Wilkies closure: we’re all at fault as another High Street business closes

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News that Wilkies is closing its High Street shop in Kirkcaldy sparked another round of the town centre blame game.

The arguments have been well rehearsed from all sides. I suspect much of it is borne out of frustration seeing the High Street decline and, ultimately bottom out.

We all want what we had, but the reality is the High Street that was packed with every retailer you could think of was 30 years ago. On second thoughts, make that 40 …

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When I came here in the 1980s, it had a Safeway and a Wm Low, Littlewoods, BhS, and M&S, the Mercat was full with everything from Mothercare to The Turret, the Postings was packed, Olivers and Miss Made’s ruled the lunchtime sandwich trade, and the street bustled with folk.

Kirkcaldy High Street in 2011 (Pic: Neil Doig/Fife Free Press)Kirkcaldy High Street in 2011 (Pic: Neil Doig/Fife Free Press)
Kirkcaldy High Street in 2011 (Pic: Neil Doig/Fife Free Press)

I can remember noses being turned up when an amusement arcade wanted to open in a former bank. How common and downmarket, they said. It’s still there to this day. All the other names I mentioned have long since shipped out.

Kirkcaldy’s High Street had much further to fall than any other town in Fife, so the decline has been more painful to watch, and the transition from reliance on retail to a new future which mixes it with residential and recreation is anything but seamless. Wilkies is another sad loss, but I’m not sure the blame game gets us anywhere. If we really want to point a finger at anyone, perhaps we all need to look in the mirror. If we want a High Street to thrive, then we have to support its businesses. It’s as simple as that.

Wilkies decline has followed the same weary path as many other retailers who have gone as far as they can to stem the losses to supermarkets which undercut them, and online which has changed the rules completely. We seem to want shops to survive while at the same time giving all our spend to Amazon which has our goods delivered to our door, and will take them back again faster than any retailer can dispatch a courier.

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The way we shop has changed forever. Our actions, as much as those of ‘the cooncil’, have stripped the High Street of its custom, and so it has to reinvent itself otherwise it simply ceases to exist.

When the late Dennis Alexander ran the Pancake Place, his menus had a slogan - a place to ‘eat, meet and greet.’ I’ve yet to find a better way of summing up the High Street of 2023 and beyond. Retail is still important, but it will come via a growing network of independent traders, built around more coffee shops and cafes, hair salons, nail bars, and places which offer goods and services what we cannot get online.

There is no doubt ‘the cooncil’ has previously got things wrong over the decades, and we’re lumbered with its patchwork efforts and historic lack of vision. It’ll take a generation to turn that round. The Scottish Goverment’s support has been pitiful - business rates 75% higher than the rest of the UK are crippling shops like Wilkies. Go figure.

The High Street will endure despite them, and with or without their help, but we too have apart to play in getting it through this, most painful of transitions.

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