City can learn from Westminster on retail strategy - Kevin Buckle

High-street vacancies have increased in Princes Street. Picture: Lisa Ferguson.High-street vacancies have increased in Princes Street. Picture: Lisa Ferguson.
High-street vacancies have increased in Princes Street. Picture: Lisa Ferguson.
With work on several of the hotels planned for Princes Street due to start after the Festival, if planners are not careful it will soon look like a building site surrounded by tartan tat and American Candy shops.

Interestingly Westminster Council, who have had some success in ridding Oxford Street of the candy shops reducing their numbers by a third, have just announced a scheme to fill the street’s empty shops with new businesses, giving them a start by offering a prime store location for an initial six-month period, rent-free and with a minimum reduction of business rates of 70 per cent.

Now I have to admit I don’t know how this works in terms of how these subsidies are being paid for but the one thing that stands out straight away is the vast reduction in business rates.

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The scheme, in conjunction with business consultants New West End Company, is estimated to cost more than £10 million. The first store is expected to open in autumn and overall 35 stores will be supported.

Meanwhile when it comes to Princes Street often described as one of Europe’s premier streets Edinburgh Council seem to have no plan beyond making it easier for food outlets to open and giving planning to a multitude of hotels.

While the plans of Westminster Council seem to be hitting the right note in supporting retail the reality

may well be very different as while the absence of rent in conjunction with greatly reduced rates is a huge help in making these businesses viable it may still not be enough for the new businesses they are trying to attract and would in fact better suit those well established who can afford to pay a good rent and rates just not the huge sums involved when trading on Oxford Street.

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I know from my personal experience in Waverley Market that if enough support is given to a business and time given to establish itself then offering initially a free rent can pay dividends for all involved.

Avalanche though had advantages that other businesses do not. One great thing about selling

music is that nearly everybody likes music so whatever the footfall so long as it is high enough and you stock what people want you will be successful.

The shop’s policy has always been to stock the music we like in conjunction with the things customers wanted. Consequently we have a far wider choice than we have ever had in any of our other shops and in response to the popularity of the t-shirts we sold we have increased the range substantially.

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We also had a loyal customer base that we could build on which added to the high footfall gave us a great chance of success even though we did have to pay substantial business rates.

The result of all this is that we are now just about to sign a new five-year lease paying the full rent which given all our plans were interrupted by the pandemic is a great achievement in what has been only a little more than four years.

Having said all that it is certainly better to try and support retail as is happening in Oxford Street than give up on it as Edinburgh Council appear to have done.

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