Published in the Herald on Sunday – Sunday 19 July 2020
Scotland is a nation of towns and as such we have all been subject to lockdown over the last few months, so the role of community has become ever more apparent and important. There have been many impacts of coronavirus, and more likely to come, but a common theme has been the supportive role of people and their communities.
Over the last few months, people have been more restricted in their movements, with many working from home or in their immediate area. Local and community focused retailers have reacted positively during this period. Many consumers have come to rely on local stores and suppliers, both at the store and for home delivery. Online sales have risen with growth not only in the multinational names but also in local shops and towns working collectively to supply local areas through shared online platforms.
Many non-essential shops (and local cafes/restaurants), though, had to close during lockdown. They have been going through their own tough times therefore, but are now beginning to open up and to trade again, in this new safety conscious, physically distanced, world. Retailers are building consumer confidence through their safety measures and protective actions. Consumers are now venturing out and looking to shop and to be more mobile and active again.
Behaviours have changed during lockdown; the big question is whether this is a temporary or a more long-lasting alteration? Consumers have learned to explore their locality and the retailers, high streets and town centres close to them. We now need to build on this and encourage more local spend and improve support for local, often independent, retailers and traders. The people trading and working in these shops and other facilities (cafes, galleries, creative enterprises) are the life-blood of local communities.
Our towns have been struggling under the growth of online retail, decentralisation of many (retail and non-retail) activities and a consequent reduction in footfall, plus an over-reliance on an over-expanded retail sector. As these towns now reopen and more facilities become available so there is a great opportunity to capitalise on this enhanced local and community feel by focusing our spending impact.
The polling figures reported here today show the strong support in Scotland for local high streets and towns and the businesses trading there. There is a sense of place and desire to see local stores, businesses and towns succeed and a recognition that this depends in part on local residents supporting local places. The poll suggests that almost two-thirds of respondents will positively shift their spending to this end in the future. We need to ensure we capitalise on this positive sentiment by making it simpler to get to towns and high streets, make them more attractive and interesting, and make them easier places in which to set up local and community businesses and enterprises.
There is much in the media these days about shop closures and retail job losses. Less is said though about the local stores doing well and local openings. Negative stories are often evidence of a corporate restructuring of the entire retail sector after over-expansion and over-ambition. Larger retailers are making shareholder focused national decisions. But, as we are seeing, this provides opportunities for local businesses, community and social enterprises, non-retail users in town centres and shopping centres and the development of an enhanced sense of place about our towns.
We are faced by a substantial recovery period from the pandemic. We have the added complications of Brexit and the climate emergency. Larger retailers are making shareholder focused national decisions. Local communities and towns are going to have to become more resilient and locally focused. We need to build a sustainable local economy and society providing for local needs. One way of helping kickstart this is by ensuring consumer spending is directed locally and to local businesses, traders and suppliers. Shopping locally is good for all.
No-one claims to come from a high street; we all come from a community, a location and a town, all of which have a history, a story and a tale to tell. Towns provide the glue for communities and the places to create these stories. Scotland can shop local with increased expectation and confidence. Scotland needs its towns and high streets to play their distinctive part in the fabric of the country. Now is the time to support local businesses and places to ensure they have a vibrant and distinctive future.
Professor Leigh Sparks, Professor of Retail Studies, University of Stirling, www.stirlingretail.com