Almost 11,000 retail jobs disappeared from communities in Scotland in the five years to 2019, an analysis of Government data has revealed.
Calls for UK governments to step up efforts to create a long-term retail strategy have intensified in the wake of the recent collapse of major high street brands Debenhams and the Arcadia Group, which includes Topshop.
But analysis by the JPIMedia Data Unit shows the problem of job losses pre-dates the coronavirus pandemic, with industry bodies warning thousands more could vanish next year if action is not taken now.
Office for National Statistics figures show there were 222,300 employee jobs in physical shops in Scotland in 2019 – a decrease of 10,850, or 4.7%, compared to 2015.
These figures exclude jobs in online retail, market stalls, and door-to-door sales, as well as the entire car, motorbike and other motor vehicle retail sector.
Jobs in department stores – which we are defining as all non-specialised shops excluding those like supermarkets where food or drink are the main goods sold – have been particularly badly hit, falling by 4,000 jobs, or one in five positions.
And in the clothing, footwear and leatherwear sector, 1,500 jobs have been lost, a drop of 4.5%.
The Union of Shop, Distributive and Allied Workers (Usdaw) says it “cannot overstate” the scale of the crisis the pandemic has brought about for retailers.
But general secretary Paddy Lillis said “high streets were already suffering” because of the imbalance between bricks and mortar and online retailers.
He added: “This, combined with the direct impact of the pandemic, has been catastrophic, pushing many retailers to breaking point.”
The ONS figures reveal significant regional variations in how jobs were holding up prior to the pandemic – while London lost 10.3% of its jobs between 2015 and 2019, the North East of England saw an increase of 8.3%.
Scotland has been hit harder than England, where jobs were down by only 2.3%, while the workforce in Wales has shrunk by 8.8%.
Figures for Great Britain show there has been a shift away from full-time positions toward part-time work, with the former shrinking by 6.6% while the latter swelled by 0.7%.
Trade unions and industry bodies across the UK have called on UK governments to intervene with a long-term plan to get the retail industry back on its feet.
The Scottish Government says it is already working on a long-term industrial strategy.
Roz Foyer, general secretary of the Scottish Trades Union Congress, said immediate action was needed to provide additional business support and create good quality jobs.
She said: “These figures confirm that the decline of the High Street predated the pandemic, caused by the seeping of wealth from local communities and the growth of online shopping – made cheaper by the failure to properly tax the profits of global giants such as Amazon, by low paid bad jobs in warehouses and by the exploitation of delivery workers.
“We need a new High Street Task Force in Scotland aligned with community wealth building measures and support for public transport to increase local spend and encourage more people to visit local retailers.”
Women and young people would be hardest hit by the demise of retail jobs, she added.
The Scottish Government said it is doing everything it can to support businesses during the pandemic.
A spokesperson added: “We are committed to listening to the views of businesses about the support they need. In addition to the current support measures, we will commence work on a new retail strategy for Scotland in January.
“The strategy will bring together representatives of the retail sector, trade unions and others to consider the opportunities and challenges faced by retailers, with the aim of ensuring a more resilient future for the sector and employees.”