The 8th September this year was notable for a couple of anniversaries. In 2015 the Queen formally re-opened the Borders Railway. It was also 50 years since the first episode of Star Trek was broadcast; may retailers ‘live long and prosper’. The Scottish Grocers Federation (SGF) celebrated the first of these anniversaries by hosting a Study Tour to Galashiels and beyond, to think about change, investment, competition and opportunities.
Which is why over 50 people commandeered one of the coaches on the 10.24 from Waverley to Galashiels and headed for the Galashiels Interchange Transport Hub. Once there – on time, in comfort and accidentally accompanied by various walking groups and quite a few Americans – the SGF members heard from the Scottish Borders Council, Abellio, Borders Blueprint and Scotland’s Towns Partnership. These speakers set the scene, considering macro change in environments and how changing investment and patterns brought opportunity. Whilst Borders towns are not all in the most robust of health, there is a sense of opportunity and potential in the right places.
The afternoon was more obviously retail focused with presentations and discussions on trading and developments from SPAR, Hawick, Tweed Bank Stores, Galashiels and Tempest Brewery before we headed by coach for the excellent Co-op store at Earlston.
This was a very different emphasis to last year’s ‘taking on the discounters’ day out in Musselburgh, focusing as it did on broader ideas of opportunities, investment and competition. So, what themes emerged?
For many, the perception is that the Borders is beautiful but remote. But the coming (again) of the railway and a focus on the assets and opportunities that these connections bring alive, demonstrates that there are possibilities for retailers by both focusing on the new markets and behaviours and on the distinct identity and local pride of the Borders.
This identity, pride in place and sense of history, but with modernity, came through in the discussions about retail practices and the ways in which retailers can, and are forced to adapt, both in in-situ practices but also on new sites. The Co-op at Earlston was a first class store visit to one such example.
There is no doubt that retailing in the Borders, as elsewhere faces challenges. The historic town centres (and rivalry) are still a focus, but the decline of the textiles industry, the move to out-of-town premises including for retailing, have altered the status of their cores. But the investment in the railway and other facilities and infrastructure promises new patterns of opportunity. New connections mean new opportunities to be moulded and created. This will not occur overnight and will need sustained vision. How can retailers gain from the first-class transport interchange at Galashiels or the future presence of the Scottish Diaspora Tapestry (main site here)linked to the railway? How can retailers ‘capture’ the trade of the Americans and the walkers who accompanied us on a really dreich day on the train? New thinking is required to match the new ambition.
This Borders identity and mentality also shone through in the resilience, self-reliance and pride in place of retailers and producers. Local producers and products, such as Tempest Brewery or through Born in the Borders (their shop/café in the interchange as well as their main site) are providing a distinctive local flavour and colour to stores and places.
The study day was about recognising that change bring opportunities and not only headaches. The Borders and Abellio are very keen to see new transport infrastructure and economic development policies combine to encourage retailers to think about the potential opportunities for investment and strengthening businesses and communities. It is time perhaps to ‘boldly go’ (to the Borders).