AS I SEE IT: Work starts now to ensure the St James Quarter learns to live with changing shopping habits, says TERRY MURDEN
The opening of the St James Quarter was an opportunity to experience Edinburgh’s huge new retail venture, soak up the atmosphere and have a word with somebody from the council to find out what impact they think it will have on the city and on the rest of the retail sector.
Unfortunately, no one from the council was there, apparently because it was an informal launch so the usual dignitaries weren’t invited. Even so, after all the anticipation during five years of demolition and construction, and all that’s been said about it transforming the city, at least one of the elected representatives might have put in an appearance. Maybe there was one, waiting patiently among those who’d been queuing since 3am to sample the new Lego store.
Lego is one of what will be more than 80 brands occupying the three storey edifice in what already looks less like a temple to booming consumerism as a £1 billion gamble on consumers rekindling their love of visiting the shops.
The developers acknowledged in a recent video that their timing could have been better. They have been caught in a perfect storm of surging online shopping and the onset of the pandemic, one effectively fuelling the other. Here we have many of retail’s big names – some new to Scotland – kitted out in their sparkling best and just waiting for shoppers to share their delight at being part of the adventure.
They do this at a time when footfall is down by a quarter and shop vacancies are at a six-year high, and climbing. The Scottish Retail Consortium (SRC) estimates that shops across the country have lost £4.5 billion in retail sales since the onset of the pandemic. Of course, many shops and brands were already heading for the retail graveyard before the onset of Covid-19, but the pandemic has created some permanent changes in behaviour, and having products delivered to our homes is one of them.
‘St James is a bit of a throwback to the 1980s and 1990s, a shopping mall stuffed with brands which are now fighting a battle with the shift online’
There has been much talk about how to save our shops, and a new report on shopping habits from international law firm Withers reveals nearly half (46%) would like to see their local authority taking more proactive steps to improve their local high street.
However, there is a growing realisation that many can’t be saved. Bill Grimsey, ex-retailer and contributor to the Withers report, said: “The media loves this idea that the high street has to be ‘saved’, but I think you should drop the ‘save’ and replace it with ‘reinvent’. It’s all about developing social places that are fit for the 21st century.”
Therein may lies a warning to St James which is a bit of a throwback to the 1980s and 1990s, a shopping mall stuffed with brands which are now fighting a battle with the shift online. Some have relocated from nearby Princes Street in the hope that they will be at the centre of Scotland’s new retail destination.
St James marks a fresh start, and when the food hall and cultural events kick in it should live up to its self-appointed label as a “lifestyle” quarter, drawing those seeking to include entertainment and hospitality with their shopping.
But to get to this point the developer has admitted that rents have been pared back to persuade brands to take units. A big concern will be that the next headlines will focus on the first one to close.
The bottom line is that physical stores and online shopping have to operate in unison. In the early days it was groups such as John Lewis and Next who emerged the winners as they found a way to make the two work as one. However, the balance is tipping rapidly in one direction – and the result has been hitherto unthinkable closures of department stores and other former stalwarts of the high street.
Among the many ideas suggested are re-purposing stores for other uses – as indicated in the Withers report – and an online tax. Maybe there is a third way… offering tax or other rebates to online operators who also open physical stores?
Without wishing to rain on St James Quarter’s parade, these are issues that have to be addressed. Although it has been five years in the making, the task of ensuring it is saved from becoming a white elephant like its predecessor begins now.
Local authorities and the government must turn the hand-wringing and “something must be done’ approach into firm action. Throw out plans to ban big stores from opening on New Year’s Day (why big stores? why make an exception for retail employees when others have to work?) Do the opposite and encourage more people to shop on bank holidays. Stop the war on motorists and hiking parking charges. It’s no accident that St James has a massive car park. It wants its shoppers to bring their cars to carry home goods they’ve bought.
Clearly, what worked in the past is not working now, and we have to do all we can to help the retail sector, not build new barriers. There is little point creating a traffic-free, net zero sustainable city if no one wants 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