RETAIL sales worth £2.1 billion were lost in Scottish shops over the first five months of the coronavirus pandemic. It is a colossal sum, and vividly shows the sheer scale of the collapse in sales during March to July compared to the same period last year.

The performance of retail sales has improved in each of the past three months, or more accurately has got progressively less worse. Scottish retail sales were still down by almost one-tenth last month on July 2019.

Unfortunately, Scotland lagged that of the UK as a whole, which has actually seen a modicum of retail sales growth over the past two months. If we had matched that it would have added £500 million to Scottish retail sales over June and July.

A large part of this is because shops in Scotland experienced a longer lockdown than elsewhere in the UK.

Non-essential shops were only permitted to reopen on June 29, two weeks after stores in England.

Stores in shopping malls were allowed to reopen from July 13 – a full month after their counterparts in Northern Ireland – with many adjacent stores waiting until then to restart.

Not all retail sub-sectors have been impacted equally since March. Fashion, clothing and footwear fared particularly poorly.

However, grocers have seen revenues rise as eating or drinking out was at first prohibited and staying home became the new norm. Sales of items which allowed people to work or educate from home – such as computing equipment – have performed well. Retailers with a strong online presence have had a more buoyant period too. And £2 out of every £5 of non-food retail sales were undertaken online last month, up from one-quarter before the pandemic.

While retail sales are slowly recovering, visits to shops have shrivelled. Footfall was down 54 per cent last month, with larger city centres and malls faring worst. It is not just the longer lockdown at play – other factors are dampening demand, particularly fears over pay and employment. The SRC/Opinium survey of consumers reveals that over one-quarter of households believe their financial situation is worse now compared to this time last year. Similar numbers say they are likely to spend less in shops.

A big question is whether many of the changes in customer habits witnessed over the past five months – lower footfall, a reluctance to go out, fewer impulse buys, a focus on value, online purchasing – are temporary or more permanent trends. That remains to be seen.

What is not in doubt is that shops and retail jobs depend on the ongoing patronage of the public and while the situation is gradually improving, it remains particularly acute in our larger city centres where stores are suffering huge drops in footfall.

Any prolonged absence of office workers, students and tourists from Scotland’s city centres will be hugely challenging for businesses which rely on their custom. Before coronavirus these stores were often the more profitable revenue generators, and if they struggle it will have consequences for jobs, vacant premises, and Government tax revenues, let alone the strong community ties retailers often have.

While shopper demand is sluggishly returning, there is little sign the £2.1bn of lost sales from spring and summer will be recouped. Consumer confidence and spending remains fragile. Shops are still struggling after months of closures, and unpaid rents are accumulating.

The next few months and the lead-up to the crucial festive trading period will be an almighty test for the industry. Many household names have stumbled or tumbled over recent months, and every indication is that the shake out is set to continue.

David Lonsdale is director of the Scottish Retail Consortium