Can traditional town centres be saved from terminal decline?
A new taskforce has just published Beyond Retail 2013, a new report that suggests the UK’s town centres need reshaping and rebuilding on an unprecedented scale not seen since the end of the Second World War.
But is it realistic to believe traditional town centres can be saved or are they in terminal decline?
The Distressed Town Centre Property Taskforce, set up in the wake of the review by retail marketing consultant Mary Portas believes that town centres should be re-designated as a key Government planning and investment priority.
For the past 13 months, senior retailers, property investors, landlords and financiers have been reviewing the prospects of their high street property, investment and trading portfolios in an attempt to find a way of revitalising the fortunes of a once buoyant part of the UK economy.
“We’ve too much retail floor space in the UK and we need to get back to how town centres evolved in the first place,” explains Mark Williams who chaired the taskforce on behalf of the British Retail Consortium (BRC) and BCSC.
But turning the clock back to a bygone era when the biggest leisure activity for millions of people was shopping rather than watching TV or going down the pub may be a marketing challenge too far.
Millions of consumers are expected to do most if not all of their major Christmas shopping online rather than run the gauntlet of sharp-elbowed last minute shoppers and tourists out to pinch a bargain in the run up to Christmas.
The BRC is putting a brave face on the situation in the wake of depressed high street sales up and down the UK whilst recognising that creating a spike in sales in the run up to Christmas is the retail equivalent of the snagging the ‘Golden Goose’ for its members.
“Consumer confidence paused in October and while conditions remain challenging, the signs are that customers are managing their budgets well while allowing some leeway for occasional treats. Retailers will be looking to respond to this appetite for good value with a little luxury here and there in their promotions and product offerings for the Christmas period,” says Helen Dickinson, Director General of the BRC, trying to sound as optimistic as she can.
According to retail analysts, the next few weeks will prove to be the acid test of this prediction as the signs are that most shoppers appear reluctant to do their Christmas gift shopping right now. Many are holding out for deep discounts and gambling that retailers won’t want to leave merchandise on the shelves.
The taskforce also recognise that there isn’t any one solution that fits all. However, what does appear to be carrying favour is a marketing solution that’s a combination of precise geo-location, intelligent contextual marketing and flexible payment functions that will get consumers out of their homes and onto the high streets as has happened in Mainz and Wiesbaden (Germany), Rome and Florence (Italy) and Atlanta (US).
Contextual marketing provides a platform for retailers to target specific offers, to specific customers in specific locations and inherently has the ability to target all customer groups across the full spectrum of retail locations.
HighStreet13.com and Social Retail.co.uk provide an online learning platform and support for independent retailers wishing to improve their online marketing presence and digital skills. And Twitter has been shown to be a valuable tool in promoting independent shops, events and in driving new footfall.
“Hosting a town centre website as a promotional and information platform for occupiers (both multiple and independent) and businesses will become fundamental to restoring footfall, loyalty and spend in towns as the consumer demands a seamless multi-channel approach to retailing. The platform could be integrated with the provision of mentoring and advice on marketing, use of social media and website maximisation for independent retailers and small businesses, perhaps funded through improvement grants.
“This type of platform would also have the advantage of allowing appropriate stakeholders insight into the customer base, would provide an untapped revenue stream and would be brand enhancing. It is town centres that embrace and integrate these and future advances in technology that will reap the rewards,” predict the report’s authors.
The government is now digesting the findings of the report but is unlikely to commit vast public resources to prop up retail trade in the wake of the demise of the town centres. “We are doing an awful lot for the High Street, we’re empowering local communities to shape their town centres for what’s right for their communities in the future,” says Housing Minister Brandon Lewis trying to sound positive but without making any financial commitments in support of the report’s findings.
Let’s hope that some of the ideas will happen just in time before shopping for Christmas in the future becomes a virtual rather than physical experience.
Ardi Kolah is the author of High Impact Marketing That Gets Results, published by Kogan Page. Order your copy today and get a 30% discount by clicking here