By Maggie Ritchie

I WAS in a big department store in Glasgow’s city centre at the weekend and, walking up and down the eerily empty floors, it dawned on me that I was just about the only customer.

It was noon on Saturday when, pre-pandemic, I would have been running for the train home to avoid the hordes of shoppers spilling off the trains and buses, packing the stores, and turning the pavements into a game of dodgems.

On the way to swish Princes Square, where bored shop assistants pounced eagerly to help the few customers, I passed boarded up retail giants that had once throbbed with canned music and wondered at how Saturday afternoon in this shoppers’ paradise now seems more like a Thursday morning.

Perhaps people are just out of the habit of shopping for leisure after months of lockdown and being sequestered at home, but the appetite for shopping as a day out clearly hasn’t waned as out of town malls are packed. So, why aren’t people coming back into the high street? Where are the coachloads of shoppers from Dundee, Aberdeen and further afield who used to descend on the city at this time of year like excited, chatty locusts for a weekend of shopping, eating and drinking?

Glasgow isn’t alone – in Northern Ireland, the economy minister Gordon Lyons handed £100 vouchers to everyone over the age of 18 to spend on a shopping spree. “It would mean up to 1.4 million people would have an extra £100 each to spend on our high streets rather than online,” said Lyons.

The scheme, which started this month, follows similar ‘helicopter money’ policies in Jersey and Malta designed to give households money to stimulate spending. In the US, the government has handed out $1,400 stimulus cheques to kickstart a consumer recovery from Covid.

In the UK, Chancellor Rishi Sunak is resisting calls to from the Resolution Foundation thinktank to hand out shopping vouchers to shoppers, while the British Independent Retailers Association is backing a petition for a ‘shop out to help out’ scheme.

With British households apparently having amassed £200bn of savings during lockdown, you’d think the cash would be burning a hole in our pockets. Retail sales in Scotland did go up three per cent in August compared to the same time last year but are down by 10 per cent compared to the pre-pandemic levels of 2019.

As someone who used to love tootling around Glasgow’s stylish shops, I find it hard to believe that it’s just the threat of the virus putting us off going into the city centre.

As I complained in a previous column, the streets are dirty and dingy, the boarded-up shopfronts are daubed with graffiti, the bins overflowing with litter and covered in fag butts, and every corner seems to be occupied by a poor soul begging for spare cash.

There’s also the expense of parking. Okay, we should all be greener and use public transport, which I do on the excellent commuter train from the south side that takes me into Central in a few minutes for a couple of quid. But when I’m taking my son and picking up his cousins and my sister to go into town, it makes more sense to use the car. Parking in the city centre is expensive, even on a Sunday now – when did that happen? – while it’s free in out-of-town retail centres.

I find these malls on retail estates soulless and would much rather wander through the characterful streets of this fine city with its magnificent architecture, and around elegant Princes Square, which won the Best Building in Scotland Award in 2016, than drive down a motorway to walk through a car park to a big box filled with shops and American-style fast-food outlets and chain restaurants.

Bricks and mortar shops in city centres were suffering before the pandemic, which then accelerated the demise of the likes of Topshop and Debenhams, and Jenners in Edinburgh.

Working from home means people are no longer nipping out during their lunch hour to peruse the shops. I’ve worked from home for the last 20 years but when I was doing a few months in-house in the city, John Lewis was temptingly nearby, and my husband complained I was doing a fine job of boosting their profits.

The pandemic has also accelerated the move towards online shopping. While I can see the benefit of being able to click on an item to have it delivered to your home, I hate shopping for clothes on my computer. I prefer to try them on and rummage through rails, not scroll through endless pictures of clothes on skinny, young models. My few forays mean going into town anyway to click and collect or sending back parcels after the rigamarole of printing out return labels and trekking to a nearby locker.

So why not put my money where my mouth is and resume Saturday morning shopping in the city centre? The simple fact is, it’s no fun anymore, what with having to wear a mask and sanitise hands to wander around stuffy shops in a sad, down-at-heel city centre.

Glasgow has always prided itself on being a shopping destination – the second only to London we’re told in various marketing campaigns such as the Style Mile. That was once true and could still be the case if retailers stymied by high rates and parking costs were given more of a helping hand.

Our columns are a platform for writers to express their opinions. They do not necessarily represent the views of The Herald.