Time of change for the high street, with experts warning other old favourites could disappear

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IT WAS the place where teenagers would spend hours raking through the records to spend their hard-earned pocket money.

Not just a shop but a social hub where school friends would meet and debate the virtues of the latest release.

In the days before the iTunes and Amazon, the record shop was king and the monarch was HMV.

Today, that reign is coming to an end, finally deposed by the online revolution which has already claimed its rivals.

Britain’s last major music and entertainment chain is in administration, becoming the latest high-profile name that may be about to disappear from Edinburgh’s main shopping street.

From John Menzies and Woolworths to Dixons and Razzle Dazzle, HMV is set to join a long list of once-loved shops to be consigned to Princes Street history in the last 20 years. Some businesses have folded altogether, others have moved elsewhere in the city, or to out-of-town sites.

So what does the future hold and what will Princes Street look like in another 20 years?

Certainly, experts warn HMV won’t be the last chain to call in the receivers.

Mike Pretious, a retail and business specialist at Queen Margaret University, says: “The fundamental problem for HMV is they have been hit by different issues.

“Firstly, the downloading of music phenomenon rather than buying a physical product. They have not really adjusted to that.

“They have also been hit by the fact the supermarkets started to sell CDs, particularly chart CDs, and by CDs being sold by internet or mail order. They tried to make adjustments. They started to sell things like iPods and headphones and so on but again they are up against a lot of people who do that.”

While the news might seem glum for the high street, Edinburgh and Princes Street in particular are actually doing quite well, according to Andy Neal, chief executive of Essential Edinburgh, which helps businesses in the city centre identify opportunities to improve their activities.

He says: “Even though we have had the same problems as other city centres nationally with big chains closing down, we don’t have many vacant properties in our city centre.

“That’s because we’re doing quite well as a city centre with the combination of locals as well as tourists which helps us through some of the difficult times.”

His views are backed up by David Birrell, chief executive of Edinburgh Chamber of Commerce, who says while the news of HMV’s administration and the likely loss of another familiar retailer is “disappointing”, Princes Street remains ­dynamic.

“We have to remember that many new faces have established themselves on Princes Street over the last few years – Zara, Primark, H&M and All Saints to name a few,” he says. “It is inevitable that the players will change as our culture evolves.

“Despite this latest casualty, Edinburgh still has a flagship shopping street to be proud of. What other city has such a range of top retailers situated opposite an iconic Castle after all?”

However, this doesn’t mean Edinburgh can be complacent about the future and Mr Pretious says in order to survive, city centre areas such as Princes Street will have to adapt.
He says: “I think going forward, retail will always have an important place in town centres and streets like Princes Street, but areas like that will need to diversify and change what they do, whether they have more living spaces, whether they have more common areas for cafes, restaurants, art fixtures, concert halls, turning them more into a social space rather than just a retail space.

“I think to simply rely on these ­areas as just shopping centres is probably unrealistic given the growth in online sales, out-of-town shopping and so on.

“It will remain part of the mix but won’t be the be-all and end-all. They will have to diversify.”

Change is inevitable, says Mr Neal, pointing to new planning guidelines in Edinburgh which will allow other types of business to open up when a retailer closes down.

“At the moment if a retailer closes down, the only other person that can go into that space is another retailer,” he says.

“That’s going to change over the course of the next few years.

“That gives the opportunity for cafes, bars, restaurants and hotels to move into some of these spaces at ground-floor level. When that happens that will create more of a mixed-use street. It will improve the whole experience of Princes Street.

“There are whole spaces where you can’t stop to have a coffee or glass of wine and enjoy the view. If you think about what a unique street Princes Street is with that view up to the Castle, not to be able to sit and look up at that view, we think that’s something that needs to change.

“I think what will happen is those businesses that perhaps haven’t changed with the times, or have struggled to make their business model work, will inevitably close down, but there are other opportunities for Princes Street – not just for retail but still leaving a vibrant city centre. It’s a great opportunity for Edinburgh to transform the city centre into something better.”

In order to make it through the tough times, shops will have to offer something different to compete with online retailers.

Mr Pretious points to the success of John Lewis, which although not the cheapest shop on the high street, offers good customer service, quality products and reliability, and on Princes Street, to the continuing success of shops such as Topshop and Urban Outfitters.

He says: “There are retailers that are continuing to be able to offer excellent customer service and fantastic ranges not available anywhere else, or they have products people want to go and try on, or test out. Customers want to go and kick the tyres so to speak.”

In addition to a high street presence, he says most clothing retailers have an online platform as well – with the exception of Princes Street store Primark, which instead competes with the online shops by selling its products at very low ­­prices.

However, he warns the shops that sell brand products which can easily be sold online, such as books, music and electronics, are the ones that will suffer.

While he thinks these are most likely to be replaced by financial services companies and service retailers such as mobile phone or fast-food companies, he would also like to see more high quality independent shops opening up on Princes Street.

He adds: “What I would not like to see is Princes Street suffering the same way as the Royal Mile has with the very downmarket aggregations of souvenir shops.”

While it is easy to be nostalgic about the loss of HMV, Wimpy, Littlewoods, Etam and numerous other names that have disappeared from Princes Street over the years, Councillor Frank Ross, convener of the economy committee, says we should instead focus on the big names that have taken their place – and look forward to the ones yet to come, like the city’s first Apple store.

“Princes Street has changed over the years – as have other major high streets – due to national trends increasing online shopping and leisure activities,” he says. “We continue to work with many partners across the city to attract big-name retailers and we look forward to imminent exciting arrivals.”

Alive and kicking?

FORMER Simple Minds manager Bruce Findlay says he believes the humble record shop still has a place in Edinburgh, but the days of megastores like HMV are over.

The 68-year-old, who ran Scotland’s best known music chain Bruce’s Record Shop during the 1970s, says the industry has come full circle.

He predicts independent stores situated away from the high street would be the survivors, adding: “I think there will always be room for a record shop, partly because people want to buy records and I mean records, not music.

“I think there’ll always be room for music stores like Underground Solution and Coda in Edinburgh, just small specialist shops that are either selling new records in some cases, or are genre specific.

“I think the days of the megastore are over, but the days of the independent record shop – there may not be as many of them – but I think they will continue. In fact, if I was a young guy today, I would consider starting a record shop.”


Some of the names which have disappeared from Princes Street – either forever or to move elsewhere in the city – are Virgin, John Menzies, Woolworths, Dixons, Wimpy, Burger King, Royal Bank of Scotland, Post Office, Burberry, Littlewoods, Razzle Dazzle, Etam, Benetton, Häagen-Dazs, Wallis, Bally, Richards, Salisburys, Dorothy Perkins, Mothercare, Austin Reed and Jaeger.

Some of the big new arrivals are Primark, Urban Outfitters, Lush Spa and (expected) Apple store.