Previously a travel agent who had visited many countries around the world, Heather McLennan’s real passion was painting.
Highland cows were her speciality – way before they ever became a real Scottish icon – and she still uses the animals near her Scottish Borders home as her inspiration.
Her passion for art saw her create her own small business, but she wanted her art to be bespoke and not the kind of mass-produced items which can be bought in every shop in every high street in Scotland.
Just over a year ago, VisitScotland launched its own new retail initiative called ‘Shop Local’ and, since then, hundreds of local crafters have joined the scheme – including Heather. As a VisitScotland Shop Local supplier, she now has her work stocked in five VisitScotland iCentres.
Initially launched as a pilot in 2016, Shop Local has now been rolled out across the country, offering the opportunity for communities, local businesses, craft-makers, artists, designers and other artisans to promote and sell their products via the VisitScotland iCentre network.
The initiative is aimed not at established Scottish designers but at regional artisans like Heather, without a real retail platform. It has been developed to provide a unique sales channel for small businesses creating ‘Made in Scotland’ products, offering visitors the chance to take an authentic piece of Scotland home with them.
Heather wanted her art to travel abroad and wanted to get her Highlands all over the world. So she contacted VisitScotland to discuss her work and learned about Shop Local. She now receives messages from people all over the world who have bought her Highlands and other art.
As well as her paintings, Heather creates vegan suede Highland cow cushions, coasters, cards and tea towels. So popular has her range been that they are now for sale at five iCentres.
Research suggests that domestic visitors are looking for local products and are willing to spend more on high quality gifts that support the local economy.
So just what has Shop Local achieved since it was introduced and what have been its successes so far?
During the launch event itself at St Andrews iCentre, sales increased by 314 per cent and footfall by 172 per cent on the same day the previous year.
Now, more than 260 Scottish suppliers are selling their collections through the iCentre network, with any revenue raised going directly back into promoting Scotland as a tourism destination.
In a world where everything can be sourced and bought from anywhere in the world at the touch of a button or the click of a mouse, it is so important that we support the people who are keeping our Scottish traditions and crafts alive locally and striving to keep this country on the map as a creative destination.
For Heather, her art is not a job, it is a passion, and the whole ethos behind Shop Local and the journey she has made with VisitScotland has been fantastic.
This retail success story has many such positive individual tales, including that of supplier Alan Santry, who created a scarf worn by Hermione Granger in ‘Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince’. So popular was his product that it is now stocked in not one, but 15 iCentres.
Only a few months after establishing the ‘Isle of Skye Seaweed Company’, Highland scallop diver Ben Oakes is now supplying the Portree iCentre with his natural lip, hand and body balms.
We hope to be able to replicate this success across the country, providing unique and exclusive local products to showcase the talent and businesses across every single region.
In a number of iCentres, Shop Local suppliers have been delighted to be part of ‘Meet the Maker’ events to engage with visitors and promote their crafts.
But the benefits ripple further afield than just the iCentres and the local producers as it also brings benefits to the local visitor economy. The number of visitors coming to Scotland has increased year-on-year, along with the amount of money they are spending, so we need to use tourism as an economic development tool, particularly in rural areas where the industry plays such an important role.
The benefits of Shop Local are not only felt on mainland Scotland as island centres now account for 27 per cent of overall sales. Many of the islands are home to high-quality local crafters who are delighted to be part of the Shop Local initiative.
A total of 815 cruise ships are expected to visit Scotland this year – compared to 761 last year – according to Cruise Scotland, with a total passenger figure of 821,000. This ever-increasing market can only be good news for Shop Local and its local suppliers.
In some areas, including Scotland’s islands, Shop Local is helping to keep traditional crafting skills alive and the crafters and producers themselves become ambassadors not only for their local area but also for the country. Through their creations, they are promoting what their communities – and Scotland – have to offer in terms of unique crafts and produce to visitors from across the globe.
So as we mark the success for Shop Local, we look forward to continuing to provide a positive and memorable customer experience that is invaluable, balancing the need for sales growth with the need to make a positive economic contribution to both the organisation and to the country.
Malcolm Roughead is chief executive of VisitScotland