Are there any votes in Scottish Retail?

Retailing in Scotland is one of the largest and most important sectors of the economy. As a Professor of Retail Studies, I could hardly say anything else. But, with 10% or so of the business community and the same proportion of employment, retailing has an economic significance for Scotland. The March 2011 DTZ report for the Scottish Government makes the case for retailing’s contribution in Scotland. Yet it is more than that; as one of the key sectors with which visitors engage, retailing also has a perceptual contribution to the image and performance of Scotland.

So in our current election, the parties must have lots to say about such a significant sector … right? Cue tumbleweed rolling down the tram lines of Princes Street …

According to the newspapers the Greens want stricter controls on alcohol and tobacco pricing and availability and the Scottish Socialists want to cut supermarket prices. And the rest … pretty much nothing, although on hustings the SNP have resurrected the “Tesco tax”.

A quick and crude download and search of the manifestos (search term=retail) produces the table below. Of the 310 or so manifesto pages produced this election there is barely a mention about retailing. The Tories want to stop another re-run of this Parliament’s SNP “Tesco tax” (why is it not the “Asda” tax or the “Waitrose” tax?), a policy that does not appear in the SNP manifesto, perhaps the biggest surprise. Alcohol sales are the focus for a couple of parties, yet minimum pricing was defeated last year. Community based initiatives appear, and one one hopes that the investment in the necessary skills and training are available to make the most of these. The only “big” policy is the local competition test from the Lib Dems, which is their UK position.

Party Manifesto pages Retail mentions
Conservatives

36

Prohibit sector specific rates supplements (i.e. the ‘Tesco’ Tax)
Greens

28

Support independent retailers who sell alcohol by quality not volume; recognise that town centres are more than retail based
Labour

98

Name and shame retailers who supply alcohol under age
Liberal Democrats

84

Local competition test for planning applications for new retail developments
Scottish Nationalists

44

Deposit/vending machines for recycling in retailers; community based food networks for local suppliers to work with retailers
Scottish Socialists

22

Network of community run supermarkets specialising in healthy local food produce at cheapest possible prices.

So what does this lack of interest in retailing mean? Retailing in Scotland is perfect? Not relevant? Taken for granted? Not that important? Any or all of the above?

There are big issues for retailing and retailers in Scotland. Given its importance you might think that there could have been more discussion around issues such as:

  • Enhancing the number and type of retail jobs in Scotland
  • Rethinking our town centres to reflect their new functions
  • Fitting retail planning and localism together to produce modern services and strong communities
  • Generating a diversity of retail experience for residents and visitors
  • Broadening the opportunities for Scottish food and non-food producers to widen their markets
  • Or even a proper discussion on the merits and demerits of focusing on a “retail levy” given the furore last Autumn and into this year and the illogicality of aspects of its previous incarnation.

Perhaps all the parties think that retailing can be left to its own devices and the economic cycle or that there are too many pressing other issues. Or perhaps it reflects a lack of understanding of how retailing functions in modern Scotland and the centrality of retailing and retail facilities to the quality of life of Scots and our visitors? Either way these manifestos make depressing retail reading; one suspects the real retail battleground awaits the election outcome.

About Leigh Sparks

I am Professor of Retail Studies at the Institute for Retail Studies, University of Stirling, where I research and teach aspects of retailing and retail supply chains, alongside various colleagues. I am Chair of Scotland's Towns Partnership. I am also a Deputy Principal of the University, with responsibility for Internationalisation and Graduate Studies.
This entry was posted in Government, Retail Economy, Retail Levy, Retail Planning, Retail Policy and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

3 Responses to Are there any votes in Scottish Retail?

  1. Adam Blackie says:

    Leigh,
    Your reference to the Tesco Tax. I believe that the real point to be made here is one of the net cash flow effect of mass market retailers on the Scottish economy. i.e. Are retailers such as Tesco transferring a net balance from the Scottish economy to a head office and investor base south of the border, from whence it is reinvested elsewhere.

    In purely economic terms we could ask “what is the balance of payments in the retail sector between Scotland and the rest of the UK?”

    If the answer is a negative outflow from Scotland then UOS might help the Scottish Parliament to understand the issue; and then help develop strategies to address it.

    What do you think?

    Adam.

  2. Leigh Sparks says:

    Adam

    The “Tesco” tax as set out last year was ill-conceived and mis-guided in my view and failed all sorts of credibility tests.

    Is there however a real question to be asked about how we regenerate and rethink our town centers for our modern requirements? Absolutely. Is this best done by only taxing one form of business (and one that could readily pass on the tax to consumers)? Absolutely not.

    To your other bigger point. This would be a very complex exercise (which makes it interesting) but it too hides some more “philosophical” questions. Scotland can not exist behind a closed border and the encouragement of “overseas” investment into Scotland is recognised as vital to our success. Retailing is such a sector now – local retailing does bring strong local benefits but there are prices to pay for this. Mass retailing likewise brings strong benefits but at various costs; it is the balance of these and a good mix that is needed.

    Leigh

  3. Cliff Guy says:

    Leigh
    Your piece reminds me of the article I wrote last year in the journal Town and Country Planning (cynically entitled Election Fever). Focussing on the English parties and references to retail planning policies, there was really very little to report. The most interesting policy potentially was the LibDems ‘local competition test’ although I felt this was included as a form of words to reassure their members rather than a seriously thought-out proposal. Otherwise nothing positive on enhancing town centres or improving the consumer shopping experience. (I also looked at Plaid Cymru manifesto and could not find anything relevant – surprising, because some Welsh town centres are in a poor state.)

    Since then, little progress. I don’t think the DCLG ministers are the slightest bit interested in retail competition as such although I have yet to work out whether the proposals in the Localism Bill would allow any extra control over particular forms of retail change.

    Cliff

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