THE profound challenges facing the traditional retail sector have been reinforced by new figures which reveal a rise in the number of shops closing in Scotland in the first six months of the year.

Scotland’s nine biggest towns and cities saw 107 shops close in a first half dominated by high-profile failures and retail chain restructuring as bricks and mortar stores continued to suffer from the march towards online shopping.

Only 58 new stores opened during the period, meaning that Scottish high streets saw a net 49 closures in the first half, according to research released by accountancy giant PwC today.

It meant overall store numbers in Scotland dipped to 3,160 in July from 3,209 at the start of the year.

The decline marked an acceleration in closures compared with the same period last year, when Scotland lost a net 42 stores. Last year, store numbers in Scotland had fallen to 3,171 in July from 3,213 in January.

The PwC report, based on figures compiled by the Local Data Company, also signalled an acceleration of store closures across Great Britain as a whole.

In a period which saw thousands of jobs go as Toys R Us, Maplin and Poundworld fell into administration, and Mothercare, New Look and Carpetright shut stores as part of Company Voluntary Arrangements (CVAs), a net 1,123 stores were lost to Great Britain’s top high streets in the first half of the year. This was a dramatic increase on the first half of 2017, which saw a net loss of 222 stores across Great Britain.

And the difficulties facing the retail sector have continued into the second half of the year. House of Fraser went into administration before being acquired by Mike Ashley’s Sports Direct in August, with several stores since having been closed.

Debenhams said last month that it will swing the axe on 50 stores, including outlets in Scotland, over the next three to five years after reporting record losses, putting as many as 4,000 UK jobs under threat. And this week high street bellwether Marks & Spencer (M&S) said that every aspect of its business was under review in a bid to halt declining sales. M&S plans to close at least 100 of its stores by 2020, with 21 having been shut in the first half of this year.

Mark Addley, head of restructuring for PwC in Scotland, said: “Our analysis reveals a retail map which is continuing to change beyond recognition from a generation ago.

“The convenience of online shopping is making its mark on the high street, and we expect this will lead to retailers having to re-evaluate the purpose of their bricks and mortar operations.

“The number of high-profile retail casualties in 2018 has made headline news, while the volume of distressed businesses this year has led to a spike in company voluntary arrangements. While these measures can help alleviate short-term distress, they are not a viable long-term solution unless there us a fundamental change to the business model.”

Only two towns in Scotland saw an increase in store openings in the first half of the year, according to the report, with Ayr and Leith growing numbers by solitary unit on a net basis.

Aberdeen, which in recent years has been hit by the downturn in the oil and gas industry, was the most badly affected.

A net 20 shops closed in the Granite City over the period as two store openings were offset by 22 closures, reducing the overall total to 452 by July.

Store numbers reduced by a net 13 in Edinburgh to 982, and by a net 11 to 887 in Glasgow.

Mr Addley added: “The intensity of the current retail climate which is being felt across Scotland’s towns and cities highlights that restructuring and new investment are required, but so are new ways of thinking.

“Retailers of all sizes will be hoping for a strong festive trading period, but we must bear in mind that the peak time period for new CVA announcements is first quarter of the New Year, so we should brace for more high street closures in the coming months.”