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Union Street decline arrested? New mobile phone stores have boosted shop numbers

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The number of empty shops on Union Street in Aberdeen has fallen for the first time in two years.

Business chiefs say the reversal of a trend of stores closing along the historic thoroughfare is a “glimmer of hope”.

But the city centre is still facing huge challenges after extended Covid-19 shutdowns, with the pandemic only accelerating the consumer trend towards online shopping.

We need to get people back to the workplace to help our city centres thrive once more.”

Russell Borthwick, chief executive, Aberdeen and Grampian Chamber of Commerce.

Aberdeen-based property consultancy FG Burnett has just completed its latest biannual review of occupancy levels on Union Street.

The firm keeps track of the number of units actually occupied and trading, while the study also looks at any trends in terms of unit use.

FG Burnett has counted 44 ground floor units currently vacant, or 23% of the total.

Seven new occupants – including four mobile phone outlets – have opened for business since the previous survey, while three traders have gone.

FG Burnett said: “We are a long way off suggesting Union Street’s challenges are diminishing but the current statistics also exclude a total of eight units that are close to opening – that is very encouraging.

“Deals are happening, albeit at rents/prices that reflect the current market.”

The north side of the street is faring better than the south, with vacant premises making up 18% and 28% of the total stock respectively.

‘Heartening’

FG Burnett managing director Richard Noble said: “It is heartening that voids have fallen in the past six months.

“But I expect people will still be terribly concerned at the general perception of Union Street.

“New occupiers are not necessarily adding to the experience sought by workers, visitors and residents spending time in the central area.

“Any initiative to see a significant improvement on displays and unit fascias would be welcomed – as would a step change in the quality of our city centre public realm.”

Mr Noble added: “The quality environment of a redeveloped Union Terrace Gardens cannot come quick enough and we await further announcements on the former BHS redevelopment, another key project. “

FG Burnett managing director Richard Noble on Union Street.

Aberdeen and Grampian Chamber of Commerce chief executive Russell Borthwick said: “These figures offer a glimmer of hope but our city centres are facing enormous challenges following extended Covid-19 shutdowns and the continued work from home messaging from government.

“We need to get people back to the workplace to help our city centres thrive once more.”

Mr Borthwick called on Scottish ministers to “urgently publish plans to help our city centres recover from the pandemic”.

These should include recommendations of a city centre recovery taskforce which was due to report in autumn 2021, he said.

And action must be backed up with “significant” new funding to aid the post-Covid recovery, he added.

Russell Borthwick.

Adrian Watson, chief executive of business group Aberdeen Inspired, said: “It is encouraging to hear this news on retail vacancy rates for Union Street.

“No doubt the move by major businesses such as Shell, who are relocating to the city centre, and new hospitality ventures by Resident X and Six by Nico give cause for further optimism.

“However, there are still clearly challenges, and never has there been more of a need for us to be bold and ambitious in our vision for the city centre by driving forward with delivery of our master plan.

“We also continue to push nationally for a more equitable business rates system, and ensure government does all that it can for wider city centre regeneration at a time when it has never been needed more.”

Aberdeen Inspired chief executive Adrian Watson.

Geek Retreat is among the trio of non-mobile phone businesses that have opened on Union Street since FG Burnett’s last survey.

It is run by former North Star shipping marine superintendent Scott Leslie, of Ellon, who told The Press and Journal the Granite Mile could do with more experience-focused businesses like his.

His new comic book shop, cafe and gathering place at 177 Union Street opened last month. It is part of a UK-wide franchised chain.

As well as selling a range of fantasy items, the site has a room where Dungeons and Dragons gamers can “breathe in the atmosphere”.

Scott Leslie outside his new Union Street shop.

Mr Leslie said: “We’re a bit of a destination shop – people will travel to visit us or take part in the events we have.

“What I am now interested in is the conversion rate for people walking in off the street.

“We’ve had a reasonable number of people just coming in to ask how long we’ve been here. Not everyone is aware of us.”

Asked about the prospects for Union Street, he said: “It’s important retailers look beyond what’s on their shelves and offer customers much more of an experience.”

Geek Retreat offers visitors an “experience”, says Scott Leslie.

According to FG Burnett, it is “inevitable” new voids will arise.

But the firm added: “With the number of deals ongoing and units already being fitted by new occupiers, we are very hopeful that our next survey in August will show a further decrease in the available space.

“Over the years the look and feel of Union Street has changed and food & beverage and service providers now dominate where variety stores, fashion and footwear once held their own.

“The change in occupier profile has naturally led to less attractive shopfront displays and when the occupiers of entire blocks begin to change this can lead to a rather down-at-heel look.”

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