, ornaments and knick-knacks can be bought and delivered to our home on the click of our iPads and iPhones.

READ MORE: Expect more high street casualties are struggling retailers turn to insolvency

This massive structural change in shopping habits has already resulted in 27 per cent of all non-food retail sales last month being done online. You thought a Tesco superstore was the biggest thing going? Amazon’s biggest UK distribution centre in Dunfermline stretches to the size of 14 football pitches and is packed with more than a million items being bought online. Despatch of orders from across the UK in the approach to Christmas is running at the rate of 64 every second.

With retailers boosting online marketing budgets, such is the volume of online parcel delivery now that you would have thought there would be an expansion of Post Office branches. But their number has almost halved since 1981-82 and many of the survivors have been relocated to cramped corners inside larger retail outfits such as WH Smith.

The back offices, out of sight, are packed full of parcels awaiting delivery, while queues stretch at the small counters in a relentless quest for passport forms, car registration applications, pension payments and the cumbersome paperwork involved in sending a parcel or letter by tracker delivery.

READ MORE: Quarter of shops in Scotland could close, retail bosses warn

Many transactions can be complex at the Post Office counter – especially around Christmas. At the head of the queue, it often seems someone is trying to post a giant bubble-wrapped euphonium by tracked delivery to Madagascar. And you just popped in for Christmas stamps.

As for the high street overall, little wonder that Mary ‘Queen of Shops’ Portas has struggled in her government-backed quest to try and replenish the high street’s gaping holes. A £5.5 million scheme to revitalise 27-odd towns earmarked for special attention resulted in 12 towns being handed a portion of a £1.2m grant and support to transform them into thriving retail hubs. But since its launch in 2012, the towns have lost nearly one in five of their shops, the same rate of decline as the rest of the country.

However, she was correct in her assessment that town centres’ shopping districts will be forced to transform themselves into destinations for socialising and entertainment with a focus on “service and specialism”, and that approaches to marketing must become “more bespoke – no longer a broad brush stroke”.

At the heart of this assertion is the recognition of a basic human urge to meet and socialise. Few countries have advanced without communal squares and plazas in the centre of their towns where people congregate. And it is this basic impulse that will ensure our town centres survive.

So what might the future high street look like? It’s not just about yet more coffee shops and restaurants – popular though these are. There will be growth in leisure and recreation activities, from bowling alleys to self-help activities and hobby clubs.

We can also expect to see  growth in health and well-being centres, from chiropractors to gymnasia, pilates to exercise groups, and in particular services meeting the health needs of an ageing population. We can also expect to see specialist outlets offering advice and guidance on ever more sophisticated electronic and digital products and ‘intelligent home’ services. And there is no diminution in our appetite for specialist, quality foods as demand grows for more healthy eating options. In Scotland there has been a burgeoning of farm shops such as Gloagburn near Perth. The product is enticingly displayed with excellent, award-winning service staff and I have seldom called in without finding it bustling with customers and with a queue at lunch-time for its popular meals.

In Callander, chef Tom Lewis’s Mhor Bread has proved a magnet – despite its physical situation between a popular Tesco at one end of the main street and a Co-operative store at the other.

The retail story is not one of uniform retreat and failure. We constantly yearn for quality – and variety – and entrepreneurs who meet this appetite with style and aplomb can flourish.

Finally, I would expect to see a marked growth in arts and crafts outlets – an under-estimated part of the retail economy. I’ve been to two crowded arts and crafts fairs in people’s houses in the past week – I could hardly move for the scrum of customers, and some well-turned products too, that would not have been amiss in a big name high street store.

These outlets offer marketing opportunities for local artists, sculptors, jewellery fabricators and clothes designers – but they should be able to step up into those empty retail premises, enabling a better show of product. After all, they also form part of Scotland’s creative industries estimated by Arts & Business Scotland to contribute £4.6 billion annually to the Scottish economy. It set out this contribution in a well-turned letter to the Scottish Parliament this week.

Many of the high street’s problems have been exacerbated by rapacious parking charges and the relentless rise in business rates. Here the pending Scottish Government budget could help by keeping taxes down and switching business rates uplifts from RPI to CPI “as a further step”, argues the Scottish Retail Consortium, “towards a more affordable and reformed rates system”.

This is a daunting front in seemingly unstoppable retreat. It is going to be a long haul – but in encouraging changes in retail space use and function there is good reason to be more hopeful than the headlines suggest.