Why there’s still hope for quality retail life in Falkirk town centre
Wander along Falkirk High Street on an average Friday in early March and your first reaction might be “crisis - what crisis?” until you hit the welter of empty units around sadly-departed M&S.
But those glaring retail failures are far from the whole story.
A High Street revolution is sweeping Britain, and Scottish towns as varied as Inverness, Motherwell, Dumbarton and Stirling are among the once-bustling hives of retail endeavour currently struggling to come to terms with changing times.
The For Lease signs sprouting across the country send out a dismal message of commercial collapse amid the departure of familiar brand names that once seemed likely to last forever.
It’s a trend that worries Taimur Shakir, owner of iFix in Falkirk High Street.
His tablets and phones repairs and servicing business brings in steady trade, but he needs volume to grow the business and feel confident about the future - and that crucial footfall has plunged, year on year.
From his point of view the arrival of a cheap and cheerful brand like Primark could make all the difference, but of course he has no control over how the people who lease units win their trade.
All he is looking for is numbers, because he’s satisfied the quality of his business will do the rest.
Across the road Andy McCafferty, sales assistant at Vapourz, is noticeably more upbeat.
“With so many people trying to quit smoking we’re getting heavy and sustained interest”, he says, while fielding enquiries about products from a regular stream of customers.
“We also have an easy way into vaping with a trial offer deal at just under a fiver - it allows people who have never tried vaping to give it a go and find out what it is all about.
“Things could definitely improve for the town as a whole, but our business is good, and thankfully seems likely to continue that way”.
Between these two outlets is the regular monthly farmers market, where traders are selling tasty-looking traditional bakery wares, fancy soaps, and much more besides.
Mid-morning the stalls are not exactly fighting off custom, but they’re doing a steady turn, and several customers are obviously enjoying the experience of talking to producers about their wares.
Then, through the lane leading to the quiet enclave which hosts historic pub The Wheatsheaf, there’s Puddle Lane.
Launched by Falkirk mum Eunice Hoffman and her daughter Liza Livingstone almost a year ago it is a “labour of love” boutique that “always has something new to show people”.
Eunice has decades of retail experience of Falkirk and really “knows” the area and the sort of things its shoppers want to buy.
“We sell things you won’t find in the big department stores, and we stock everything from quality cards to beautiful jewellery - some produced in Falkirk - scarves, dispensers, homeware, baby and children’s gifts”.
She adds: “Liza and I are a great team, because along with her own flair for business she is adept at the social media side of things, and from our first ten months here it is obvious to us that our venture is working well - we’ve no regrets about setting up shop in this particular spot.”
Is it possible that more entrepreneurs of this sort could ultimately take up some of the slack created by the failure of the branded chains which kept those more conspicuous High Street units occupied for so long?
Apart from the nearby Wheatsheaf, a Falkirk Herald award winner in tip-top condition which looks every inch the “classic historic pub” (albeit repointed for a contemporary audience) there’s little in the immediate local area that suggests this area is trying to be Falkirk’s answer to Covent Garden.
For many, the empty units are still a big negative, and the new or recent arrivals aren’t sufficient compensation.
But suppose the example of this relatively new arrival were to be followed by other entrepreneurs selling other products - might that help?
Falkirk is set to receive just short of £2million from a Town Centre Fund, its quota of a £50million national pot - the largest single share of that cash is going to Fife.
In broad terms the money will be used to turn some empty units into ventures calculated to bring new life to the town centre, while serving a social purpose.
It will be up to the council how the money is spent, and it hasn’t yet been made clear to what extent innovative retail acumen will be brought to bear in trying to ensure that money is used wisely.
However, along with the town centre initiative work carried out over recent years it could be argued that it at least marks a start to the promised fightback - as related in Falkirk Herald reports of the council strategy unveiled last year.
Meanwhile Puddle Lane’s mum and daughter duo are looking forward to their venture’s forthcoming first birthday, and many subsequent happy returns.
Their resolute faith in the potential strength of local retail might just hold the key to Falkirk town centre’s future.