As the economic fall-out from the coronavirus pandemic begins to crystallise, the ramifications for businesses and households are almost too overwhelming to conceive.

With economists forecasting that UK GDP will shrink in the region of 25 per cent to 30% in the second quarter, and as worries mount over soaring unemployment and business failure, in spite of unprecedented measures by Government to support incomes during the crisis, many of us will already be taking stock of our expenditure to ensure we continue to make ends meet.

In this context, I have been thinking of what this means for the kind of luxury goods that have won Scotland so much international acclaim, and contributed hugely to economic growth, in recent decades. What will be the impact, say, on Scotch whisky and seafood, two of our biggest economic success stories, when household budgets inevitably tighten as the cost of the pandemic starts to hit home?

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In the aftermath of the global financial crisis of 2008 and 2009, drinks companies were quick to highlight a new trend.

As cash-conscious consumers tightened their belts, the big brands observed that sales patterns indicated people had begun to “drink less but better”.

In other words, people became more discerning about what they spent their hard-earned money on, and treated themselves to a product they believed to be better, for example a single malt as opposed to a standard blended whisky, albeit their purchases took place less frequently.

Those of a positive disposition may argue there is a possibility that similar patterns could emerge again, which could benefit premium products such as expensive Scotch or salmon. Indeed, it could be argued that people might ultimately be tempted to treat themselves to a dearer dram if coronavirus restrictions on travel means they will not get away on holiday this year.

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The problem is that this time the depth of the global economic impact is already believed to be exceeding the financial crash of a decade ago, given the huge extent to which activity has already been curtailed by lockdown measures.

Economists David Bell, of Stirling University, and David Blanchflower, a former Bank of England rate setter, forecast earlier this month that unemployment in the UK will rise by about five million, from 1.34 million to more than six million, by the end of May. Their forecasts were made in a Guardian newspaper article in which they said the UK and other European economies are now in a depression, rather than a recession, such is the depth and expected timescale of the downturn.

Meanwhile, in the US, the most lucrative market for Scotch whisky exports, official figures show 16.8 million people applied for unemployment benefits in the three weeks to April 4. The unemployment rate in the US is now at its highest level since the Great Depression.

Given such an outlook, the prospects for all non-essential consumer goods, not just whisky and seafood, would appear to be extremely challenging. It is a chilling thought for all suppliers of goods and services that rely on consumers’ disposable income, assuming they are able to find a way through the current crisis.

It is important, though, to highlight the positives. In that regard, I am reminded of a recent conversation I had with the esteemed whisky distiller Billy Walker who, at 75, is continuing to win awards for his work.

Mr Walker, now spearheading Speyside’s GlenAllachie Distillery, remains confident in the long-term prospects for Scotch around the world, believing there will be a bounce-back once the crisis begins to recede.

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It may not immediately be apparent in the UK, he said, but should be in countries where people are less focused on property ownership. “I’m very hopeful that the last six months of the year will see a big uplift,” Mr Walker said. “It depends on where. I suspect in this country there

will be a degree of conservatism and nervousness about financial resources. But [in] countries where they are not obsessed with property ownership and things like that, they will immediately have more money to spend.”

That industries such as whisky and seafood are so well established in many overseas markets may prove to be their greatest strength in their battle for long-term prosperity.

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