I try hard to limit my columns about the high street but this week’s news that both Poundworld and House of Fraser are struggling has got everyone talking about whether it’s all over now, just as the Rolling Stones arrive in town.
Shops at either end of the scale will, at best, be closing many of their shops and this won’t be the last time there is bad news like this. You would need a heart of stone to not feel for the thousands who will lose their jobs and it is terrifying for many with all this doom and gloom, not knowing who might be next.
Certainly the aftermath of the tram works meant that respectable ladies waiting on a friend for tea and a scone chose to avoid Princes Street and never came back. People have mixed emotions about big department stores these days. As with many shops, they like the fact that they exist and would consider it a sad day if they closed but they no longer frequent the high street themselves. Just wanting shops to survive without supporting them isn’t enough. You can’t always get what you want!
Some people’s idea of heaven is shopping, of course, while for some youngsters wild horses couldn’t drag them away from their phone into a shop. To this day, I don’t know why people choose to buy things like glasses online.
The idea that department stores in particular, but also shops in general, need to provide an “experience” is one that comes from “retail experts” and not retailers. One expert, pushed for what to do, suggested music and a café!
Keeping customers happy is not as complicated as some like to think but certainly price will always play a part and, as many news pieces pointed out this week, the business rates paid by the big high street stores may soon not be sustainable no matter how high customer satisfaction is.
You can go around and around trying to come up with adding extras to a customer’s experience in a shop, but if basic overheads mean it is too tough on the high street then more and more will simply leave. It’s not easy but if little by little the high street’s decline can be halted then rather than feeling left high and dry confidence might start to return.
Stripped of these high overheads, shops can invest in being more innovative but of course that comes at a cost to landlords and councils. Otherwise, though the worst may be yet to come and there is no use in crying once all the retailers people claim to love have left.
Nobody will be surprised if Edinburgh’s House of Fraser becomes a hotel and at least its location leans towards that without affecting the overall look of Princes Street. But, unlike other areas of the city centre, empty shops there will not become takeaways, hairdressers, nail bars and coffee shops.
This is not an issue about people spending money but an issue about where they spend their money. If that is online and then only on accommodation and food when they go on holiday, then Edinburgh’s ongoing boom in visitor numbers is no solution to the problems on the high street. Time is not on many shops’ side with claims that there will be more big names announcing major restructuring over the next 18 months. Some 100 years ago many shops were indeed houses or hotels and there is no harm in them going back to their original use but a balance needs to be struck.
With a healthy mixture of luxury and affordability, tourist souvenirs and the work of artists, Edinburgh has the potential to be a great shopping city even in these difficult times. As the Rolling Stones might say, it is surely best if shops are seen to not fade away.
I was surprised to hear of plans to deliver food to the crowds who flock to Portobello beach during good weather.
When I was a kid in Liverpool, getting the ferry over to New Brighton, we would take sandwiches and a flask because we couldn’t afford café prices but these are different times and certainly anybody who can afford to have their lunch delivered to their deckchair can afford to support local businesses in situ.
Hopefully this is just one of those gimmicky news story ideas that will happen but never actually take off.
Already people are talking about Portobello being the new Leith in that way people in New York are always looking for the next cool area to live and I was going to go one step further and suggest Joppa. However I noticed in the paper this week, in a piece about Portobello needing improved infrastructure to cope with expansion, that many of the quotes were from folk living in Joppa just treating it as part of Portobello.
My wife is from Joppa and folk there had always considered themselves a small enclave beyond Portobello. A picture I posted on Twitter of Joppa station which closed in 1964 proved surprisingly popular and generated some interesting stories.
Joppa though will be the end of the line. Musselburgh I suspect would be a step too far!
Sympathy for the devil
I completely understand that people are worried about the number of hotels that are being proposed for Edinburgh but every case has to be judged on its own merits and there are too many people who seem to oppose every hotel development.
Edinburgh certainly needs more hotels and the discussion should be about how many more, what type of hotel and where they are located. It is hard to believe that one plan for apartments catering for stag and hen-dos will not, as the developers claim, have any impact on those residents close by. The developers appeared to think having a separate entrance and a night porter would be enough. At a council meeting this week, councillors disagreed and will have a site inspection. Other developments are opposed on relatively flimsy grounds.
Most proposed hotels, of course, do have pros and cons but campaigners lose credibility by never accepting that, overall, a hotel brings a benefit. As with the high street, this is not something that is going to be out of the news any time soon but it would be good if just occasionally everybody could agree a hotel was a good idea, the way hopefully everybody also agrees there is a need for more affordable housing too.