Case study: A town where the ‘busy’ shopfronts hide a much less inviting secret

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FROM a distance, Paisley’s High Street appears a thriving community space, busy with independent retailers and mouthwatering eateries.

In the pedestrianised space, a shop window display overflows with toys, ripe for the Christmas wishlists of Renfrewshire children.

There is a home decor store, complete with pristine, plumped cushions on show, and an accessories outlet featuring stylish handbags.

For those looking for something to eat, there is a boulangerie, with appetising racks of rosemary focaccia, pain de mie and rustic whole wheat bread.

Look closer, however, and the mirage disappears. Such shopfronts are fake, part of a marketing project known as Imagine, which seeks to disguise the derelict units and encourage big-name retailers to fill the voids.

The reality of the street, as many readily attest, is not so pleasant on the eye. Less than a fortnight before Christmas, traditionally one of the busiest shopping periods of the year, commercial property signs flutter in the wind, with only a few major players – such as Marks & Spencer and WH Smith – drawing a respectable footfall.

It is little wonder the town has the highest percentage of shops vacant anywhere in Scotland – the vacancy rate stands at 23.7 per cent, compared with the national average of 12.6 per cent.

“I think it might be too late to turn back the clock for Paisley,” said Sheila Leitch. “There’s not enough variety of shops and there’s too many empty stores.”

A resident of the town who loathes the experience of out-of-town shopping centres, Ms Leitch ought to give encouragement to those civic fathers tasked with reinvigorating Paisley. She, though, knows that they face a mammoth task.

“There’s not much parking and the street is too out in the open in bad weather,” she said. “I hate places like Braehead and Silverburn, but I wish the High Street had more for the community – not just shops, but coffee houses and things like that.

Those on the other side of the counter agree. Ian Alexander has owned Card People for 15 years, but has worked out that he attracts fewer than a quarter of the number of customers than when he first opened.

He said: “It’s mostly just older people and those without cars who come to the town centre nowadays; anyone with a car and a bit of money will head straight for Breahead.

“I don’t think anyone cares about retailers like me.”