SCOTLAND’S high streets and local shops have faced a battle to survive in recent months with streets and retail areas resembling ghost towns.

With coronavirus restrictions in place some small shops are not even able to open, missing out on crucial festive trade which so many often rely on.

Today as Small Business Saturday is marked, business and retail leaders say it is vital people show their support or shop local.

While some parts of the country face less severe lockdown restrictions, it has still brought challenges for those running small businesses. Rural areas might be enjoying more relaxed retail restrictions, however they have faced their own difficulties in trading over the past few months.

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In rural Scotland nearly 25% of adults are self-employed with SMEs (small and medium-sized enterprises) accounting for around 70% of total rural employment, compared with 47% in urban areas.

One small rural business that has suffered, but continued to trade is Dunkeld Whisky Box a speciality whisky and drinks shop. Opening just four months prior to lockdown focussing on tasting experiences and in-person sales, they had to pivot the business overnight to sell online and provide online tasting experiences.

Owner Will Stockham said: “We had only been open since October 2019 and in four months had turned over around £35,000. At the beginning of lockdown we has to close as a retailer. When it was announced that off-licences could re-open as an 'essential service' we didn't immediately open up again as the footfall of locals and tourists in Dunkeld was non-existent.”

A key part of their business plan was based around international tourists which completely disappeared.

Mr Stockham added: “When we eventually opened the doors again, the on-sales section had to close completely so we were not able to offer in-shop whisky tastings or external tasting events for private groups. This was a major blow and significant part of our initial business plan.

“Our main unique selling point that set us apart from the big online retailers, and some other whisky shops, was our ability to offer samples and paid tasting events. Basically a 'try before you buy' service in a relaxed, inclusive environment. Covid put a stop to this aspect of our business completely.”

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Dunkeld Whisky Box found they had to change their entire business model overnight and at the beginning of lockdown didn't even have a website. A few days later they pulled one together for secure sales.

They began offering a free local delivery service which was then adapted to those who were shielding or worried about venturing out. They began Zoom tastings with a small group which proved to be popular and are now fully booked to Christmas. The have also developed UK wide delivery which has allowed them to reach a larger audience.

They also signed up to become members of the Rural Enterprise Directory Scotland, REDS, which has now also launched its own customer loyalty card. It was launched by Scotland’s specialist Perthshire-based enterprise support organisation GrowBiz aimed at channelling consumer spending directly into Scotland’s rural and island towns and villages. It can be loaded with funds starting at £5 to £500.

GrowBiz CEO, Jackie Brierton, said: “Scotland’s micro-enterprises form the backbone of our rural economy and the REDS card is designed to encourage consumers to think local and support the many fragile rural businesses across the country which need our help to survive and thrive. The REDS rural gift card can be spent with more than 120 rural businesses across Scotland, which means consumers have an incredible choice of how and where to spend their money, from experiences and days out to art and crafts, eating out or artisan gifts.”

Helping small businesses in the Scottish islands is Tiree-based Isle20, an online marketplace to browse gifts, homewares, clothing and accessories.

Isle20 was set up by one savvy online retailer Rhoda Meek, as a response to the severe impact on tourism to the islands resulting from the coronavirus restrictions. She started up the business in May as she, like many small business owners was dependent on the tourist trade to the islands for sales.

Mrs Meek was faced with a large stock of tea in her spare room for the brand she had recently set up, Tiree Tea and had lost her customer base. Recognising that she wouldn’t be alone, Mrs Meek set up Isle20 to give herself and her island business community a route to market.

Mrs Meek said: “Platform sales figures have grown steadily since we began in May - October and November really picked up and we are on course for a remarkable month. It's hard to quantify since we started at zero but at this point we have generated almost £50,000 in revenue for small businesses through Isle20 in these last eight months, and more than half of it was generated in November.”

However, she said there are challenges small rural businesses face to get online.

She added: “There's usually an infrastructure problem in that a lot of rural and island areas don't have reliable, or any in some cases, broadband available and secondly, a lot of rural and island businesses were initially set up to attract the passing shopper and have relied on the physical face to face and personal contact to sell their products. Therefore, the technological knowledge required to take their business online, isn't there, or there isn't the confidence. There is still a high bar to entry for online selling. We've done our best to help people by listing as many products as we can for them - I'm not sure that's sustainable - and I am often not as patient as I should be, but it has been a big factor in getting people onboard.”

Latest figures continue to show a bleak retail outlook. Shopper footfall in Scotland plunged by 39.7 per cent in November, compared with the same month last year, as coronavirus restrictions and concerns over the economy took their toll, according to the Scottish Retail Consortium.

The Federation of Small Businesses in Scotland said supporting local firms over the festive period couldn’t be more important.

Andrew McRae, FSB’s Scotland policy chair, said: “During the lockdown earlier this year, every second Scottish business had to close temporarily. We believe a similar share of firms in level 4 areas have had to shut up shop, and other businesses elsewhere in the country are faring little better. And we know that a least a share of businesses will be close to exhausting their cash reserves, and be wondering whether they can re-open even when restrictions are lifted.

“That’s why we’ve got to see people support their local firms over the festive period as they grapple with these restrictions. That means buying vouchers in advance, seeking out local businesses online, and using firms in their community whenever they can.”