The street is dying, say the doom mongers, and Tesco’s extension is likely to administer the coup de grâce. That’s a big claim, but it is more or less what is being argued by the Lerwick Town Centre Association (LTCA).
Without a detailed study of the local retail market and the buying habits of residents, it is impossible to come to any firm conclusions, but a few observations would seem to be in order.
Tesco is far too big. But the company itself cannot be blamed for that. Weak regulatory apparatus in the UK has allowed an oligopoly of majors, also including Asda, Sainsbury and Morrison’s, to squeeze out the smaller supermarkets. The beneficiaries of this have been consumers, who now spend a lower proportion of their income on food, hence the popularity of the aforementioned chains. Planning law has not helped, allowing factory-sized out-of-town developments to mushroom all over the country.
While there is little doubt that the expansion by Tesco – propelled by high turnover figures since it arrived in Shetland – will make it an even more dominant player in the local retail scene, it is a visible target in the way that other firms which do substantial trade with Shetland consumers via the internet and the thriving local haulage firms are not. Consumers’ habits have changed markedly in the last decade. Shopping trips south may still be a regular feature on the family calendar, but the availability of merchandise (often cut-price) online makes it a less pressing one. Some Lerwick shops have met this challenge head-on and are successfully competing with suppliers outwith the isles. Other businesses are benefitting from Tesco taking isles produce to a wider market.
It will be up to the council’s planning department to decide whether Tesco is in breach of its planning consent. Whatever the outcome, the council should commission an economist to conduct research into Shetland’s retail market so that the arguments can be based on evidence.