What different town types are emerging in the multi-channel era?

Our ‘Bringing Big Data to Small Users‘ project is funded by Innovate UK, the UK Goverment’s innovation agency, to improve the customer experience of town centres and traditional retail areas, such as high streets and markets. The project will do this by bringing new research and insight directly to key stakeholders in locations – such as retailers and other businesses, property owners, local councils and place managers. The project is led by retail data specialists Springboard, who are the sector leaders in collecting footfall data in retail and other locations.

The new insight generated by the project is completely unique – it will come from combining nine year’s of UK multi-centre, hourly, historical footfall counts from Springboard with a number of key sources of information from other sources – such as retail sales, meteorological data, customer satisfaction, sentiment analysis, customer flow and dwell times. For the first time the Manchester Metropolitan University and Cardiff University research project team, consisting of world-leading retail and computer science researchers, will be able to scientifically test a number of assumptions – such as the relationship between car-parking charges and town centre performance.

The first task we have set ourselves is to develop a long list of the type of problems we want the data to answer. We will be sharing these over the next couple of days so that project partners and other interested people can give us their initial reaction and feedback. I start with the first research question we have identified – to give you an idea of the type of research and analysis we will be doing in the first stage of the project.

What different town types are emerging in the multi-channel era?

Our preliminary research (part of HSUK2020), strongly indicated the existence of distinct footfall signatures (comparison shopping, speciality and convenience/community). Are these town types recognisable in the bigger data set we now have? Are there other signature types present in the data, different town types we may want to include (for example, holiday towns). What makes a signature distinctive? For example, when is a town a comparison shopping town? In our previous research, we identified comparison shopping towns by those that display significant ‘January Drops’ (reduction in footfall after Christmas). But we need a more scientific method to define signature types. Our new method will now include daily and weekly variations – thanks to all the hourly footfall data Springboard have provided the research team.

Once we have established a reliable method to identify town types we can then find out how many UK retail centres have, or have had, a recognisable signature. In other words, what type of towns have we got in our sample? Can we find evidence of towns changing type – or are town types comparably stable over time? To what extent do our town types correspond to existing typologies or hierarchies? Is there a relationship between the amount of footfall and town type? In other words, do all comparison shopping towns have the largest amount of footfall. Conversely, do all convenience/community towns have the smallest footfall. Is there any recognisable pattern to the location of town types? Does the ‘north/south’ divide we see in other retail statistics (e.g. vacancy rates) exist in relation to footfall and town types? To what extent do the signature types we find in the data correspond to existing perceptions or current decision-making, plans and strategies? In most of our HSUK2020 project towns, stakeholders perceived their centres to be comparison shopping or speciality but as we didn’t have footfall data we couldn’t test their assumptions. Are place managers’ intuitions reliable (do they accurately predict town type), aspirational (implying town types can change) or delusional (because their assessment is inaccurate and town types are fixed)?

A full list of research questions will be published over the next couple of days through my blog. I welcome any feedback or comments. Will this research be useful – are there other questions we should be asking?

3 thoughts on “What different town types are emerging in the multi-channel era?

  1. Whilst this research sounds genuinely useful and interesting, I am a little concerned that it sounds as though the ‘town type’ is to be measured only in terms of retail and footfall. As you know, the factors that make up the ‘type of place’ are much broader and more complex than that. As I trade under the name ‘Eventful Places’ I have to point out the impact of events (a broad spectrum) on not just footfall and retail, but on the visitor economy, perceptions and quality of life. Then there is heritage, culture, architecture, scale, proximity, and types of employment to name just some of the factors that go into determining the ‘town type’. And yes, in my experience place type can and does change – not always on purpose or for the better.

    1. We have lots of other measures than footfall too. And the project is definitely not just retail. I will be covering over aspects and other measures, like customer experience and sentiment, in future blog posts.

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