26 February 2021, 08:32 AM
  • A think tank is recommending a £9bn high street voucher scheme. One fine food retailer says it could be a “powerful support mechanism”
Will a high street voucher scheme boost independents in 2021?

The Resolution Foundation is calling for the government to announce a £9bn voucher scheme in the Spring Budget to boost Britain’s high streets and local retailers.

The scheme was recommended alongside a £100bn budget package to kick-start Britain’s post-Covid economic recovery. “The chancellor should combine extending existing support with fresh stimulus once restrictions are lifted to deliver a £100 billion plan to boost Britain’s recovery,” said James Smith, research director at the think tank.

2020 saw support for regional voucher schemes

Late last year, the Scottish government revealed it was considering giving consumers shopping vouchers in order to boost local businesses after Northern Ireland introduced a similar programme in November.

Northern Ireland earmarked £95 million for creating prepaid cards of up to £100 that every adult will be able to use in bricks-and-mortar shops in 2021. The hope was that the vouchers would kick-start local economies after the Christmas spending boom faded.

Will Docker of the St Andrews-based farm shop Balgove Larder said he would welcome “any scheme that supports businesses that promote localism”.

He believes a voucher scheme could have a positive impact on independent businesses in Scotland, which in turn would support the wider local economy and community. “It’s also a nice reminder about the important role that many such businesses have played during this crisis,” Will added.

“At Balgove Larder we work with a huge number of local food and drink producers, so those spending locally mean so much, not just to us, but to all those in the local supply chain. This could be a really powerful support mechanism,” Will said.

Footfall has taken a hit since the pandemic arrived in the UK, but the government revealed in its lockdown exit plan that non-essential retail and outdoor hospitality in England could open as soon as 12th April

“Any government initiative that will help the beleaguered high streets in Scotland (and elsewhere) will be gratefully received. If vouchers are introduced in Scotland some people will use them to help them buy necessities and therefore food retailers will benefit. Other people will take the opportunity to use them for a little luxury in which case independent specialist food stores and delis will benefit,” Dan Whytock, CEO of the online marketplace Down Your High Street, told Speciality Food last year.
 
“There will no doubt be teething problems with a scheme such as this, there usually are. It will be very interesting to see how the scheme works in Northern Ireland,” he continued.

The Scottish Retail Consortium’s director David Lonsdale had said a voucher scheme could give a “shot in the arm” to retailers. “Pandemic-induced restrictions and economic downturn are weighing on consumer demand, and a high street voucher scheme could help get the economy moving again and give a much needed shot in the arm to shops and other consumer-facing firms like eateries in the leaner months early in the New Year,” he said.

Extending the scheme to foodservice businesses will be important, says Edward Berry of the independent food retail consultancy The Flying Fork, as many local food retailers have already seen a welcome boost to their businesses throughout the pandemic.

“It’s a curious position,” Edward said. “We have seen a massive effect on non food retailing – possibly mainly big names with big overheads – and probably even worse, the devastation to catering in all its models: pubs, restaurants, cafés etc. My question is whether it’s the food retailers that need the help with vouchers.”

Indeed, the hospitality industry has been one of the hardest hit by Covid-19. Many independent cafés, restaurants and pubs have had to close their doors over lockdown, which has had a knock-on effect on the wider food and drink sector, with food producers, such as cheesemakers, seeing their route to market vanish overnight.

Vouchers were floated as a potential way to reboot the economy over the summer, too. At the time, the Resolution Foundation said that giving all adults £500 in gift cards could help the retail and hospitality sectors through the pandemic.

“A universal ‘High Street Voucher’ scheme – worth £500 per adult and £250 per child – to be spent only in these sectors would kickstart demand in the right parts of our economy, boost living standards and deliver targeted support to the businesses that need help the most,” said James.

While it remains to be seen whether a high street voucher scheme will take shape in the UK this year, fine food retailers can still use gift cards in their shops as a way to generate sales when stock issues abound.

“The benefits of vouchers are many: it’s a non-perishable gift (but do include an expiry date), a reason for new people to visit your shop, and positive cash-flow,” cheese expert Justin Tunstall explained in a recent column for Speciality Food. “This year, it’s also a way for shielding or queue-averse shoppers to buy gifts without coming into town.”

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