AS I SEE IT: Shoppers will see – and demand – changes as they return to the high street, says TERRY MURDEN
Shoppers are returning to the high street. But after the carnage of the past year what will it look like? Those heading to Edinburgh’s Princes Street will find some familiar brands have gone for good: Jenners closed, Debenhams closed, TopShop closed, Cath Kidston closed. The once-regal retail destination turned into a gap-toothed monster.
Its future may rest on the twin developments book-ending Scotland’s longest shopping street. At the west end, drinks giant Diageo is preparing to open the Johnnie Walker visitor experience, a mix of shopping, leisure and meeting rooms that will create a new type of hub providing a long overdue public celebration of Scotland’s biggest brand. In the east end, the St James Quarter, a £1 billion replacement for the hated 1970s precinct is edging towards its 24 June opening.
Princes Street should benefit from the additional footfall, particularly if shoppers and tourists choose to visit both destinations. To that extent, the marketing folk at the council and Essential Edinburgh could play an important role in encouraging cross promotion.
The danger for Princes Street is that this doesn’t happen and that it gets overlooked; that it loses custom as shoppers head directly for St James, which will account for 20% of the city’s retail offering, while Johnnie Walker becomes a tour stop for visitors on their way to the Castle and the Royal Yacht.
St James offers an important lesson. As a retail destination it has put right what was woefully wrong with its predecessor. In all the talk about getting people returning to the shops there is a blatant failure to address the way retailers present themselves. Scruffy and garish facias, graffiti and general neglect are not the way to attract shoppers. They want clean, inviting and exciting venues. Let’s hope St James doesn’t let us down.
Princes Street, like so many other shopping streets around the country, has suffered from poor and insensitive developments. It may be Edinburgh’s best-known street, but it is not its prettiest. Like so many others, it badly needs a facelift.
Hope lies in the redevelopment of the former Bhs and Debenhams department stores and in the resistance of Primark to go online. Marks & Spencer will be the street’s main anchor so it must be hoped that it does not go the way of some of its peers and that more stores do not make the switch to St James.
The plan to turn the street into a boulevard of boutique hotels and cafe bars has been set back by the pandemic and will take longer to become reality. For that reason there is also a danger that more units will join others that are vacant and looking for a new purpose.
If the government and city council want to do something really useful for the retail sector they should buy them, turn them into flexible work spaces to discourage commuting, encourage trade and craft workers to open low-rent workshops, convert them into city centre medical centres, bicycle hire and storage facilities – and maybe even bring back the city centre police station.
Imagine a proper high street with a mix of units instead of the door-to-door big name clothing brands. It might be worth waiting for.
Asda reshaping the future
Aside from the closures there have been some intriguing developments that will shape the future of bricks and mortar retail. Virtual department stores and brand flipping are just two of the terms becoming part of the new retail lexicon.
Leading the revolution are the Issa brothers who bought the Asda supermarket chain from Walmart. Regular visitors to the stores will start to see a change as brands that have a place elsewhere in their EG Group are “flipped out” to introduce new ones.
They have been installing Starbucks, KFC, Burger King, Greggs, Cinnabon and Subway branches at their petrol forecourts.
They’ve just bought Leon, a ‘quality’ fast-food chain for £100 million and they have their sights on Caffe Nero. Both aim to offer the bargain-buying Asda shopper something a little more upmarket.
It is part of plans to create a retail hub that offers a different customer experience. Daniel Burke, a partner at Blick Rothenberg, believes there will be more acquisitions or partnerships in order to make Asda a ‘Go To’ place for all shopping needs. To that extent it is creating a bricks and mortar version of Amazon.
“This is part of a wider trend in the retail sector where larger players are acting as “virtual department stores” for a number of brands,” says Burke. “The attraction for the established retailer is younger/innovative brands while the new brands get access to an established distribution network.”
A next step could be a roll-out of EV charging, given that the EG Group has 6,000 forecourts around the world, with one observer suggesting this could be offered free as a way of drawing customers to the stores.
After all, while there is no danger to the supermarket giants, they can no longer rely on the same level of footfall in their stores as shoppers get used to click and collect and home deliveries. To justify remaining open and resisting the temptation to turn stores into Amazon-style warehouses, they need to create new reasons to visit.
Terry Murden formerly held senior positions at The Sunday Times, The Scotsman, Scotland on Sunday and The Northern Echo and is now editor of Daily Business