Edinburgh's St James Quarter is a test of just how much we love shopping – Stephen Jardine

The St James Quarter is a beacon of hope but will people still prefer to buy things online? (Picture: Ian Georgeson)The St James Quarter is a beacon of hope but will people still prefer to buy things online? (Picture: Ian Georgeson)
The St James Quarter is a beacon of hope but will people still prefer to buy things online? (Picture: Ian Georgeson)
The next time you are in London, take a trip to the Piccadilly Arcade.

As well as being an oasis of calm in the capital, it also has a special place in the history of shopping. Today it is home to upmarket boutiques but in Edwardian times it was one of the world’s first sheltered shopping experiences.

For some reason, it took another half century for property developers to work out that our climate makes shopping under cover an attractive proposition but by the 1960s the indoor shopping boom was well underway.

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That was when the St James Centre was built in Edinburgh using concrete, asbestos and old crisp packets. The interior looked like a Soviet experiment to test if flourescent lighting over an extended period of time drives people mad.

Anyone who back then tried to get from the haberdashery department of John Lewis to the bus station via the queue for stamps in the Post Office will know that insanity was actually the easy way out.

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That has all gone now and in it’s place we have something new. It looks like a mall – American for shopping centre – but that has a retro ring so instead it is the St James Quarter which sounds like a seedy part of New Orleans but is actually now the smartest bit of Scotland’s capital city.

According to the blurb, it is a billion-pound retail, lifestyle and residential development in the heart of Edinburgh. Of course right now, it is much more than that. St James is a beacon of hope that there is a bright, exciting future post-Covid. While other urban centres are struggling to work out a way forward after lockdown and the switch to online retail, Edinburgh has a fantastic head start.

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If the future of bricks and mortar shopping depends on an exciting customer experience that online cannot offer, then what could be better than the new shining temple to retail at the east end of Princes Street? Time will tell if it is enough, but so far I’m not sure.

These are early days to judge. Given that builders are involved, surprise, surprise, it is not finished yet. Another 50 stores are still in the pipeline and the centrepiece hotel won’t open until next year. They’ve also had to cope with some flooding and false fire alarms but one big question remains: is this what people actually want in 2021?

When I visited, it was busy but shopping bags were few and far between. Most people just seemed to be browsing the way they might online. Through the window, the food court looked to be busy but I couldn’t be bothered to queue to get in. All this begs the question, once the initial rubber-necking is over and summer becomes autumn, will all the hope and investment pay off?

The world has changed so much in 18 months. We greet each other differently, we work differently and shop differently. Some things will go back to how they were before but others have altered forever.

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It probably comes down to this. If you love shopping, St James is the place to be. If you don’t, then online has the same choice but with no masks or escalators. The choice is up to you.

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