By Karen Peattie

DEBATE around the need for an online sales tax to create a level playing field with physical retailers has come into sharp focus with the surge in online shopping during the coronavirus pandemic, with two-thirds of those attending a virtual event on the future of Scotland’s high streets calling on the UK Government to take action.

The Future of Our High Streets, a virtual event organised by The Herald in partnership with international law firm CMS, heard wide-ranging views from a panel of experts with input from attendees who voted 66 per cent in favour of the introduction of an online sales tax. Asked if the shift from the high street to internet shopping during the pandemic will be permanent, 79% said they expect the trend to continue.

Yesterday’s business breakfast event shone a spotlight on the changing face of high streets and town centres – not just in relation to the challenges faced by businesses during the current crisis but also pre-Covid concerns surround the creeping shift to online shopping and ongoing concerns about the current rates system.

While it is widely acknowledged that the coronavirus crisis has accelerated some of the structural changes that were already under way on the high street, the debate centred on the need for collaboration with businesses, policymakers, landlords and – crucially – communities all involved in discussions about the way forward.

Keynote speaker Vivienne King, chief executive of Revo, which represents the UK’s retail property sector, stressed that high streets and town centres are the “social and economic heartbeat of communities across the country”. Ms King added that only a physical retail environment could create the “identity and sense of place that bind people together”.

“We need to think about use of space,” she said. “Retail space can be reimagined to create mixed-use space. But it’s not about replacing retail. It requires radical thinking.”

Katie Nagy de Nagybaczon, partner at CMS, predicted an increase omni-channel retailing. “I think we will see more stores introduce areas for click-and-collect sales with more space for returns, and stores acting like showrooms giving shoppers the options to touch, feel and but in-store but also online,” she said.

Sophie Shannon associate director at real estate investment trust NewRiver REIT, agreed that excess retail space should be repurposed and pointed to omni-channel shopping, a model starting to gain traction and already in place with examples including Sainsbury’s which has filled excess space in its supermarkets with catalogue retailer Argos outlets.

“A multi-channel offer brings the physical back to retail,” she said. “We need recycle the buildings we have – there are not enough links between property owners and local councils. There is an oversupply and that excess space needs to be used to benefit communities.”

Miller Mathieson, managing director for Scotland and Northern Ireland at CBRE, noted: “It is long acknowledged that we have a major oversupply of retail space and there must be more dialogue between landlords, tenants and local authorities.

“Redevelopment and regeneration are tough even in the best locations,” Mr Miller added, citing Marischal Square, the multi-million-pound shopping, office and leisure complex in Aberdeen, as a successful example of what can be achieved when there is a collaborative approach.

Dr Jackie Mulligan, founder and chief executive of, a platform that provides a collective online shop window for member towns, noted: “When Covid struck the power and value of the corner shop came to the fore. And now we don’t want the ‘new normal’ – we want greener, better, community, more interesting concepts.

“With Covid we became very aware of the fragility of supply chains so the future must be about more collaboration and multi-agency approaches.”

More than 340 delegates registered for the event chaired by Scott Wright, deputy business editor of The Herald.

Allan Werham, managing director, CMS Scotland, said: “We are delighted that so many delegates attended our virtual Future of Our High Streets event, and participated so fully in this important debate.

"How our town centres can, and must, evolve is a topic which has been very much in the spotlight and Covid-19 is already accelerating the pace of change. Today’s thought-provoking keynote speech from Revo’s Vivienne King identified some important themes for us to keep front of mind - re-thinking our use of space; how we can create a more level playing field between online and physical retail, the critical role of omni-channelling and perhaps most urgently, the need to re-examine and adapt how we do business, with Government support playing a critical role.

"Vivienne’s key message is that future success depends on our high streets continuing to be meaningful to those who use them - with 70% of goods still sold through stores, the appetite for shopping in places remains strong, as long as we embrace new ways of meeting consumer demands, and work together to sustain a market worth investing in.

"Today’s event has been a great example of that collaboration - we are extremely grateful to our excellent panel speakers who have highlighted how innovation, commitment and enthusiasm can help overcome the challenges our high streets are facing, allowing us to look to the future with optimism.”