When IKEA opened its second Scottish superstore, close to Glasgow Airport, the event attracted the same razzamatazz as that which had marked the launch of the first, just south of Edinburgh.
Both events led to long queues of cars for miles around as the public sought to sample the unique home products – and brand presentation – offered by the Sweden-based retailer.
However that similar openings in other parts of the country caught the same level of public imagination tends to conceal the fact that there are just 18 IKEA superstores located across the United Kingdom, although a 19th is planned to open, in Reading, next summer.
Complaints that this leaves large chunks of the population isolated from IKEA products led the company to open a smaller ‘click and collect’ store in Norwich last month with a second of the same type planned to open in Aberdeen (150 miles from the two current Scottish stores) next spring.
However, as both of the planned outlets are on retail parks there is a more intriguing possibility following the revelation that IKEA is considering a presence in the most popular city centre location in the country – Oxford Street in London, where parts of the BHS store is being marketed for sub-letting.
That IKEA – a name that perhaps encapsulates out-of-town shopping across the globe – should consider the hottest in-town location in Britain for retail purposes may seem like a remarkable development yet the company has already ‘been there’, to some extent, in Germany.
Last year IKEA opened an urban store in Hamburg, Germany’s second city. Although not in the central business district, the site chosen was traditional enough – on the ‘high street’ of Altona, which is one of the seven boroughs making up Greater Hamburg. The opening followed an approach to the company by the local authority which was looking at ways of filling a gap site that had lain empty for six years.
In contrast to the stereotype IKEA customer, more than half of those visiting the Altona store arrive by public transport, bike or on foot. To assist those customers walk away with some of its more lightweight products, IKEA offers cargo bikes and bike trailers for hire or they can use the services of bike couriers.
A local referendum produced a vote of 77 per cent in favour of the store on this site. Existing local retailers have generally been in favour as the presence of a high-profile brand such as IKEA is thought to bring footfall to the town centre that would otherwise have gone to retail parks.
Meanwhile, another opening in Germany shows that even car dealers – one of the first retailers to abandon city centres for edge of town locations – may be lured back. In the heart of Hamburg, Daimler has opened a store which is branded ‘Mercedes Me’, and comprises a bistro, gallery area and just a single vehicle on display.
Last month, the Scottish Retail Consortium reported that the retail outlet vacancy rate in Scotland in October was 8.7 per cent, down from the 10.6pc rate in the previous quarter.
Perhaps, however, a longer-term future for conventional retail relies on operating alongside – rather than competing with – the internet, not only through features like ‘click and collect’ but using town shops to properly showcase goods while the majority of their stock remains stored in warehouses located on inexpensive greenfield sites.
How many people have ordered something – particularly clothing – online and when the package arrives have found the content to be not nearly as appealing as it appeared on-screen?
Because of the reduced foot fall on the High Street (thanks to the triple whammy of suburban malls, the internet and tighter family budgets) there are parts of town centres that were once prime pitches but are definitely now secondary (whatever landlords or agents might claim).
However this has paved the way for competitive rental deals on such locations which are still sufficiently close to the (somewhat reduced) prime retail core.
Now all that’s required is some thinking outside the box – IKEA-style – to take advantage of the opportunity, double-edged sword though it may be.
NUMBED BY STUC NUMBERS
This year’s St Andrews Day march by the Scottish TUC in Glasgow was held under the banner of “No racism: refugees welcome”.
Warming to the theme the general-secretary, Graeme Smith, was quoted as saying: “Scotland welcomes refugees and we are ready to provide space for all those who need it.”
“All who need it” does not, one assumes, literally mean anyone turning up at Gretna and claiming asylum being automatically given that right.
Rather, my inference is that Mr Smith believes Scotland should take its fair share as part of a wider European quota.
All of which sounds very compassionate until one considers the logistics. Approximately ten million of Syria’s pre-war population of 22 million could, potentially, argue a case for being granted asylum in a European country.
With around 1 per cent of the EU’s population of circa 500 million, Scotland would be obliged to accommodate 100,000 ‘refugees’; that’s only from Syria and does not count the even greater number of economic migrants from elsewhere (largely young single men) who are taking advantage of the Syrian crisis to gain illegal entry to Europe.
Such a scenario would, no doubt, have Scotland’s minority of unscrupulous employers rubbing their hands in glee at the prospect of all this additional cheap labour, some of whom may be prepared to work ‘under the radar’.
But even reputable bosses who genuinely believe immigration to be a ‘good thing’ might baulk at the consequences for the public services of such a huge influx, within a very short period, of people from another culture, unable to speak English, and with little or no capital. After all, continuing to sell their products and services is dependent on a stable society.
When a history of the great migration crisis comes to be written, future generations may look back in astonishment at the supine attitude of the TUC, for whom the only problem seems to be exploitation by unscrupulous gang-masters (usually immigrants themselves).
One wonders what some of the TUC ‘big guns’ of the past would have thought of it all, general-secretaries such as Victor Tewson (awarded the Military Cross while serving as a young lieutenant on the Western Front) or, nearer our own time, Len Murray (who, aged 21, landed in Normandy with the army on D-Day and was badly wounded six days later).
Both these men would have been no less opposed to the economic policies of the current Tory government than the present TUC leadership.
But they may have had a rather different take on opening our borders to millions of foreigners who then to go on to compete with long-standing union members for a finite number of jobs.