More people in Scotland moved from cities to rural areas during the pandemic. While populations fell in Scotland’s largest cities, some rural areas saw an increase for the first time in years. New figures from National Records of Scotland (NRS) found the health crisis may have reversed long-term trends.
The most common moves within Scotland were from the largest cities: Glasgow, Edinburgh and Aberdeen, to neighbouring council areas with the greatest population growth being in the areas around Edinburgh.
Aberdeenshire and Argyll and Bute also saw an influx of people moving to the area – reversing the trend of several years of falling populations.
People moved, often finding the cost of accommodation was cheaper, they had access to their families, breathing room for pets and in many cases access to beautiful countryside. Many, as a result, stayed rural post-pandemic, enjoying the benefits afforded by a hybrid of home and office working.
Simultaneously, in many city centres, retailers that operated within them were debilitated by the pandemic. Many shut up shop in response to declining customer activity; some analysts reported that almost a quarter of retailers (24%) in January 2021 closed physical stores that year.
However, the future for retail isn’t all pessimistic since that same study found that almost one in five retailers (18%) planned to move stores out of major city centres and into local high streets following their customers and we have begun to see that in many places. While many have done that, they and other more local retailers have also become more innovative with their sales strategies, moving more of their business online or at least setting up an online offering and in many cases switching to more locally produced goods, since another result of more people living in the rural economy is a greater appreciation of the variety and quality of what it has to offer.
This move out of the city and online for retailers is sustained not just by the growth of people relocating to the countryside, but also by the growth in “staycations” and by a rise in effective marketing, since in many cases businesses were forced to re-assess their business models during the pandemic to survive. Then they slowly started to make changes to take advantage of the post-pandemic ways that people live, shop and holiday and to alter their offerings to appeal to the change in these human behaviours and priorities.
All this may have started with the pandemic, but it has been sustained by the resultant change in people’s behaviour such as increasingly shopping online, becoming more aware of and appreciative of the rural economy as they live locally, and embracing the need for sustainability, since as part of the current plethora of issues we face post-pandemic is of course climate change and the need for sustainability. Not only that but we also have the issues of high inflation and the resultant squeeze on the family holiday budget, encouraging the staycation.
Retailers have in some cases moved out to the country and set up physical shops, but others stepped up by marketing online as well as or instead of having a shop outlet, often taking account of their geographical location and footfall to decide how best to market their products.
I am most interested in the rural and farm producers given that I am an Agricultural and Estates lawyer, and I am interested to see how many local producers and retailers joined forces with the likes of Visit Scotland and Scottish Agritourism to help them promote themselves both within and outwith Scotland. Scottish Agritourism for example in the field of staycations, has explored and encouraged people to find working farms and crofts to experience, as people look to enjoy the Scottish countryside, get outdoors and experience food and drink direct from a farmer. 217 farms are featured in its 2023 guide up from 135 in 2022 and located throughout Scotland, from Shetland to Dumfries and Galloway.
Scotland’s Food and Drink also have helped rural and local retailers. Its policy is dedicated to helping food and drink businesses in Scotland, with two key aims, namely understanding what its members and those across the industry need, to achieve responsible growth, and working constructively with decision makers across the food and drink landscape, including UK and Scottish Governments, to meet those needs. In implementing this policy, the organisation showcases a range of Scotland’s superb food and drink producers and online retailers who all deliver nationwide. They range from butchers and fishmongers to honey producers and confectioners, to distillers of whiskies and gins and cover every part of Scotland from the Islands to the Borders. Not all have joined such organisations however, many local businesses have become adept at marketing themselves on their own sophisticated websites offering everything from, in the of some distilleries a “Gin and Whisky Experience” to in other cases a Cheese Experience (with or without the wine!) and many experiences in-between.
So, we can see that the pandemic and post-pandemic landscape has altered in many ways for Scotland’s food and drink retail businesses, as we too have changed due to the pandemic, the increasing influence of climate change and the surge in inflationary pressures in the country. We seem to be moving to a new phase in retail and as with all good business, those who have considered the new landscape and adapted accordingly will thrive and those that cannot meet the current needs of people will inevitably fail.
Hopefully we will be left with a new hopefully more sustainable, varied and quality retail market and within thriving local economies.
As an Agricultural and Rural Lawyer, many of my clients are engaged in these types of business and I have over the years been involved with many farmers who are actively engaged in growing everything from soft fruit to potatoes to the barley for the Whisky Distillers and in some cases making delicious cheeses. I have also acted for others who have diversified into the Whisky business and who have turned their hand to operating Glamping and Camping Sites and Holiday Lets. We at Anderson Strathern can provide you with all the services you might need to set up and sustain your rural (retail) business from buying a property, to refinancing it, to tax advice and dealing with intellectual property rights and employees. Do contact me, Linsey Barclay-Smith, if you think we can assist.
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