By Prof Cathy Parker and Prof Simon Quin
Figures released earlier this month show that Christmas shopping did not bring the gift of high street renewal to towns and cities around the UK. According to the Springboard Index[i], the benchmark for UK footfall, fewer people visited the high street, compared to the same period last year.
|Shopping Week||Change in footfall 2017/2016 (High Streets)|
Whilst commentators blame online shopping and the weather, our research identifies this decline is a longtime in the making. The fundamental reason high streets are struggling is that decision makers and stakeholders do not adapt effectively, because they don’t act collectively.
The findings from the High Street UK 2020 project, published last month[ii], identified 201 factors that influence the vitality and viability of traditional retail areas, such as high streets and town centres – the Internet being just one of them (Parker et al, 2017[iii]). The study also clearly demonstrates how a wide range of changes has consistently affected shopping areas for the last 150 years. For example the notion “people do not want to go into six different shops for six different articles, they prefer to buy the lot in one shop” is an observation that could refer to supermarkets, hypermarkets or even Amazon Marketplace. It is, in fact, referring to the development of the department store, as the quote is from The American Grocer in 1892. It is still just as apt today as consumers continue to seek convenience, or the ability to compare multiple products and prices at once – both buying habits identified by Harvard economist-turned-marketer Melvin T. Copeland, back in 1923.
Retail, society, technology and consumers are (and always have been) in never-ending and interlinking cycles of change – so those wanting to make sure town and city centres continue to attract footfall have to get much better at anticipating and adapting to change. Town and city centres need to deliver the collective offer and experience the consumer seeks. Very few people go into town to just visit one store. Instead, our high streets and town centres represent a whole ‘bundle of benefits’ (Warnaby and Davies, 1997[iv]) including employment, education, healthcare, leisure, shopping, eating and drinking. And this means, for the location to be more successful, the providers of these individual services need to learn to work together more effectively.
As part of the same High Street UK 2020 study we identified the 25 priorities for action that will increase footfall – and although the research was carried out scientifically the findings were anything but rocket science. Many high street retailers, elected councillors, planning officers or shoppers concerned about their high street can guess them (we have asked them to – so we know). However, all of the interventions we identified require the type of collective decision making and action the current governance arrangements in many towns and cities just cannot seem to facilitate.
For example, top of the list of priorities is ensuring the trading and activity hours of the location meet the needs of the catchment. Many shops and services are stuck in a 9-5 trading pattern that does not reflect the time that many people want to use the centre, especially in places that have a high number of commuters living nearby.
The second area is improving the visual appearance. This can involve large projects like street improvements, better lighting and so on – but it also covers basic cleanliness. Unfortunately, too often, both commercial waste and consumer litter or the poor maintenance of property acts as a blight, undermining investment in the physical realm, and just putting people off (Medway et al, 2016[v]).
The third priority is ensuring the mix of retailers and other services is providing the right offer. A bit like the first priority, a thorough understanding of who is and who is not using the town and why is key here. As individual landlords are free to let their properties to whoever they please, managing the overall offer of a location is challenging. Much provision is complementary – a town may sustain a butcher, greengrocers, fishmonger and deli for example, but if any of these shut down, then it has consequences for the other shops as it is the linked trip behavior of the consumers that is keeping them all in business.
Having a shared vision and strategy for the location was the fourth priority we identified. This is the mechanism by which stakeholders can be encouraged to develop their business in line with an overall plan to improve the high street. A vision, strategy or plan is important for attracting investment from both the public and private sectors. Many town centres just do not seem to have a purpose now they are no longer the centres of retail they once were.
And in fifth place came the quality of the experience. Again, this relates to the collective offer of the location. A number of positive customer service interactions in retailers and service outlets can be wiped out immediately by a surly bus driver or a dark and foreboding multi-storey car park.
The actions that will improve footfall on the UK high streets have now been identified by our research, available through Open Access for anyone to read (http://www.placemanagement.org/jpmd-10-(4)/). Nevertheless, we do not underestimate the challenge ahead for individual locations wanting to change their prognosis. As collaboration is key to success then new governance and place management models are needed. Over 200 traditional retail areas in the UK have already voted to become a Business Improvement District (BID), where retailers and other commercial stakeholders pay an additional levy to fund exactly the type of initiatives and interventions identified by our research. Now the Institute of Place Management has a stronger relationship with BIDs through The BID Foundation we can share our ongoing findings with an even bigger group of IPM practitioner members.
Securing agreement for a BID also helps the development of the required collaborative approach needed for the priorities our research has identified. We expect more locations will adopt the BID model but we also predict that individuals who understand high street change, have the skills to facilitate collaboration and coordinate action at a local level will be an important part of the on-going high street story. As the professional body that serves this sector, the IPM is here to help you.
[iii] Cathy Parker, Nikos Ntounis, Steve Millington, Simon Quin, Fernando Rey Castillo-Villar, (2017) “Improving the vitality and viability of the UK High Street by 2020: Identifying priorities and a framework for action”, Journal of Place Management and Development, Vol. 10 Issue: 4, pp.310-348, https://doi.org/10.1108/JPMD-03-2017-0032
[iv] Gary Warnaby, Barry J. Davies, (1997) “Commentary: Cities as service factories? Using the servuction system for marketing cities as shopping destinations”, International Journal of Retail & Distribution Management, Vol. 25 Issue: 6, pp.204-210, https://doi.org/10.1108/09590559710175953
[v] Dominic Medway, Cathy Parker, Stuart Roper. 2016. Litter, gender and brand: The anticipation of incivilities and perceptions of crime prevalence. Journal of Environmental Psychology. Volume 45. March. pp. 135-144. ISSN 0272-4944, http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.jenvp.2015.12.002.