*This article was first published in the Edinburgh Evening News newspaper on the 27th of November 2018*
THE John Lewis advert is already a fortnight old and the Christmas decorations have adorned The Dome’s George Street pillars for weeks. The festive season is now in full swing for retailers, with just four shopping weekends to go before Christmas Day. This year, I’ll try not to leave it to the last minute again. But while Black Friday and Cyber Monday events run by giant online stores prove as enticing as ever, it’s make-or-break time for many traditional shops.
Store numbers in Scotland are down four per cent over three years – steeper than anywhere else in the UK – and nearly 6000 retail jobs have disappeared over the same period.
It’s little wonder that the Scottish Retail Consortium has called 2018 an ‘annus horribilis’.
Debenhams recently revealed plans to shut up to 50 stores across the UK, and Toys R Us and Maplin both collapsed earlier this year.Perhaps nowhere is the impact of online shopping more visible than on Princes Street, where the iconic House of Fraser department store now stands empty.
The building has been home to a department store since Queen Victoria was on the throne in 1894, when Maule’s first opened its doors. For older generations, it’s still referred to as Binns, where young couples met “under the clock at Binns” before a date.
Rather than transform the building into another shop – thankfully, it’s too large to become another tartan tat outlet selling See You Jimmy hats – it was revealed last week it could become a flagship visitor centre dedicated to Johnnie Walker whisky, set to rival the Guinness factory in Dublin.
Our high street thoroughfares are changing fast.
But if you visit Morningside, or Stockbridge, or Marchmont, or Portobello, or Corstorphine, you’ll find that it’s not all doom and gloom. Edinburgh is an entrepreneurial city, and there are scores of independent retailers operating across the Capital.
This Saturday is the annual Small Business Saturday, when we’re encouraged to ‘shop local’. It’s a great opportunity to explore your local neighbourhood and hunt down some unique Christmas presents that you simply can’t buy in chain stores or online.
There are some wonderful initiatives this festive season, such as the Summerhall Christmas Market on December 9, where local businesses come together under one roof to sell their gifts. Or the Montrose Terrace and Abbeyhill Festive Open Night on December 6, where independent retailers will be selling artisan gifts, organic beauty products and other stocking ideas. We know that shoppers like convenience, so initiatives such as these – bringing independent shops together – are a great idea at this time of year.
But our local high streets need support all year round – both from shoppers and from governments. Retailers are already reinventing themselves to face the future, yet they can’t do it without a helping hand.It’s not just successful independent shops which are vital for the survival of our high streets.
We also need the Post Offices and banks that people rely upon.This weekend, the Communication Workers Union is holding a national campaign day, highlighting the closure of 74 ‘Crown’ Post Offices – the largest outlets – as well as 11,500 other Post Offices across the UK.
Post Offices do a lot more than just sell stamps – they are vital for elderly citizens collecting their state pension, as well as a host of other services. I know the anger that recent closures have caused, particularly in the south of Edinburgh, which is why the Financial Conduct Authority should have the power to veto plans to shut branches where possible. To rescue our high streets we also need to work to stop bank closures and the disgraceful rise in charges at cash machines.
When a bank closes, it has a knock-on impact on the local shops.This is a difficult time for the retail industry, but a brighter future is within grasp.
We just have to work – and shop – for it.