Optimism shines through despite economic uncertainty

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Owners of small businesses in Mid Argyll say they are facing a ‘perfect storm’ in the face of unprecedented challenges.

The comments come following the publication of a Highlands and Islands report into the current position of small businesses.

The Federation of Small Business survey closed on Tuesday December 14 and found a significant degree of optimism.

Three quarters of respondents said that trading had been ‘ok’ or better in 2021 and that they were feeling more positive than before.

Owner of Lochgilphead’s Fyne Tackle fishing and country sports shop Archie MacGilp agrees with the sentiment, at least on a local level.

He told the Argyllshire Advertiser: ‘I’m particularly optimistic about Lochgilphead. I have lots of hope for Argyll street. It’s looking good and it looks like more shops are appearing.

‘The local support we get is amazing. That’s what keeps me going. But you have to have tourism too; that’s huge for us and that’s what I’m not optimistic about.

‘It’s the problems with the Rest and Be Thankful that cause us the most concern. When it’s closed our trade drops by more than half.

‘With that, the pandemic and the global supply problems it’s a perfect storm we’re facing right now.’

Archie’s words were echoed by Jane MacLeod of Mid Argyll Chamber of Commerce who used the storm analogy to describe the cumulative effect of the UK pulling out of the European Union and the pandemic’s impact on the local job market.

She told the Argyllshire Advertiser: ‘Brexit and Covid made a perfect storm, creating a worrying shortage of skilled workers.

‘We lost a lot of European workers after Brexit and then during Covid many went home to be with their families and haven’t come back. Also, many people who lost their jobs or went on furlough have moved away from their original careers.’

Jane went on, however, to highlight the gains made by Skills Development Scotland and Mid Argyll Youth Development Services who, she says, are doing a good job encouraging people to train and gain new skills.

‘It’s about building on work that’s already being done,’ she said, but added: ‘Our members are reporting a sense of uncertainty.

‘Before Omicron they were experiencing skill shortages, connectivity issues, rising costs and, of course the real problem of the Rest and Be Thankful.

‘Despite that, optimism for the future had been beginning to grow, but now the cancellations hospitality businesses are facing are crippling at the time when they should be making their biggest profits.’

The Highlands and Islands survey found that 40 per cent of businesses in the area have reported shrinking profit margins, and a total of 85 per cent saying increasing costs have taken their toll, either reducing plans for expansion, curtailing investment or even threatening the chance of their business surviving.

Such concerns about profits are being felt locally too. Argyll Book Centre owner Eli Pickering said: ‘We are nowhere near as busy just now as we should be at this time of year.

‘After lockdown we did really, really well, but in the autumn that really slowed down.

‘Our biggest problem is online shopping as it’s on such a huge scale, but also I think there is wariness locally about coming in to town. But it’s the uncertainty that affects us most.’

Owner of the Archway Gallery in Lochgilphead Wilma Meikle echoed Ellie’s concerns.

She said: ‘It’s just a general feeling of uncertainty. Things are back a bit, I must admit, but we are a really small business so can probably be more responsive than bigger companies.

‘We don’t have a large staff; here it’s about personal service that you can’t always get in bigger places.’