Scottish Daily Mail
A sale of two cities... Black Friday blues for glum Glasgow, while Edinburgh reaps the rewards
That’s the chilling verdict of business owner Bill Gibson. But with the city empty of Xmas shoppers and office workers, many share his bleak prognosis
THE contrast between them could not be more stark.
While the streets of Scotland’s capital were packed with bargain-hunters looking to make the most of Black Friday deals, the shopping precincts of the country’s biggest city stood empty.
The forced closure of all non- essential shops in 11 Scottish council areas meant business owners who could not move their sales online could only look on as retailers elsewhere brought in much-needed funds on one of the year’s biggest shopping days.
Last year, Scots spent £97million online on Black Friday, with another £127million splashed out on Cyber Monday.
Shoppers were out in force on Princes Street, Edinburgh, which is under Level 3 restrictions. Apart from most people wearing face coverings, it could have been a scene from any recent year.
However, images of shopping precincts in areas under tougher Level 4 measures could not have been more different.
Braehead Shopping Centre on the edge of Glasgow was all but deserted, as was the city’s Buchanan Street. It is expected the closure of shops in swathes of the country
will push more trade online, where it is thought Scots will spend up to £164million snapping up bargains this year.
Non- essential shops in Level 4 areas closed eight days ago with an estimated £15million lost in the first full day alone.
Shops in these areas will not be able to welcome customers back i nside until December 12. The retail sector anticipates lost sales of £270million, on top of £2.5billion already lost during the pandemic. Many shops are expected to extend their trading hours when they reopen in an effort to make up for lost footfall.
Originating in the US when sales start the day after Thanksgiving celebrations, Black Friday has taken hold in the UK.
Scottish Retail Consortium director David Lonsdale said: ‘For many customers, digital shopping will be the main option for those looking to get their pre-Christmas purchases until shops re-open on December 12. As such, this could be the biggest Black Friday yet, after what has been a miserable period for the retail industry in Scotland.
‘We estimate non-food shops will miss out on £270million in lost revenues over the three weeks of local lockdowns, a hammer blow during what would normally be the key festive trading period.’ Stuart Mackinnon, external affairs manager of the Federation of Small Businesses in Scotland, said: ‘The fact so many local businesses participated in Black Friday despite the lockdown is a mark of how effectively some have adjusted to the pandemic by moving their products and services online. However, plenty of other small businesses remain entirely dependent on in-store trade.’
LOCKDOWN in Scotland’s largest city and Glasgow’s usually bustling centre slumbers in its induced coma. Businesses that used to feast hungrily on any passing footfall are once more in stasis, their windows dimmed, little sign of life within.
Ordinarily, the run-up to Christmas would be one mad, jostling scene of chaotic consumerism, with Buchanan Street’s pedestrian precinct a sea of bobbing heads. That was before the pandemic took hold. This year, a deathly hush has descended. Strolling around in the hours before Level 4 restrictions brought the shutters down on all non-essential shops and services last Friday, Glasgow looked a pale shadow of its usual gallus bluster.
Customers were in thin supply long before the 6pm curfew (not helped by persistent rain); harsh strip-lighting in unoccupied office blocks and empty train carriages bearing witness to the impact of ‘work from home’ edicts.
The ravages of coronavirus have cut deeply into the fabric of the nation, the pain no more keenly felt – it should not be forgotten – than by those who have lost loved ones. The death toll – now hovering around 5,400 according to latest data f r om the National Records of Scotland– reminds us that Covid-19 is no respecter of seniority or reputation.
Businesses of all sizes and ages find they are treated with similar disdain. But the small independents, the hairdresser’s and barber’s, gift shops and coffee bars, which form the lifeblood of Glasgow’s diverse retail offering, are suffering desperately.
While they languish under the most draconian level of restrictions until at least December 11 – j ust 13 shopping days before Christmas – small businesses in the country’s other major cities – Edinburgh, Dundee, Aberdeen and Inverness – can remain open.
‘In the first lockdown, we were shut for three months. But Glasgow has never really recovered since March,’ said Bill Gibson, owner of Adventure 1, an oldschool military surplus and outdoor equipment store, at 38 Dundas Street. Now 72, Mr Gibson opened the shop, just up from Glasgow Queen Street Station, when he was 40. The passage of time offers perspective.
‘It is a very depressing situation, to be honest. I’ve put my life’s work into this place and to see it fall down now… I’m not ready to retire,’ he said. ‘I don’t have a wife or family, but my staff have commitments; they have mortgages and they are all worried.’
Despite receiving a £10,000 Government grant and a rent cut of 50 per cent for three months from his landlords, Mr Gibson still had to pay off one of his five staff: ‘It’s not nice, but I also had to consider the other employees.
‘If we hung on and hung on before letting anyone go, there might be no business left.
‘We are breaking even but no more. We take £200-£300 a day – that’s turnover, mind, not profit – and out of that I have to find the wages to pay four staff and meet my overheads.’
He added: ‘The city is so quiet. I travel in from Coatbridge by train and I talk to the train drivers who say there are barely a dozen people coming in off their trains, which are normally packed.
‘The worry with lockdown is that every time it happens, fewer and fewer people come back to the city and back to the shops. In lockdown, they found they could buy anything online or in a shop nearer home, so why bother coming into the city at all now?
‘Glasgow is finished. It is never going to recover.’
It is a sobering conclusion, but one hard to argue. Before Covid, 170,000 jobs were based in the city centre. One block is adorned with the city slogan: ‘People Make Glasgow.’
This week, the Scottish Daily Mail published pictures of rows of deserted desks in the nearby financial district, as it emerged that more than a quarter of Scottish firms are cutting office space in response to the vast numbers working from home.
At the same time, figures from the Scottish Retail Consortium show that Scottish stores lost £2.4billion of sales over the first seven months of the pandemic. High street footfall, meanwhile, is down 40 per cent.
MEDICS often talk about the ‘golden hour’ when t hey have t heir best chance of saving a dying patient. Economists describe the weeks leading up to the festive period as the ‘golden quarter’ – the busiest time of the year which can mean the difference between life and death for small traders. We are now well into that period and time is running out.
Next door to Adventure 1 is Most Valuable Barbers at 40 Dundas Street. Owner Oscar Yassar has just sat down to a late lunch.
With eight customers booked before lockdown – an exceptionally busy day by recent standards
– Mr Yassar has pushed the boat out: ‘Normally I cannot afford anything more than a sandwich. Today I eat pizza!’ he said, only half-mockingly. There seems little else to cheer. Debts are mounting and trade has dropped off a cliff. ‘I took this place over about a year before l ockdown and worked really hard to build it up; seven days a week. Then I feel like Mike Tyson has hit me in the face.
‘Now, I’m not even making 20 per cent of what I was. The first lockdown, I was scared for the future. But now, I’m not even scared because I know I have no future. I will have to close for good. I have bills for this quarter of more than £11,000. How can I pay that? I have £103 in the bank right now.’
Mr Yassar, who will mark his 46th birthday during lockdown, added: ‘Throughout my life, I have always been positive. Even now, I know I am better off than others. I have lost all my savings, but I still have my health.
‘I have a wife and two kids in Denmark. I think in the New Year I will leave and join them.’
Sandy McLean, 59, has run his record shop, Love Music, at 34 Dundas Street since it opened in 1997 selling vinyl and CDs. ‘We have fared better than some during lockdown as we are a specialist store and we do a lot of business via the internet,’ he said.
‘Even in lockdown, I could come in, package up orders and take them to the post office. But as a bricks and mortar retailer, what we have badly missed is what I call “Fifty Pound Man”, who would browse over lunchtime and buy a few discs. That has hit us hard.’
Like his near neighbours, he benefited from a 50 per cent rent rebate for three months earlier in
the year and record companies have given him extra time to pay for stock, but he added: ‘The electricity company still charged me full whack. It is still expensive to rent premises in the city centre.’
Still, he is among the lucky ones. Research by the Federation of Small Businesses Scotland (FSB) found that only one- quarter of members had managed to negotiate any discount or deferred payment on their rent, while the overwhelming majority were asked to pay the full amount on time.
Critically, small traders in Glasgow had to remain shut yesterday while the UK splurged an estimated £164million in 24 hours on the biggest shopping day of the year so far. For many, Black Friday will have taken on an entirely different connotation. Some places that could have stayed open opted to close too. Laboratorio Espresso has been serving coffees at 93 West Nile Street since 2013, and could have operated on a takeaway basis but won’t reopen until December 12. Co- owner Scot McGarry said the city centre was simply ‘too quiet to be profitable’. He added: ‘Unless people have a purpose to come into the city centre, they won’t and Glasgow isn’t yet on the scale of places like Manchester in terms of residential population in the city centre to support business without that large number of people coming in to work, study, and socialise.’ Mr McGarry recalled how Glasgow ‘was buzzing’ after hosting the Commonwealth Games in 2014, but Covid threatens to undo all that good work. The next opportunity to showcase the best of Glasgow is in less than a year’s time, when the city hosts the UN’s major climate conference, COP 26.
WORLD leaders are expected to attend the summit and the spin- off business could be huge. But, one wonders, how many of the city centre’s current retailers will survive to put themselves in the global shop window?
At 21 Bath Street, near its junction with West Nile Street, stone steps lead down into the welcoming glow of Maia Gifts. This basement emporium of quirky kitsch and hand-crafted trinkets is owned by Samantha Rose and Soni
Ahmed, partners in business and in life.
‘It has been a battle for us,’ said Mr Ahmed, 45. ‘We are 80 per cent dependent on office workers who would drop in at lunchtime for a browse. This kind of shop is made for browsing but, because of Covid, people just don’t browse any more; they are too scared. We had all the social distancing marked out, but we’ve never needed it. The shop is never busy enough.’
Miss Rose added: ‘I know they have to try to control the outbreak, but the timing could not be worse. These five weeks leading up to Christmas are absolutely critical for us. We have a website too, but you are competing against giants l i ke Amazon and we have no budget for advertising.’
The couple, who met while backpacking around India, set up the shop 12 years ago: ‘It was just before the worst of the financial crash, so not great timing!’ said Miss Rose, 41, who trained as an accountant. ‘But it was our dream to run a shop like this supporting local crafts and artisan manufacturers, so we stuck at it. We have never known good times, but this has been by far the toughest year.’
Mr Ahmed added: ‘It’s frustrating because we don’t feel small businesses like ours are getting the support we need. At the moment, we are breaking even and no more. We still have city centre overheads, although our landlord has been sympathetic.
‘But we have invested everything we have in this and just feel powerless. We have to hope we can open again in the run-up to Christmas. That will give us a boost to see us through. But it is very worrying.’
This crisis is so acute that Glasgow City Council and Glasgow Chamber of Commerce have set up a joint city centre task force to chart a route out of the darkness. It recently held its first meeting and co- chair, Councillor Angus Millar, whose ward covers the city centre, described the impact of Covid on its retail and hospitality sectors as ‘distressing’, pointing out: ‘ The success of our city centre affects not just Glasgow but all of Scotland.’
THE task force’s first priority will doubtless be to help funnel as much as possible of the extra £2.4billion block grant allocated to Scotland in the Chancellor’s spending review into Glasgow’s coffers.
Longer term, he said, the city centre needed ‘a vision and an action plan’ to tackle underlying structural problems. For the reality is that an exodus of business had begun before Covid’s icy grip.
Stuart Mackinnon, the FSB’s external affairs manager, agrees. ‘Our high streets faced significant problems before the coronavirus, so we need to have a concerted push to make these places appealing to a wide variety of operators,’ he said.
With vaccines offering hope of a return to normality sometime next year, it was vital that everyone, landlords, utilities and big business and governments pulled together to ensure as many traders survive the next few months.
He added: ‘We really need to make the city centre as diverse as possible to give people more reason to visit once this crisis is over.’
If Covid has made one thing painfully clear, it is that without a thriving business community, there is simply no point in people coming into the city. And without people, as the civic slogan reminds us, there can be no Glasgow.