Meet the IPM: Interview with Prof Gary Warnaby

Prof Gary Warnaby
Prof Gary Warnaby

Gary Warnaby graduated in history from the University of Newcastle in 1983. After completing postgraduate studies in marketing, he spent a few years in stores management with BHS plc in a variety of locations across the UK before settling down into higher education in 1991. Since then, he has worked at the Manchester Metropolitan University Business School, the universities of Salford and Liverpool, and is currently Professor of Marketing in the School of Materials at The University of Manchester (although he is returning to MMU Business School in August 2016).

His research interests focus on retailing and the marketing of places, with a particular emphasis on the urban context. He has published on these topics in a range of journals in both the business/management and geography disciplines. His teaching focuses on strategic aspects of retailing as well as more general marketing management.

Gary Warnaby is a fellow of the Institute of Place Management.


Ares Kalandides: Gary Warnaby, you’ve written a lot about ‘retail brands’ and ‘semiotics’. How do these two things go together and – in particular – how are they related to urban space?

Gary Warnaby: When one looks at the academic literature from environmental psychology, geography and anthropology, among other disciplines, there is an emphasis on the fact that whilst human perception of the environment is multi-sensorial, typically in such perceptual processes, sight is privileged. In other words most of our perception of the environment is through our eyes. In the urban landscape, there are all kinds of marketing-oriented signs and symbols – outdoor advertising, store window displays and fascias etc.

“In other words most of our perception of the environment is through our eyes”

Given the importance of retailing in town centres, then retail brand symbols are important visual elements of our urban space. They communicate the nature of the commercial activity going on within this space, and perhaps more negatively, where this activity is no longer there (because shops have closed etc.), any corporate identity symbols that remain above empty retail premises represent ‘ghosts’ of their former occupants for all to see. Moreover, related to this issue of empty commercial space, all the ‘To let’ signs that exist can also send signals about a place which is in decline. Thus, from what we see around us, we pick up cues about the health (or otherwise) of our town and city centres.

Ares Kalandides: How do you see town centres in the UK today? Do you recognize specific tendencies, especially in relation to retail?

Gary Warnaby: Town centres face challenging times, especially in terms of retailing. In the current economic climate, many bricks-and-mortar retail stores have suffered the effects of recession and felt the impact of a greater proportion of consumer spending moving to online channels. Consequently many traditional urban shopping areas are characterised by high levels of vacant property and the associated signs of decline, as noted above.

“In the current economic climate, many bricks-and-mortar retail stores have suffered the effects of recession and felt the impact of a greater proportion of consumer spending moving to online channels.”

Moreover, the competitive environment in retailing is getting ever more intense, not just for the retailers themselves, but also for the locations in which agglomerations of retailers exist. Into the future, a key success factor for both retailers and shopping destinations, will be to differentiate themselves from their competitors, and an important way of doing this will be to focus on the experience that their customers/users /visitors receive.

Ares Kalandides: How do you see the role of street markets in town centres? Do they still have a function in the era of the internet?

Gary Warnaby: Street markets are one of the oldest forms of urban retailing, and are probably as old as towns and cities themselves. However, they are often regarded as anachronisms and out-of-touch with contemporary conditions – an old-fashioned analogue version of retail, when compared to modern-day, digitally-oriented retail practice. But, going back to the notion of creating a vibrant urban experience mentioned above, the hustle-and-bustle of markets can be a great way of animating urban space.

“Street markets are one of the oldest forms of urban retailing, and are probably as old as towns and cities themselves.”

This is being increasingly recognised by those responsible for the management of urban places, as markets can not only re-animate urban space, but can also have a significant economic impact in terms of bringing in visitors (especially for specialist and Christmas markets), who not only spend money in the market itself, but also in the permanent stores, bars, restaurants and other leisure facilities in the town or city centre.

Ares Kalandides: One of your fields of expertise is place marketing. A lot has been written about this in the past decades. Do you think there is anything new to be said? Or put differently: are there any unexplored issues to be researched?

Gary Warnaby: As far as place marketing is concerned, I think there’s always something new that can be said. The urban context is so complex – and changing so rapidly – that, despite the growing literature on the subject, researchers will, to some extent, always be playing catch-up with what’s actually going on in the ‘real world’. For me, the important thing is to realise – and to some extent, celebrate – the complexity and context specificity of places. They are such complex organisms, that trying to apply stereotypical marketing and branding principles and activities in this context is overly simplistic and arguably doesn’t really add anything to our knowledge of the area. I suppose, what I’m emphasising here is the need for us, as researchers into places, to adopt a much more critical standpoint. I think it’s by doing that, where real insights will be developed.

“For me, the important thing is to realise – and to some extent, celebrate – the complexity and context specificity of places.”

Ares Kalandides: How do you think that the Institute of Place Management can contribute to making places better?

Gary Warnaby: Any organisation that acts as a conduit for sharing and disseminating knowledge, insights and good practice about places (and their marketing and management ) has to be a positive thing, and the more people (and places!) that are a part of it, then the more effective it can be in accomplishing this task.

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