EXPERTS have warned there could soon be as many as 40,000 empty shops on Scotland's high streets as the collapse of major chains and retailers shows no sign of ending.
The decline of top brands continued with DVD rental store Blockbuster following HMV into administration, with the potential loss of 4190 jobs – 300 of them in Scotland. Last week camera chain Jessops closed its stores.
Now some retail analysts say the number of empty shops could double as chains and independent stores go out of business without fresh ventures to replace them.
According to retail consultancy Local Data Company, there is a vacancy rate of 14.3% of store fronts in Scotland – 20,000 empty shops.
Director Matthew Hopkinson said the number of empty units would rise as big retailers buckled due to falling sales and ditched poorly performing sites.
He said: "The pace of change is accelerating, particularly as leases come to an end. This could double the number of empty properties.
"Many high street names are looking to reduce their portfolio and, if the trend continues, we could see a record number of empty units on the high street.
"We have too many shops. There was a false consumer boom that inflated the high street's ability to support the number of retail units.
"We have also seen the online share of retail sales grow from 0% in 2000 to 12% today, which has had a massive effect."
Garry Clark, head of policy and public affairs at the Scottish Chamber of Commerce, warned: "On the one hand we have had a series of major retail closures, which has been going on since the recession began.
"On the other hand there are a number of business leases which will be coming up for renewal in the next two to three years. As retailers are changing the way they do business, we will see fewer on the high street in the years ahead."
A spokesman for the Federation of Small Businesses said: "It's unlikely we will return to the shopping patterns of the past. We need to have a broader range of employers in town centres. We need large public and private-sector firms to open up to help support smaller retailers and keep town centres vibrant."
Ian Murray, Scottish Labour's Shadow Business Minister, said: "This has been a devastating week for two of the most well-known high-street retailers and the news 300 Scottish jobs at Blockbuster are at risk is hugely worrying. I hope the administrators and management can find a way to secure a future for the business.
"It is incumbent on government at Westminster and Holyrood to get the economy moving again."
The Scottish Government has launched a town centre review group, headed by leading architect Malcolm Fraser. It is due to publish a report in April.
Changes to business rates on empty properties, designed to encourage them to be filled quicker, also come into force later in the year.
A Scottish Government spokeswoman said: "Scotland's town centres are facing a range of challenges, such as empty properties, competition from supermarkets, rents, rates and planning.
"We are committed to tackling this. At the end of last year we launched our National Review of Town Centres to find the best way to take this forward. From April we are offering a new 50% business rates discount to any business for the first year they occupy certain premises [that have lain] empty for more than a year.
"The Government already offers the most generous business rate relief package in the UK, worth more than £500m a year, which has reduced or removed rates for 63% of all retail premises in Scotland."