By Scott Wright

THE dramatic downturn in high street footfall stemming from the coronavirus crisis has dealt a further blow to the Scottish retail scene, as plans were announced to close more than one quarter of the Semichem store estate.

Scotmid, the Newbridge-based co-operative society which owns the chemist chain, revealed yesterday that up to 22 of its 86 stores could close.

The impact of the pandemic, alongside the continuing growth of online retailing and drift to out-of-town shopping, were cited as factors.

The proposed closures put up to 140 jobs at risk. Scotmid, which has begun formally consulting the staff affected, pledged to redeploy as many people as possible to roles elsewhere within the group. The co-operative owns 177 convenience stores across Scotland and runs a funeral care business, which has 17 offices across the central belt.

Nineteen of the 22 Semichem stores earmarked for closure are located throughout Scotland, in towns ranging from Fort William in the Highlands and Hawick in the Borders to Cumnock in Ayrshire and Peterhead in Aberdeenshire. Two shops in Northern Ireland, in Derry and Belfast, will shut, as well as one in Northumberland in the north-east of England.

While Scotmid has reached a decision to close 16 stores, the fate of six appears to hinge on talks with landlords, which are under way. Final decisions will be announced in the coming months, Scotmid said.

The Semichem closures are the latest in a huge wave of retail casualties that has been sparked by the pandemic, which has led to non-essential retailers being shuttered for large parts of the last 12 months.

Karen Scott, head of Semichem at Scotmid, said: “The high street was already struggling to adapt to the pace of change in shopping habits, including out-of-town developments and the rise of internet shopping.

“That change has undoubtedly been accelerated by the Covid-19 pandemic. Sadly, we have reached the point where it is no longer viable to keep some of our stores open.

“We are grateful for both Scotmid and subsequent government support, which has undoubtedly prolonged the life of many stores.

“Our priority now is to support affected colleagues at this difficult time. We are already looking for redeployment opportunities within the Scotmid group and will help all our staff both personally and professionally.”

In its interim report published in September, which covered the 26 weeks ended July 25, Scotmid said it had been a “particularly challenging six months” for Semichem. The chain was initially classified by the Government as “non-essential” when the UK entered its first national lockdown in March of last year, which resulted in the closure of Semichem stores. “Clearly this had an enormous impact on Semichem’s interim result with stores closed for 10 weeks or more during the period,” Scotmid said in the report.

The chain has since been reclassified as an essential retailer, and its shops are open. The retail sector in Scotland will begin to open further from April 5, when click and collect services can recommence, and shops such as garden centres, homeware outlets and vehicle showrooms can reopen. The remaining shops will reopen from April 26, under the Scottish Government’s route map for exiting lockdown.

Semichem was founded in 1980 and became part of Scotmid, led by chief executive John Brodie, in 1995. Scotmid said yesterday that it has invested around £2.2m in refitting Semichem stores and trialling new retail concepts in the last three years.

Ms Scott added: “The remaining stores in our Semichem portfolio are trading satisfactorily given the current circumstances. Like many other retailers, we are hopeful that, as restrictions ease, footfall will return to our high streets. I am also pleased to say that our investment programme will resume in the summer.”