A business leader has issued a desperate appeal for people to hit the high street for their Christmas shopping after revealing numbers visiting the heart of Aberdeen have plummeted by 66%.
Footfall in some of the city’s main thoroughfares, including Union Street and Bridge Street, has dropped by around two thirds during the pandemic, though it shows fragile sign of recovery.
Between March 23 and October 6 last year, nearly 13.7 million people were recorded walking through the city centre by business improvement group Aberdeen Inspired.
But during that same period this year, when strict coronavirus measures were implemented, this number was down 66% to just 4.6m.
The Press And Journal can reveal this fall includes a staggering 73% drop in foot traffic on Belmont Street, and a 78% dip in pedestrian numbers on Langstane Place.
Castlegate and Union Terrace fared the best, but still lost in excess of half of all their visitors, with footfall reductions of 52% and 56% respectively.
In the last month, it appears to have been heading in a more positive direction, with an average drop of closer to half in November so far, rather than the two-thirds recorded last month.
But Aberdeen Inspired chief executive Adrian Watson says a great deal of damage has already been dealt to the city centre and its businesses.
Many struggled with having to close in the early months of the lockdown, despite government grants on offer, while others still running faced a lack of trade.
Others suffered from the financial hits associated with installing new safety measures and methods of operation to ensure they could open safely.
Mr Watson said: “It is a challenge just now, but it was there before Covid-19.
“What coronavirus has done is accelerate that.
“Traditional retail, bricks and mortar on the high street was going through a difficult situation already with the internet and ecommerce.
“In the pandemic it has had an effect on the high street and this starts to play through into footfall.
“We’ve had less than half the numbers of people we previously had coming in to the city.”
He added: “Some businesses have received some national support and generally we are very pleased the government has been supporting in the way it has.
“We could always do with more as some of the businesses are really feeling it with tight margins.
“It’s a challenge and, the longer this goes on, the more challenging it will be.”
“It was never going to be perfect”
A number of initiatives have been launched in recent months in a bid to stem the decline by encouraging more people out of their homes and into the city centre.
Most notably this included efforts as part of the Scottish Government’s Spaces For People initiative.
The £10m fund was announced to help the likes of pedestrians and cyclists maintain safe distances from one another when out and about.
Despite some criticism from retailers, Mr Watson said it has played a crucial role in pandemic recovery.
“The principle of allowing us to open up the city centre safety is laudable,” he said.
“If we didn’t bring those changes in we wouldn’t have been able to open.”
“But it was never going to be perfect – it’s a pandemic and a time of challenge.
“It was brought about by the council in quick time and it’s not as aesthetically pleasing as everybody would have wanted.
“I’ve heard people say it looks like roadworks, and all the rest, but it’s there to serve a purpose.”
“People will sneer”
When backing the plans, Aberdeen Inspired said it was important the Spaces For People work fulfilled two key criteria: Minimising disruption and maximising business.
A series of “parklets” – wooden pallets with benches and flower boxes – were installed throughout the city in July.
The 64 pieces of redwood decking were designed to help people enjoy outdoor areas without getting in the way of pedestrians.
And with restrictions on how licensed premises have been able to operate, Mr Watson said there was a perfect opportunity to back business and give them more room to serve customers
“We started to look at cafe culture with this increased space,” he said.
“People will sneer at that – but they manage fine in Scandinavia with much colder climes than here.
“We thought where there’s a will, there’s a way, and it’s something we should have been looking at in any case.”
“We have to stay focused”
Earlier this month Aberdeen Inspired launched a city-focused gift card, already in use at dozens of retailers, and spearheaded a campaign based on its popular Restaurant Weeks to encourage people to dine out.
Over the coming weeks it will roll out a Christmas market and, early next year, will welcome back the NuArt street art festival.
And with the pressures being faced by retail and hospitality, Mr Watson feels it is important for Aberdeen city centre to become an all-encompassing destination.
“We have to stay focused and driven and have something tangible to bring people safely back into the city centre,” he said.
“Our restaurant weeks were fantastically well received and a huge boon for hospitality but the whole rationale is to bring people in – and not just for that one initiative.
“We hope they come in early, do some retail shopping, go for something to eat and then – in older times – they might have gone to enjoy a show at the theatre.
“That idea of people coming in and buying is still there; the experience is still there.
“We’ve got wonderful eateries and some of the best retail in the country. It’s just about getting people in safely.”
Mr Watson added: “What we are finding is that the footfall is less, but the people are spending more.
“They’re not going in to browse or for a wander – they’re coming in with a purpose.
“So it might be that we’re down by half on footfall, but not down 50% on spending.”
“Everyone has a view – but what are they doing to help?”
Aberdeen Inspired has called on residents to take a greater interest in revitalising the area and keep it thriving for the future.
Mr Watson said the health of the city centre is something “everybody should have a stake in”, rather than leaving it to civic planners and political leaders to decide.
This could involve commenting on grander plans for the city, or actions as simple as shopping and spending money to support local businesses – including via the Aberdeen gift card.
“Everyone has a view of Union Street and we all want to restore it to its former glory,” he said.
“It’s a challenge and it’s being amplified by issues with the property and jobs markets.
“This is having a direct impact on retail and hospitality, especially if you don’t have the office sector.
“With the default position of working from home it’s having a big impact on the city centre – we’ve lost a captive market.”
He added: “It’s a real challenge for bricks and mortar as online sales are growing and those companies have not been subjected to the same as those on the high street.
“We’re trying to support them as we’re coming up to a busy time; for some of the retailers this will make up 90% of their sales.
“We’re telling people to support them and give something back as, if not, we’re going to see even more closures in the weeks and months ahead.
“We need to repurpose the city centre and that is a huge, monumental change and it’s for us all to focus and say what we want from it.
“Many people will stop and say ‘Look at the state of our high street’, but what are they doing to help?”