The future of Lerwick’s town centre is under threat from Tesco’s imminent expansion, according to retailers crying foul over its plans to sell non-food items that might otherwise be bought from the street.
Construction workers will begin developing the area to the west of the South Road supermarket from Monday, with a planned completion set down for the second week of July.
The move will increase the overall floor space from 12,874 sq ft to 34,186 sq ft, meaning more room in the shop as well as for major improvements to the warehouse and staff areas. The grassy area to the front of the store will be turned over to provide extra parking, adding 76 spaces.
The contract has been given to Ayrshire company Barr Construction, which deals with the majority of building for Tesco north of the border, however much of the work has been sub-contracted to local firms.
Town centre shop owners warned the “vitality and viability” of Commercial Street was under threat, claiming the proposals breached planning consent by increasing the area of floor space given over to items such as clothing.
Laurence Smith of the Town Centre Association said the plans went beyond an agreement that the existing 185 sq metres for non-food, or “comparison” goods, would not be increased when the extension was built.
He raised his concerns following a consultation meeting organised by the store’s manager Paul Clelland, who has also met MSP Tavish Scott and is due to meet members of Lerwick Community Council next week.
“We have extremely serious concerns over what has been shown to us. The plans show a serious deviation into the sale of comparison goods,” Mr Smith said.
“This is contrary to our understanding of the planning application and the basis on which planning approval was granted.
“We consider the plans as shown to us … breach the planning consent and also that all previously submitted impact assessments should be considered null and void.
“The proposal, as shown, will without doubt have a major impact on the town centre – and on its vitality and viability.
“This contravenes policies both within the structure plan for Shetland and the Lerwick local plan. The strength of the town centre lies in its non-food comparison shopping.”
He said the area had struggled since Tesco first opened its doors in 2008, and was likely to suffer more as a result of internet shopping and the council’s decision to move the new Anderson High School to Clickimin.
“To come and show us what they showed us yesterday beggars belief. This is going to affect every business in the town centre. That’s a serious issue for Lerwick.
“We’re in a small town of 7,500 people desperately trying to make positive moves to improve the street and this could absolutely shatter any positive steps we are trying to take.”
His comments were backed by chairwoman of the Shetland Retailers’ Association Janet Davidge, who described the supermarket giant as “a juggernaut”.
“The fact Tesco is doubling in size has got to be cause for concern, which we have always said. It would be naive to think Tesco doubling its size is not going to have an effect on the town centre,” she said.
“The retail sector is very fragile. I would be very surprised if no-one felt the effects of such an expansion. The number of non-food items seems to be a lot greater than they initially said. They never said they were going to have so much clothing.”
Retailers had feared the extension would sound the death-knell for other businesses when it was announced shortly after Tesco first took over the former Somerfield store.
However speaking to The Shetland Times Mr Clelland said businesses had come to accept the company, adding that much of the work was required to address the building’s limitations, especially given the growing numbers of staff who don the Tesco uniform – up from 78 during the Somerfield days to 120 now.
“If you look back at some of the speculation at the time when we first came, I think two years down the line a lot of the comments made haven’t come to pass,” he said.
“I know from speaking to customers and staff that they are very excited about what we’re going to do and very pleased we’re going to do it.
“The infrastructure of the store, the warehouse space, is compromised. The amount of chilled and frozen storage we have in the shop isn’t sufficient for what we need on a day to day basis.
“We’ve got two refrigerated units on hire in the back yard – two 40 ft units, one chilled and one frozen – because we don’t have the storage capacity for the stock that we need for trade in the shop.”
He said the extension would give the store a chance to “grow and consolidate” its stationary ranges, as well as its lines in home entertainment, telephones and TVs, although the only products not previously featured would be a small line in clothing. White goods, he said, would not be sold from the Lerwick branch.
“As part of the original opening of this store we carried out a customer question time where customers were surveyed and asked what was liked about the store and if we extended it what they would like to see.
“We also carried out some surveys around the time of the planning application for the extension … That drives what we are looking to do with the extension.
“We’ve analysed the space in the existing shop and we understand what areas are most under pressure – fresh foods, wines and spirits, cooking ingredients, household and pet foods.”
Mr Clelland said the extension would provide a more suitable staff room, as well as a new training room.
“We’ve not got a proper staff room, as we see it. It’s not what we would put in a new Tesco store.
“My training room only holds four people. Ideally we do most of the training on the shop floor, shoulder to shoulder with staff, however there are times when you need to take people off the shop floor. Just having a four-seat training room means you have no flexibility around what you can do.
“We’ve got a pretty settled team in store and I think they are very excited about what we’re going to do. I think what’s great for them is that every single department in the store is touched by the extension.”
Head of the planning board, West side councillor Frank Robertson, said he had “no proof” plans breached any planning regulations.
“There will be a planning enforcement check to make sure that area [dedicated to non-food sales] remains at 185 sq metres. The planning department would make sure they stayed within that area that was granted or previously approved.”