Leader comment: The high street needs to evolve to survive, but it needs support too

Boxing Day sales retain the power to seduce bargain hunters. Yesterday some Scots began queuing in the middle of the night, hoping to snag knocked-down goods from high street giants such as Marks and Spencer, Next, and Lush.

But while many are happy to participate in this annual scramble, the reality is that their numbers are falling.

The rise of internet shopping has taken a grave toll on city and town centres across the country. Precincts that once bustled with people are often empty and the sight of boarded-up properties is commonplace.

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The trend towards shopping online shows no sign of changing; there will be even more pain for traditional retailers in 2019.

While dedicated bargain hunters did hit the streets yesterday, the average footfall across the UK for the period up to midday was 4.2 per cent down on last year. As Chris Daly, chief executive at the Chartered Institute of Marketing, says: “The days of setting the alarm to be first in line for the Boxing Day sales are long gone.”

Once the sales are over, retailers will continues to wrestle with the problems that have seen some giants of the sector flounder and fail. In a testing 12 months, big names on the high street such as Poundworld and Maplin have fallen into administration, Marks & Spencer and Debenhams have announced plans to shut stores, while Superdry and Carpetright are among those to issue profit warnings.

And so, if they are to survive, high streets must evolve. What were once predominantly retail areas will have to become predominantly leisure ones, with many shops being replaced by restaurants, gyms and cinemas.

Edinburgh City Council - to its credit - has begun to address the need for change. A public consultation on plans that would see the centre of the capital become more pedestrian and cyclist-friendly is currently underway.

That won’t be straightforward and we await with interest the conclusions at the end of the consultation.

Local authorities across the country should, along with the Scottish Government, pay close attention to discussions in the capital. High Streets across the country are under the same pressures and if they are to survive, they will need tangible support from civic and national leaders.

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