Donald Anderson: Time to wake up and smell the coffee

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As local traders fight against the big chains, Donald Anderson gives a personal view of Edinburgh’s shopping growing pains

IT was a very Edinburgh protest. Led by the new face at the local post office, Bruntsfield traders protested at Sainsbury’s taking over the former Peckham’s store after it had closed. Bruntsfield traders have a long tradition of activism, so it should come as no surprise that they were keen to stand up for their area.

The campaign was launched at a local Costa Coffee shop, and a public meeting attended by more than 100 people took place in the Best Western Bruntsfield Hotel. Nearby, in Morningside, a proposal for a Costa Coffee sparked equal outrage, with even (I am told) the manager of Waitrose joining the campaign against “another” coffee shop.

Let me declare an interest. I do work on behalf of Sainsbury’s, but I have also worked on retail schemes for more than 20 years.

I am far from an expert, but I know how complicated and competitive retail can be. Shopping is constantly changing. Household names like Dixon’s have disappeared, as did Patrick Thompson’s and Goldbergs many years ago. Shops selling new products such as mobile phones have appeared as well, with Apple the latest brand known to be looking for a place in Princes Street.

The only thing that can be said with any certainty is that our shopping habits and tastes are constantly changing, and with it changes the names on our high streets.

What is more significant, and not just in Edinburgh, is the dramatic change in recent years in the way that we shops. Seventeen per cent of retail spending is now done online. Despite that, high street spending has been rising year-on-year almost without exception, which is a remarkable achievement.

These days we can shop wherever we are, 24 hours a day, seven days a week – even through our televisions.

Edinburgh has had a long and, at times, troubled shopping history. The city centre did decline, and traditional shopping parades such as Gorgie Road struggled in the 1980s and 1990s. Then they began to improve.

I well remember my delight at seeing a new delicatessen on Dalry Road, and in talking to a developer who was selling shops for three times what he had bought them for in the Gorgie/Dalry area. Other areas such as Corstorphine Road have recovered after lean periods.

Things are looking up in the city centre. Edinburgh and Lothian used to lose an eye-watering £700 million in shopping spend each year to Glasgow. Modern shopping facilities like the Buchanan Galleries and a bigger population base had given Glasgow a real advantage in the shopping stakes. Edinburgh has done well to claw back nearly all of that.

Changing that wasn’t easy, and I well remember working for nearly three years in the council to bring Harvey Nichols to heart of Edinburgh.

Harvey Nichols, the Walk and a revived George Street have all combined to improve beyond recognition Edinburgh’s shopping offer.

Hollister – part of the fashionable Abercrombie & Fitch group – is moving in, aided by a partnership between the council and the recently created Essential Edinburgh. Both the heart of the city and its communities are in pretty good shape, though there’s always room for improvement.

And what of the coffee shops? I have to say that I’m a huge fan. People have gone from spending time in pubs to spending time in coffee shops, and that is a good thing. Cafes are still shops, after all. After Costa opened in Bruntsfield, several more cafes did as well. More can hardly be seen as a sign of decline.

Our shopping choices are better than they have ever been. There are more shops than ever, with a wider choice of goods than before. If we don’t like it there’s lots of choice elsewhere, some of it at the press of a button.

This brings me back to Bruntsfield, where this debate started, and the wonderful man who runs the post office. We all use e-mails as a matter of course. That has created huge challenges for the Post Office. Pretty much the only growth area for the Post Office has been servicing the shopping now done through the internet. So, all those shoppers on the internet all help provide the income to help subsidise our post offices. Our post offices are part of a wider shopping experience.

High street shopping is far from dead, but it is changing as it has always changed. Bruntsfield is a thriving community, as is Morningside. Investment in replacement or new shops – and coffee shops – in Edinburgh’s high streets should be seen as a good thing and as a positive sign for the future.

• Donald Anderson is director of communications consultancy PPS and a former city council leader