Sector trends

Pride of place: Stirling

As businesses across the UK gear up for reopening, our new series of spotlights on UK high streets hears from members of Stirling’s vibrant business community.

Stirling, in the heart of Scotland

Just weeks before Scotland’s first lockdown, the Stirling and Clackmannanshire City Region Deal was signed, injecting £214m into the area’s economy over the next decade. The public cash is expected to trigger a further £640m of private sector investment.

The pandemic hit the city centre hard, with hospitality and ‘non-essential’ businesses frustrated when Stirling was placed in level four last autumn, while neighbouring areas stayed in level three. The city’s The Thistles shopping centre lost eight national chains.

“We don’t think the worst has come yet in terms of the national businesses, including branded restaurants,” warns Danielle McRorie-Smith, project director at Go Forth Stirling, which runs the city’s Business Improvement District. “Without these nationals, it makes it harder for the independents, because there’s less footfall.”

Yet Stirling has shown resilience: McRorie-Smith lists 16 businesses that opened during the lockdowns and a further nine due to open soon. “People still want to start businesses, and that will be the saviour of our high street – promoting independent businesses and the unique reasons to visit,” she says.

With shops in Scotland starting to reopen on 5 April – and more reopening alongside hospitality venues on 26 April – Go Forth Stirling will unveil its Street Stories art project on 12 April to draw visitors into the city and promote units available to rent. Empty shop windows will display eight artists’ work, with augmented reality allowing passers-by to get more information on their phones, supported by free wifi launched across the city centre.

Retail, hospitality and leisure businesses will benefit after non-domestic rates relief was extended throughout 2021/22, while local help is also available. Go Forth Stirling scrapped its levy for smaller businesses and offers shopfront improvement grants and e-commerce grants.

Hitting the right notes

Jim Rintoul, who opened Joanie’s Music shop just three weeks before the first lockdown began, is optimistic that the art project, free wifi and other initiatives will bring customers back into the city as lockdown eases. “I hope people will want to come and visit the independent businesses they’ve discovered online during lockdown,” he says.

Rintoul sold strings, guitar picks and other accessories through his website during the lockdowns, and even shipped pedals, amplifiers and other larger items to Austria, the Baltics, and the Philippines via the Reverb website.

Locally, he offered a same-day delivery service. Customers responded by flocking to his shop last summer when it reopened, with trade nearly twice as high as his targets.

Stirling is Rintoul’s hometown and, after working in music shops in Glasgow and London’s famous Denmark Street, he wanted to bring a guitar shop back to the city. “It’s fantastic that people want to support local businesses, but we shouldn’t take that loyalty for granted,” he says. “The lockdowns have taught me to put just as much energy into my business as I would have done if the shop had been open.”

Toasting online successes

Cameron McCann wasn’t born in Stirling but, after 20 years living in the area, he’s clearly proud of all it has to offer, with his Stirling Gin website promoting the city’s restaurants, walks and tourist attractions. “We have the golden triangle of the castle, Bannockburn, and the Wallace Monument to draw in tourists,” he says.

McCann and June, his wife (above), launched Stirling Gin in 2015 and moved into the city’s first legal distillery on the castle rock in 2019, converting an old temperance society hall. Stirling was among the first distilleries to make hand sanitiser when the pandemic began and was an early adopter of online tastings too. It started with virtual distillery tours on a private YouTube channel for customers who bought packs of gin online, and expanded into online tastings.

Physical tours ran for a few weeks last summer, and McCann will use that experience to streamline the tours when his distillery reopens, offering slower-paced tours and running whisky as well as gin tours to promote his new Sons of Scotland whisky range.

As restrictions lift, McCann wants to see businesses working together to promote Stirling. “You don’t need expensive strategies – there are things we can do ourselves,” he says.

Combining bricks and clicks

When Michael Rolland joined his father, Ogilvie, in the family business in 2016, they shifted The Paint Shed’s registered office from Edinburgh to Stirling. They wanted to build a head office and chose Stirling because of the talented workforce available within commuting distance and its excellent transport links to get to the chain’s stores around Scotland.

Their company supplies painters and decorators, as well as the public, and launched its online shop in 2018. “That proved to be the saving grace for the business,” says Rolland.

We shouldn’t take people’s loyalty for granted. The lockdowns taught me to put as much energy into my business as I would have done if the shop had been open

Jim Rintoul
Owner, Joanie’s Music

“When the shops closed in the first lockdown, we went from handling 50 online orders a day to 500 a day. When retail reopened over the summer, our shops saw a surge in demand, so we expanded our workforce, but January and February this year were the toughest months of the pandemic for us because tradespeople couldn’t go into customers’ homes.”

As lockdown ends, Rolland is using lessons from the pandemic, including making the paint-buying experience as easy as possible, both online and in store. He’s installed a Farrow & Ball paint-mixing machine in his Stirling branch, saving customers from travelling to access the whole range.

Welcoming back guests

Keeping in touch with customers and looking after staff have been Euan Bain’s aims during the pandemic, and he managed to combine both. His chefs at The Meadowpark Pub & Kitchen recorded recipe videos of popular dishes from its menu for customers to cook at home. These videos, along with funny videos filmed by staff, attracted thousands of views.

The pub served Sunday roasts for customers at home, with takeaway sales matching the 60 to 70 portions normally eaten on-site. Trade in the weeks the venue could open last summer was up year on year. “I think that was due to a combination of having kept in touch with customers to remind them we were here, the good weather, and pent-up demand,” says Bain.

The Meadowpark is erecting two marquees so it can provide a full service outside when it reopens on 28 April. Five weeks out, 220 people had already booked slots for its first Saturday.

Bain says a vibrant city centre is essential to bring visitors to Stirling and Bridge of Allan, where the Meadowpark sits next to the university. “We need a strong Stirling – there’s no doubt about that,” he says. “Stirling is the hook for tourists, then we benefit. I always see Bridge of Allan as Stirling’s ‘West End’, like Glasgow’s Byres Road or Edinburgh’s New Town.”

David Scott, the bank’s national head of retail and leisure, says that physical stores will have a “very different” role to play in the future of the high street, with a focus on digital-first environments through which retailers need to grasp emerging markets, retain customer loyalty and adapt to changing customer journeys.

“The sector is not all doom and gloom,” he says; “the reality is that we face a disparate and uneven landscape, but retail is part of our DNA. Winners will emerge; we need to understand what makes them successful, bottle it, and share the learnings.”

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