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Call for business rates reform amid fall in shopper numbers

Retail leaders have called for a comprehensive reform of the business rates system as new figures show there has been a fall in shopper numbers.

The number of people visiting stores across Scotland in February was 4.1% down on 12 months ago.

The decline in footfall figures north of the Border was larger than that experienced in the UK as a whole, which saw a 2.9% fall.

But Scotland fared better than both Northern Ireland and Wales, which suffered decreases in shopper numbers of 5.1% and 8.8% respectively.

The figures were produced for the British Retail Consortium/Springboard retail footfall ­monitor, which gathers data on customer activity in both high streets and out-of-town shopping centres.

David Lonsdale, director of the Scottish Retail Consortium, said last month had seen a ­"disappointing acceleration of the recent downwards trend in shopper numbers".

He added: "Scottish retailers will be examining this 4.1% drop in footfall carefully and considering what steps could be taken to attract more people to town centres."

Mr Lonsdale said stores north of the Border had enjoyed "bumper retail sales" in January, despite shopper numbers falling that month.

"Until the February Scottish retail sales are published, we won't know if this decrease in footfall has had a large impact on actual sales," he said. "Scottish retailers are increasingly expert at harnessing the internet and multi-channel innovations to get through to consumers who might not have time to travel to the shops."

But he argued changes to the business rates system were required to help boost the retail sector. Mr Lonsdale stated: "To really help the performance of Scottish high streets in particular, comprehensive reform of the near £3 billion business rates system is required in order to support retailers to invest further in improvements and local jobs."

It emerged last week that year-on-year growth in the value of UK retail sales slowed sharply in February to its weakest pace since November 2011.

Food sales remained weak in February. This may reflect efforts by consumers to rein in spending, with inflation continuing to outstrip pay growth.

There was also a mixed picture in the electrical and electronic goods category in February, although demand for televisions remained strong.

Sales figures, published by the Office for National Statistics last month provided another reminder of continued pressure on household budgets at a time when pay rises continue to lag significantly behind inflation.

The Herald revealed last autumn that store openings were finally outstripping high street closures but with banks, fashion retailers and jewellers being replaced by betting shops, discount chains and cheque cashing outlets.

Experts put the phenomena down not solely to the financially straitened times but also to over­capacity of retail outlets and the growth of online shopping.

A Scottish Government ­spokeswoman said: "The Scottish Government is committed to making Scotland the best place to do business. That is why we are delivering the most competitive business tax environment anywhere in the UK and taking steps - through our Town Centre Action Plan - to ensure that our town centres are vibrant, attractive and safe places where local people and visitors alike want to spend their time and money."

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