Shop local – it’s never been more important

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NORMALLY a hardy annual, the entreaty to shop local in the Borders has taken on crucial significance this year as the independent retail sector faces a potentially withering lack of demand.

As if the economic downturn and the fallout of the credit crunch were not enough, snowbound town centres are conspiring to hit the takings of shops during what is traditionally their busiest period.

That double whammy was given a positive spin this week by Vicky Davidson, Scottish Borders Council’s executive member for economic development.

“I would encourage everyone to shop local at this time, not just for Christmas, but to beat the VAT increase [from 17.5 per cent to 20 per cent] in January,” said Councillor Davidson.

“There’s no need to spend money on fuel travelling further afield when there is so much choice and quality available here in local shops.

“My message is: stay safe, save money and boost the Borders economy.”

Ms Davidson said her council was doing everything it could to keep the Borders moving.

“We all know how important it is for businesses to be able to trade in the run-up to Christmas,” she added.

Her sentiments were echoed by council leader David Parker who said SBC staff and private contractors had been working tirelessly to ensure car parks, roads and footways were cleared as far as possible to facilitate shoppers.

“With the exception of very brief closures of the A7 and A68. we have managed to keep our main routes open throughout this unprecedented spell of weather to ensure food and essential supplies come to our region.

“As a result, people do not need to travel far for a great pre-Christmas shopping weekend in our Border towns which are, well and truly, open for business.

“Local shops have great choice and quality and it’s all available on our own doorstep. We would encourage people to dress up warmly, go carefully and get out and about to support our shops and businesses.”

But Mr Parker conceded the true economic cost to many business sectors would be hefty and would not be quantified until well into the new year.

“I know tourism-related hospitality businesses, from restaurants and hotels to pubs and bed and breakfasts, have taken a major hit. This is a massive employer in our region with an estimated workforce of 10,000 and it is really suffering.

“The construction sector, already in a slump, has been hit again, although ironically the council has been able to provide snow-clearing work for some approved private contractors.”

Last week we reported how the textile manufacturing sector had been hit by staffing shortages, with employees either unable to get through the snow or looking after children who would normally be at school.

And the economic blow to the hospitality industry has been reflected in a huge number of cancellations. One central Borders hotel, which took bookings for 400 meals over the weekend, served only 20.

Richard Sweetnam, SBC’s economic development manager, told us he had no specific feedback from businesses with losses likely to take several weeks to work through any company’s cash flow.

“Anecdotally, however, some restaurants have seen a number of cancellations because of the weather and, the closer to Christmas we get, obviously the office party market could well be affected,” said Mr Sweetnam.

“Our food and drink outlets rely on the run-up to Christmas and the weather will hit this trade. Many business-to-business events and activities, including meetings of the Borders Exporters’ Association and the Area Tourism Partnership, have been called off so it is not easy to get a handle on the impact.”

But notwithstanding the losers, he said many businesses would be doing well, especially those “less logistically reliant”.

“We may have more resilience in the Borders with small companies selling online and trading services with each other.

“Some people will spend more money locally on weather-related costs, such as car maintenance, plumbing and winter sports equipment and clothing. In good weather this spending can leak out of the Borders.”

Mr Sweetnam advised businesses suffering the negative effects of the weather to contact his department on business@borders.gov.uk or to call him on 01835 825069.