As Scotland prepares itself to vote on whether to go it alone, how distinct is the retail offering in Edinburgh and Glasgow?
Even in the minds of those who rarely stray outside the M25, September 18 has probably made an impact.
Number of employees: 255,000 (14% of total private sector workforce)
Number of retail outlets: 23,550 (11.9% of all businesses)
Scottish retail sales: £28bn (2012)
(Source: Scottish Retail Consortium)
It is the date that ‘Scotland decides’ and nationalists or unionists will either be reeling to the swirl of the bagpipes or drowning their sorrows with a glass of single malt, depending on the way things go.
But from a retail perspective is there much difference between England and Scotland? Is there any real sense of ‘Scottishness’, or is the reality just an undifferentiated continuum in which the shops are the same as anywhere else?
The most cursory stroll along the main shopping streets of Glasgow and Edinburgh serves to show that the latter is generally the case, but levels of investment appear to vary among retailers. And in both cities there are a lot of shops peddling things Caledonian.
The other question is whether things will change for retailers if the nationalists get their way. One Scottish financial professional I spoke to seemed to think so, describing it as “absolute folly”. He said that many companies will leave if costs rise as a result of independence.
Also worth noting is that the Glasgow-based Commonwealth Games, supported in part by John Lewis, are imminent. The focus on the event seemed sharper than any anticipation of the referendum and there were even ‘Team England’ T-shirts on offer in the Commonwealth Games Superstore –although it is fair to say that they were not being eagerly raked through.
The Whisky Shop, Buchanan Galleries, Glasgow and The Princes Mall, Edinburgh
A shop that stocks a single category, or a niche within a category, has to be special if it is to succeed.
There are Whisky Shops in the centres of Glasgow and Edinburgh and both target the tourist with a blend of wooden casks, multiple whiskies and, in the Edinburgh shop, a curved central counter that is faced in copper, in deference to the apparatus used to produce ‘the water of life’.
The environment of both stores is low-key and muted. Wood, brick and neutral-coloured floor tiles are used to allow the tastefully traditional whisky bottles to speak for themselves.
As an intrinsically Scottish product, selling whisky to the locals might seem a little like bringing coals to Newcastle but the store seemed almost as full of Scots as those from elsewhere, all eager to test-drive something new.
Jenners, Edinburgh and Frasers, Glasgow
Without a shadow of doubt, Jenners is the most impressive-looking store on Edinburgh’s Princes Street. This beautiful, ornate building speaks of the confidence of a bygone age.
The main hall is a galleried affair with lots of carved oak and a clock at one end of the type that commuters in a Victorian station might have set their watches by.
House of Fraser, the owner of Jenners, has paid scant attention to these architectural glories however, opting instead to over-merchandise the store. On the day of visiting, HoF was midway through a Sale and the whole area was plastered in red signs.
Jenners also has a Scottish gift shop, in due deference to Edinburgh’s tourist horde. Tired-looking displays of haggis, tartan rugs and smoked salmon seemed to hold little appeal to shoppers. On the uppermost floors, it felt like a store that had become stuck in the late 1970s or early 1980s.
Jenners should be better than this and Scotland’s capital deserves a department store worthy of it.
Frasers, the Glaswegian equivalent of Jenners, also looks as if it could do with some TLC. It has received a makeover in a number of areas but the main Victorian atrium is in need of restoration, much like Jenners’.
Just around the corner from George Square, where Glasgow is putting its best foot forward to promote the Commonwealth Games, one of the side windows of Primark has been devoted to Scotland.
Actually, that is a mild overstatement – this is a large window that has been given a white backdrop and which is home to a few T-shirts bearing either the Saltire or the legend ‘I ♥ Scotland’. Couple that with a pair of matching tartan rugs and what might have been a good idea when it was conceived looks a mite like tokenism.
In fairness to Primark, it is possibly the only major high street retailer that has opted to emphasise where it is through a merchandise display, but whether the execution will tempt passing shoppers is something of a moot point.
McCalls, Merchant City, Glasgow
For those in need of a Caledonian fix, there are plenty of options in Edinburgh and Glasgow. But for the most part these are very badly merchandised and look hard-nosed in intent – to the extent that somebody, say, with the name Sikowski would probably emerge from one of these emporia wearing a kilt, having learned that they are in fact part of a distant offshoot of the clan McRae.
There is no such cynicism at McCalls, a kilt and Highland dress retailer that takes itself seriously and gives shoppers space and a series of engaging in-store displays to look at.
It is probable however, that long before entering the shop the pair of tartan-clad ostriches in the window will have been remarked upon. These are intended to make a connection between the far-flung countries taking part in the Commonwealth Games and the nature of the products stocked, and they are effective and eye-catching.
Slaters, George Street, Edinburgh
The problem facing the manager of every branch of Slaters, given that the overwhelming majority of this men’s and women’s formalwear retailer’s stores are not at street level, is how to make a mark on passing shoppers. In Edinburgh, it is located on the first floor of a building on George Street, the city’s most upscale thoroughfare and quite a long way removed from the mid-market reality of nearby Princes Street.
That inherent disadvantage has been overcome by plastering each of the windows on the first and second floors with pictures of men – just men – wearing suits and, in one instance, a kilt. It is actually quite hard to miss and so long is the frontage and so consistent is the approach that it comes quite close to dominating the Jaeger store above which it sits.