TWO-thirds of Scots will make shopping locally a priority to help boost struggling retailers and town centres following the coronavirus lockdown, a new poll has revealed.

According to a poll for Scotland’s Towns Partnership, the vast majority of Scots will look to shop locally when their local town centres fully reopen following lockdown.

The poll, given exclusively to The Herald on Sunday, found that 66% say they are going to prioritise shopping locally while 64% say the future of their town centre depends on whether or not local people support them.

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It also found that 88% think it is vital that the general public support their local high street. The results come as high streets are facing a battle to survive amid declining footfall and store closures.

Latest figures from the Office for National Statistics saw Scottish shop numbers fall from 21,100 in 2018 to 20,955 in 2019 with vacancy rates sitting at 12.9% for the first quarter of 2020 – before lockdown.

Local retailers were not only competing with out-of-town shopping malls and discount supermarkets, but there was also the combined effect of many high street banks giving up their sites as more services moved online.

However, as retailers emerge from lockdown, the poll will give the sector a boost and comes on the eve of a national campaign to revive town centres post-Covid.
The campaign is designed to urge Scots to think local first when it comes to shopping and hospitality, while ensuring they continue to adhere to the Scottish Government’s public health guidance.

It will be run by Scotland’s Towns Partnership, a national organisation for town centres, in partnership with the Scottish Government.

Writing about the poll in The Herald on Sunday today, Leigh Sparks, professor of retail studies and a deputy principal at the University of Stirling, said: “The polling figures reported here today show the strong support in Scotland for local high streets and towns and the businesses trading there.

There is a sense of place and desire to see local stores, businesses and towns succeed, and a recognition that this depends in part on local residents supporting local places.

“The poll suggests that almost two-thirds of respondents will positively shift their spending to this end in the future. We need to ensure we capitalise on this positive sentiment by making it simpler to get to towns and high streets, make them more attractive and interesting, and make them easier places in which to set up local and community businesses and enterprises.”

Phil Prentice, chief officer of Scotland’s Towns Partnership, pictured below, said: “These are hugely encouraging findings after a challenging time for town centres, high streets and the local businesses that occupy them. Sometimes we forget that our high streets aren’t just a collection of pavements, buildings and streets, they are the very fabric of our communities. The impact of coronavirus on our high streets isn’t just financial, it’s human.”

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He said one of the positives of this experience has been how communities have come together and shown compassion and solidarity with one another. Prentice added: “Building on this sense of loyalty and community is what is needed to bring about a town centre rival and, while these polling results are encouraging, we need to turn this goodwill and intention into action that is sustainable in the long term. 

“For a few months now, we have been working with the Scottish Government and others to develop a campaign, launching tomorrow, which we hope will appeal to this sense of shared identity. But it is still vital that we remind people the virus is still out there and we still need to be careful and adhere to the public health advice.”

Ewan MacDonald-Russell, the Scottish Retail Consortium’s head of policy, said: “Retailers will be hoping shoppers help support local shops because the alternative may be those shops disappearing forever. The reality is retail was under immense pressure before this crisis and the combination of lockdown and economic uncertainty means shops are currently trading significantly lower than a year ago. 

“When combined with the necessary, but onerous, public health and physical distancing measures, many businesses are struggling to make ends meet.

“By getting out to the high street shoppers can help support their favourite brands, but also help those other proximate businesses who rely on stores to bring footfall to town and city centres. 

“With the pressure on shops as great as at any time this century, it really is a case of use it or lose it for local businesses right now.”

Colin Borland, director of devolved nations at the Federation of Small Businesses, said: “News that two-thirds of Scots are going to make shopping local their priority in our newly-reopened high streets and town centres will be music to the ears of independent traders. They’ve had a long, tough lockdown and public support is going to be more important than ever. It’s great to see that the general public really appreciate the importance of their role in getting us back to business.

“Things will be different, but it’ll just take one trip back to your hairdresser, favourite café or your local to remind you why you love going there, to remind you of the personal, expert service you can only get from a local small business.”

Borland added that that customers and employees must be given the confidence they need to get back out there, generate some footfall, and get money moving around again.

He added: “The message has to be clear: by going out for that first pint or haircut in four months, you’re doing your bit to get the country back on its feet.

“You can’t have strong local communities without strong local economies. And any successful local economy needs a broad range of local small businesses.”

Borland hopes there is a way to bridge the 22-point gap between the 88% who say that it’s vital that the general public support their local high street and the 66% who say they will personally prioritise shopping there.

He added: “We now need to work on those who accept that it’s vital that the general public support their local high street, but won’t necessarily do so themselves. They need to feel that it’s safe and convenient.

“The future of the high street lies in meeting and surpassing the needs and expectations of today’s consumers – just as it did before coronavirus hit.”