Diversity in the retail experience can save our town centres

More than half of all Irish consumers used e-platforms for at least some of their Christmas purchases last year.

Every town and city needs to prepare for shifting shopping patterns to survive, writes Sarah Thatt-Foley

RETAIL is changing, there is no question about that. Since Amazon launched its online shop in 1995, the disruption caused by e-commerce has happened at a rate and scale which few towns ever imagined, never mind prepared for.

Over the 20-something years that followed, online growth has been exponential. More than half of all Irish consumers used e-platforms for at least some of their Christmas 2018 purchases.

The impact was felt across An Post, which saw parcel deliveries increase by over 50% to more than 100,000 each day.

So retail is moving online and customers are following too. Why does it matter? It matters because our changing shopping patterns have knock-on impacts on the high street, thus shaping the look and feel of communities throughout Ireland.

Speaking in London, Jim McMahon, UK Shadow Minister for Local Government and Devolution, linked changing retail patterns and community feel to voter behaviour, using Brexit and the perception that high streets and identities are dying as an example.

“If you can’t control places where people live, people will feel left down,” he said.

Research from UK retail intelligence company Springboard found that the period between 2008-2018 saw a 20% drop in footfall on high streets. By 2028, it is expected that 48% of all non-food shopping will be online.

Yet, changing footfall has affected different sectors in different ways. Capture rates (the rate of people walking into a shop) for department stores has declined by 4.1% since 2015.

At 6%, the drop for electrical shops and mobile stores has been even bigger. At the other end of the scale, entertainment and book shops have grown capture rates by 2.9% while food and convenience stores report a 1.2% growth rate in the same period.

Different times of day also attract differing volumes of potential customers. Interestingly, while day time footfall dropped by 1.1% in 2017, the same year saw an increase in evening time and night time visitor numbers.

These trends reflect a shift in attitudes among consumers. Due to the prevalence of online platforms, consumers have access to shopping 24/7. They no longer need the high street, town or a retail centre to satisfy their shopping needs.

Instead, consumers are looking for experiences. Experiences that they cannot access online. For example, eating-out has seen double-digit rises with lunch now accounting for 34% of all eating-out spend. In effect, centres that rely on retail only have seen more dramatic footfall drops than those which provide a varied offering.

While this data may appear frightening, it also provides the insight needed for towns to buck the trend. And interestingly, this has been achieved by one-third of UK cities and towns which all have successfully grown footfall and visitor numbers.

Because people want to spend; but not just their money, they want to spend their time.

Think about the proposition of places. Does it offer anything different? Does it give children, parents and families a reason to come to town?

The loss of independent shops and strong dominance of chain stores on UK high streets has been coined ‘clone towns’. Data from 2010 by the New Economics Foundation revealed that four in 10 of UK towns had become clones, full of chain stores and devoid of local character.

Clone towns are the exact opposite to what most modern-day consumers are seeking. What does this tell us? We should promote all that makes us different, all that gives us a sense of place.

The growing appetite for unique experiences creates a huge opportunity for independent shops, something which we in Cork are blessed to have, and which often is commented favourably upon by visitors Leeside.

We should also embrace diversity, creativity and be playful. The more diverse a place is, the more successful it is likely to be. Best practice suggests that a vibrant town centre should have an appropriate balance of office, retail, residential, food and high-quality public places — all linked with good pedestrian and public transport access.

Above all, we should invest in and improve public place. One example of a town which dared to think different and embrace its individuality is Altrincham. Located in the shadow of Trafford Centre, Altrincham was previously labelled Britain’s bleakest ghost town with one-third of shops empty.

However, after developing a new town centre strategy built around its historic central market, new business incentives, and significant investment in its public realm to improve the experience of pedestrians and dwell time, Altrincham last year won the UK High Street or the Year Award 2018.

The town now has a vacancy rate of only 9% and footfall has risen 5% to more than 1.7m annual visitors, in stark contrast to national trends.

While we have already seen our urban centres transform, change is our only constant. Within the next five years, Generation Z (those born between 1995 and 2005), who have never known a world without internet, will make up a large proportion of consumers and our workforce.

Are our towns and cities prepared for them?

Sarah Thatt-Foley is Senior Public Affairs Executive at Cork Chamber

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