Footfall signatures research wins best paper prize

Nikos Ntounis shows off our best paper prize at this year's AM conference
Nikos Ntounis shows off our best paper prize at this year’s AM conference

Our new £1m Innovate high street and retail project may have just started, but the research underpinning our successful bid for the £1m ‘bringing big data to small users’ project has been awarded a ‘best in track’ prize for retail at this year’s Academy of Marketing Conference, held at Newcastle Business School.

The research identified new footfall signatures and town types the team had found in their preliminary analysis of footfall data, provided by Springboard, who are leading the new project.  The findings were presented in a competitive paper “Radical Marketing and the UK High Street: Towards a New Typology of Towns” authored by Cathy Parker, Nikos Ntounis, Simon Quin and Ed Dargan.

Radical changes in the retail environment, such as the proliferation of online shopping and the advent of omni-channel retailing, are putting immense pressure on the UK High Street and town centres. The aim of this study was to examine, after many years of mono-functionality focused upon retailing, and with the shift of some of this activity to the Internet, how UK town centres and high streets are actually adjusting to this change. The research examined footfall data from 50 UK towns over a 30-month period. The findings suggest that a new typology of town centres based on footfall signatures instead of their position in the traditional retail hierarchy was feasible. The authors provided rationale for this ‘new’ typology of town centres by extending Bucklin’s product/retail classification to marketing channels. Finally, the team proposed that new multi-functional town centres could really benefit from using activity levels like footfall as key performance indicators, rather than relying on more static measures such as the amount of multiple retailer floorspace.
The research team has been invited to submit a full version of the paper to this year’s special Academy of Marketing issue of the Journal of Marketing Management, which will contain all the outstanding research from this year’s conference, and will be published in 2017.

The 39 steps – to understanding High Street performance

img_1718This month our new Innovate project started. The project will bring big data to town and city centre decision makers, enabling them to optimise footfall whilst also improving the experience of centre users. The first stage of the project (running from now until Spring 2017) is very research focused.  Because we have over 9 years of hourly footfall data, courtesy of the project lead Springboard, the research team at the Institute of Place Management (Manchester Metropolitan University) and the University of Cardiff can really start to work out how and why town and city centres perform as they do.  Our findings will then be incorporated into a place management information system and a serious of dashboard products, built by our technology partners MyKnowledgeMap.

These new products will support decision making in towns and cities, by making important data more readily available and more easily accessible to the wide range of stakeholders who need to collaborate to build strong centres.

One of the challenges with big data is what to do with it.  It may seem an obvious starting point, but first the research team have had to identify a definitive list of research questions that we want the data to answer. The Principal Investigators for both the IPM/MMU team and the Cardiff team (Cathy Parker and Christine Mumford)  met in August to compile such a list of research questions (39!) that we will be answering over the next few months and we are sharing these here.  As always, any comments, observations or feedback is most welcome.

RQ1: Are the distinct town types (comparison, specialty, convenience/community) recognisable in a bigger data set?

Preliminary research strongly indicates the existence of distinct footfall signatures. But these were originally identified in our pilot data set of 50 towns, using footfall data that ended in 2014.  Now we have more towns and data spanning 2006-2016 can we find additional evidence of the town types we originally identified? If so we will conclude the typology is robust – in other words it is generalisable to a bigger sample.

RQ2: Are there other signature types present in the data?

With more data we may find more signatures. Are there other signature types we should be including (such as holiday towns, that have an August peak in footfall)?  Our recent invitation to present our High Street UK 2020 research findings to the Withington Civic Society prompted a lively discussion about the profile of centres with a large student population.  Is there a recognisable ‘university town’ profile? We will find out!

RQ3: How are signature types defined?

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’ (a reduction in footfall after Christmas). But how much does footfall have to differ between December and January to warrant the ‘comparison town’ label. We need a more scientific method to define signature types.

RQ4: How many UK retail centres have (or have had) a recognisable monthly signature type?

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 comparatively stable over time?

RQ5: How do the monthly signature types differ by week, day of the week and hour?

Our classification of town types will include relationships between hourly, daily and weekly variations – thanks to all the footfall data Springboard have provided to the research team. For example, do all towns show a similar pattern of footfall throughout the day, or are certain hours busier in certain types of towns? If so, this will help towns manage their activity hours – and encourage stakeholders to make sure their offer is open when the catchment needs it – one of the most important drivers of town centre vitality and viability identified in our last project.

RQ6: How well does our original HSUK2020 model predict footfall?

In our HSUK2020 project we developed a model that could predict average monthly footfall in a UK location, within +/- 10% or so.  However, we only tested the model in 15 locations, for which we had historical footfall data. We need to validate our model against the bigger data set. Being able to predict footfall will be really useful to the retail and retail property industry – helping them to assess sites, as part of their location decision making, where this information doesn’t currently exist.

RQ7: Can we refine original HSUK2020 model to improve forecasting ability?

Following on from RQ6 – depending on how well our original model performs, can we improve on it?  Are there other variables we should be including in the model that will make it more accurate?

RQ8: Can we (should we) develop a more accurate catchment predictor?

There are plenty of providers of catchment and shopper catchment information – but often these do not take into account factors such as the touristic appeal of the town.  We will compare the forecasting ability of our revised HSUK2020 model to existing catchment and shopper catchment data to see which perform better (in other words which methods forecast actual footfall more accurately) – and under what circumstances.

RQ9: What is the relationship between the amount of footfall and town types?

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?

RQ10: If we build a hierarchy of towns by size of footfall how does this compare to existing hierarchies?

To what extent do our town types and footfall data correspond to existing typologies or hierarchies? To what extent do the signature types we find in the data correspond to existing perceptions or current decision-making, plans and strategies?

RQ11: What is the influence of location? 

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?

RQ12: Which of the 25 priorities for improving the vitality and viability of high streets can be operationalised through the use of existing secondary data?

In our High Street UK 2020 project we identified the 25 priority factors town centre partnerships should concentrate on if they want to improve footfall (e.g. opening hours, diversity of offer, walkability) To include a factor in our analysis, modelling or forecasting in this project we have to be able to turn it into a number. How do we find data on each of the 25 factors, at the level of the town? Does this data exist?  Is it reliable? Free to access?

RQ13: Which of the 201 factors can be operationalised through the use of secondary data?

The High Street UK2020 project didn’t just identify 25 priority factors that influence the performance of the High Street – the aim of he project was to find all the factors that influence high street performance. Overall, the project identified 201 different factors. Just as with the 25 priorities mentioned above, to include a factor in our analysis, modelling or forecasting we have to be able to turn it into a number. How do we find data on each of the 201 factors, at the level of the town? Does this data exist?  Is it reliable? Free to access?

RQ14: Which of the 25 priorities that CAN’T be operationalised through secondary data do we want to collect primary data for?

For many of the 25 priorities, we will not be able to get hold of relevant data that is publicly accessible and/or reliable.  For example, ‘networks and partnerships with council’ was identified as an important priority for place partnerships, but is unlikely that data already exists that tell us the quality of the networks and partnerships with councils across all the towns and cities in our sample. We can use our literature review to help us make sense of these priorities.  For example, for ‘networks and partnerships with council’ we will need to establish the “presence of strong networks and effective formal or informal partnerships”. Whether “stakeholders communicate and trust each other”? And if “the council can facilitate action (not just lead it?)”.  To get this information we will need to undertake some survey research.

RQ15: Which of the 201 factors that CAN’T be operationalised through secondary data do we want to collect primary data for (e.g. those in the ‘top 20’)?

Just like with the 25 priorities that improve high street vitality and viability, we may not be able to turn each of the 201 factors that influence high street performance into a number we can include in our testing, very easily.  It is unlikely we have the resources to find ways to turn all 201 factors into measurable variables for our analysis. Therefore we will have to agree a way of prioritising these factors – perhaps by just concentrating on the factors which had the most influence on town centre performance?

RQ16: What are the best ways to visualise significant relationships both academically and practically for towns and other partners to engage and understand.

We know from presenting the findings of HSUK2020 to a diverse groups of High Street stakeholders, in locations across UK, Europe and beyond that using visuals and infographics to communicate our research findings are very important. The research team will need to explore creative ways to bring our results to the widest audience possible, during the lifetime of the project, to facilitate knowledge exchange and also keep our funders happy!

RQ17: What other (non-footfall) measures of town centre performance can be identified?

So far our research has relied upon footfall, and footfall will remain our main town centre performance indicator in this study.  But footfall is not the same as retail spend (even through the two are related) and so we will be exploring the relationship between footfall and other factors and retail sales.  But there are other measures of performance that we may want to use.  For example, sentiment analysis of social media entries may show the experience visitors have of a specific town. Any other measures of performance we may incorporate into the project have to be reliable and freely available if we are to consider them.

RQ18: Can we build a model of town centre performance?

If we have footfall and other measures of performance (such as retail sales and customer experience) and we have tested all the factors that influence performance, will we then be in a position to build an exhaustive model of town centre performance?

Such a model could revolutionise town centre decision making – taking a lot of the uncertainty away from decisions such as what type of development will improve performance – or whether or not increasing car-parking charges will deter customers.

RQ19: What is the baseline performance of pilot towns (footfall, retail sales and customer experience)?

One of the aims of the project is to trial a number of collaborative activities within towns – and measure the impact of these activities upon performance – so baseline measures will need to be established in each of the 7 pilot towns in the project (Ayr, Ballymena, Bristol, Congleton, Holmfirth, Morley and Wrexham).

RQ20: Is there a relationship between baseline performance and model of town centre performance?

How well does our model of town centre performance estimate the baseline performance of the 7 pilot towns (Ayr, Ballymena, Bristol, Congleton, Holmfirth, Morley and Wrexham) in the project?  This will be a good way of testing the model of town centre performance we identified as a result of RQ18.

RQ21: How do we classify and measure collaboration activities?

Our 25 priorities for improving vitality and viability of high streets are a good starting point.  We know from the primary research undertaken in the 10 HSUK2020 towns there was quite a discrepancy between what the experts thought could be achieved, and what the town stakeholders thought they could achieve – and most of this discrepancy was due to the difficulty with which different stakeholders can collaborate.  The example we heard, time and time again, related to how hard it was to coordinate opening hours across both multiple and independent retailers. Should we classify collaboration activities based upon how much impact they are likely to have (high, medium low?) or by the time-scale needed to achieve them (short, medium long)? Or by a combination of these? It is likely partnerships will want to focus on the collaboration activities that will bring the most reward for the level of effort required (see RQ23 below).

RQ22: What are the relationships between collaboration activities and performance (individual trader and collective town) in pilot towns?

Each town will trial a collaboration activity – and because we will have baseline data and be able to control for other factors, such as the weather, we will have hard evidence of the impact of the collaboration, both in terms of benefit to the individual trader (retail sales) and the benefit to the town (footfall).

RQ23: What collaboration activities are associated with higher levels of performance?

As we are going to trial a number of collaboration activities (7) then at the end of this stage of testing we will be able to tell which ones had the most impact, and why.

RQ24: Can we identify distinct movement signatures in tracking data?

We know there are different footfall signatures associated with different town types – but are there different movement signatures in any tracking data we can analyse in the project (the exact nature of this data has not been finalised as yet)? In the same way we identified the town types from the data (inductive) – does any data we analyse that relates to an individual’s movement in a location ‘throw up’ any particular patterns? See caveat about tracking data below.

RQ25: What performance indicators can we deduce from the tracking data (e.g. dwell time)

Movement or flow information deduced from tracking data may deliver more performance indicators, like dwell time, if we are able to track specific users in a location.  There are lots of privacy and other issues associated with this type of data though – things we don’t have to worry about with footfall data – so we will consider the pros and cons of using this data carefully before we make any firm commitment.

RQ26: Is there a relationship between movement signatures and footfall signatures?

We know there are different footfall signatures associated with different town types, but does the town type also affect how people move through the town? Do people ‘explore’ speciality towns but stick to the beaten track in comparison centres, for example?

RQ27: Do we need to establish a composite signature based on footfall and movement?

Can we combine the movement and footfall data to better identify town types? Do we get a richer typology (e.g. more town types) or more robust typology (explaining more towns) if we do this?

RQ28: How do we best visualise performance (footfall, sales, customer experience, dwell and any other performance indicators)?

What is the best ‘set’ of performance indicators for a town to use?  What does good performance look like?  Can we develop measures of performance that are simple (as lots of people need to understand them) but meaningful (they tell us something useful)?

RQ29: Can we identify towns that show unusual or inconsistent performance behaviour (such as sudden drops or rises in footfall)?

First, we need to know if there are any problems with the data supplied.  Then, where towns experience sudden drops in footfall and the data is correct, then what other factors could explain this?

RQ30: Can we identify towns that show unusual or inconsistent performance trends (such as much weaker or stronger performance over time)?

Which are the towns that show strong or weak performance? What towns show inconsistent performance (e.g. strong decline followed by strong improvement)?

RQ31: Can we explain unusual or inconsistent performance trends and/or, where appropriate, develop hypotheses to explore these further?

Why might towns exhibit unusual or inconsistent footfall or trends in footfall? What factors might explain unusual or inconsistent trend lines in performance?  Can we test out these assumptions on other towns in the data set?

RQ32: Can we decompose data set into similar groups (based on footfall, based on retail sales based on retail sales per footfall and based on customer experience and based on customer experience per footfall). Establish relationships between other performance indicators and footfall.

What might a more nuanced retail hierarchy look like?  One that takes into account footfall, sales and the customer experience? What are the relationships between the performance indicators?  Is the relationship between footfall and sales direct and linear? Is the relationship between footfall and customer experience similar?  Or is there a point at which increases in footfall lead to decreases in customer experience?

RQ33: What parameters will we use to establish optimisation of performance (e.g. town type, town size?

If we are going to compare towns and encourage them to optimise their performance, then how should we compare them (e.g. town size, town type) and what performance indicators should they be optimising? Given the nature of the project arguably customer experience?

RQ34: Can we identify top 50 towns that optimise performance?

Once we have agreed how towns should be optimising their performance, which ones are doing best?

RQ35: What additional resources will be needed to commercialise the data analysis we are prototyping?

This project will pilot methods and develop prototype tools for towns to use and test.  In order to commercialise the findings of the project much of the data collection, analysis and software will need to be scaled up for commercialisation.  The project team should identify, as the project develops, where and how various processes can be improved, in preparation for developing and launching a fully commercial set of products.

Additional Research Questions

Additional research questions can only be added if they can demonstrate a potential influence on the successful commercialisation of the end project.  Some examples of this might include the inclusion of factor that were not included in original HSUK2020 201 factors which are known to influence footfall. Or ways in which to extend the project findings to include smaller towns that do not currently measure footfall.

RQ36: How does the weather influence footfall?

Footfall is dramatically influenced by the weather – but it was left out of the HSUK2020 study, because there is very little literature on this AND the towns did not identify the factor either.  Probably because it is so obvious it was missed by everyone!

RQ37: Is post-Brexit footfall lower, allowing for the weather conditions?

It is very important we can ‘control’ for the weather (by being able to explain the amount of variance in footfall attributed to various weather conditions).  For example, the fall in footfall post-Brexit has been attributed to the poor summer weather. We think being able to give an answer to this topical research question (i.e. has there been a ‘Brexit-effect’ on footfall?), early on in the project, will raise interest and awareness of the project with the media and a wider group of stakeholders, which will help us with dissemination.

RQ38: Can town types be identified through ‘partial’ footfall data?

If the findings of the project can be shown to be relevant to smaller locations, they are more likely to make the investment into footfall data and the products that are being developed in this project, if the data and products can be shown to be relevant and significantly improve decision making and centre performance.

If we can enagage more smaller locations to engage with the project (through the user group structure), by establishing their identify through partial footfall data (gathered by hand), it will improve our chances of making products are relevant to their needs, at commercialisation stage.

RQ39: Can a measuring methodology be developed so that towns know when to count (hour/date etc.) to identify their town type?

Manchester City Council have joined the policy user group of the project and want to know if and how the 13 district centres around Manchester are classified, so they can develop relevant policy in those areas. Can we develop an easy-to-use set of instructions so that volunteers can collect footfall data in the 13 locations and get an idea of their likely town type?

Note: Outside of the 7 pilot locations (Ayr, Ballymena, Bristol, Congleton, Holmfirth, Morley and Wrexham) no towns will be identified by name when we disseminate the research findings from the project.

Working together for stronger towns

On the 4th July 2016 I was invited to take part in the inaugural Oxfordshire High Streets Conference.  I  am saying inaugural as the delegates found the day very useful so we hope there will be another one! As a place management scholar, there is nothing better than sharing place insight and debating its relevance, in a local context. As a researcher, I get to know a lot about problems and I get to know my data intimately.   But, my work tends to be read by academics and other people who also focus on the data/problem side of things.  This means I don’t always connect with the people who want to put our research findings into practice.  To get the opportunity to present our research on footfall signatures at the event was especially rewarding.  Having the chance to hear directly from representatives of towns that feel their centre’s profile is changing from one of comparison shopping to one that is more focused on community retail and services, for example, was really useful.  I got a chance to take part in the important debate about what this change means ‘on the ground’, in terms of managing the offer, attracting the right type of businesses, changing opening hours and communicating all these changes in the community.

As the Keynote Speaker for the event I was also invited to give a couple of radio and TV interviews.  One of these was for Howard Bentham’s Radio Oxford Breakfast Show. His questions were typical of what people want to know about High Streets. Namely, how much research is there telling us what works on the high street? Are there answers or is everyone making it up as they go along?  What are the main factors that determine whether a high street is successful or not? Will the Internet kill the high street?  And, finally, what would I do if I was in charge of a town (I am not used to getting this last question!). I use the rest of this blog to give some answers to these questions.

How much research has been done into what works on the high street?

A lot. Our High Street UK 2020 project, funded by the ESRC, found relevant articles and commentary dating back to 1892. Academic researchers have been predicting many of the problems we are currently facing today – as long ago as the 1960s. Despite there being a lot of useful information, it’s taken more popular figures like Mary Portas and Bill Grimsey to bring these findings to people concerned about the high street. What seems to happen is that technology changes, consumer behaviour changes but there is too long a time lag before town centre stakeholders (e.g. property owners, the council, retailers) adapt their decision making/operations in response to these major changes. We need our town centre decision makers to take a bit more notice of the research and predictions our academics and other experts make, so they can anticipate change and respond more effectively, rather than just wait until everything goes a bit ‘pear shaped’!

What have been the consequences of town leaders making decisions without evidence of what works?

Wasted funding, wasted effort and declining high streets. But it’s not just town leaders – its also decision makers at higher levels.  For example, retail planning policy is a national issue.  Our research has shown that the impact of out-of-town shopping is more negative than internet shopping on traditional retail areas like high streets. But, in England our town centre first policy has been gradually eroded – allowing more edge and out-of-town retailing to be built, whereas in Scotland they are very protective of their high streets – and are doing everything they can to ensure retailing and other services are in town centres.

What are the main factors that determine a high street’s success?

Number 1 is the range of shops, services and other attractions it offers – and whether these match and adapt to the needs of the people using the high street.  Attractions are not just shops.  Parks, leisure activities, schools and hospitals, public transport hubs and employers all attract footfall. The question is – how integrated are all these attractors into an overall town centre experience? For example, do business open later to cater for large numbers of commuters, ‘attracted’ to railway stations.

Number 2 is the accessibility of the high street – using a range of transport options – public transport, walking, cars or cycles etc. High streets can be forced into unnecessary decline by moving bus stations and stops, for example. And that’s why we hear so much about car-parking. But, as a rule of thumb the weaker the town’s offer (see above) the cheaper the car-parking needs to be. Strong towns do not need to worry about the price of car-parking!

Number 3 is competition to the high street from edge-of-town or out-of-town retailing.  Retail parks are seeing a rise in footfall – because they are not just a collection of retail sheds anymore, they have restaurants, gyms, cinemas – and free parking. In effect, they are becoming more convenient (for car-owners) replacements to the traditional high street.

Is the internet killing the high street?

No, the Internet is not killing the high street, but it is transforming it.  The Internet is speeding up the reinvention of the high street into something more suitable for today’s consumers.   Bodies like the Royal Town Planning Institute think that the UK has an oversupply of retail floor space – perhaps as high as 30%.  Now people are buying bulky physical products online, our town centres do not need to be full of fridges, freezers, mattresses, TVs and sofas etc., which take up a lot of room! This space can now be used for other uses.  As a result, many smaller town centres need to become more compact.  The retail and service offer needs to be concentrated – and town centre decision makers need to facilitate this to make it happen.  A town with a fragmented offer is not convenient as it is not easily walkable.

If you were put in charge of an average English town, what would be your first priority?

Run to the hills! After all my time researching town and city centre change I know place management is not an easy job! Towns are full of lots of different types of people, shopkeepers, independents, multiples, residents, civic societies trying to protect history and heritage, transport planners trying to facilitate cycle paths, motorists wanting to park outside shops.  All these people have got competing expectations and requirements. So, the first priority should be establishing a realistic and shared vision of what the town centre offer needs to be – to meet the needs of the people that use it.  Our recent High Street UK 2020 project has shown that the sort of research work that is needed to reposition the town, so it meets the needs of its current catchment, is sorely lacking in the average English town.

Finally, I have put together a Storify from the tweets that were shared during the Oxfordshire High Streets Conference.  It really was a great event and I look forward to the next one. You can find out more about the event below.

World Towns Leadership Summit 2016


The World Towns Leadership Summit was organised by Scotland’s Towns Partnership, The International Downtown Assocation, Association of Town and City Management and Business Improvement Districts Scotland.

Around 200 delegates from around the globe gathered to discuss, debate, disagree, defend and develop a new, collective approach to thinking about, talking about and, most importantly, taking positive action in our urban places.

A key result of the Summit was the World Towns Agreement.  Co-produced with the Academy of Urbanism, Centre for Local Eeconomic Strategies and Architecture and Design Scotland. A milestone in urban development for the 21st century, the Agreement will be shared worldwide to help influence international authorities and governments, and to drive forward a new vision of civic governance.

IPM have contributed an evidence commentary to the development of the agreement, based on research work we have undertaken over the last few years, showing how this underpins the four guiding principles of identity, economy, government and citizenship and environment. A reference list is also available.

IPM was represented at the World Towns Leadership Summit by Simon Quin, Gary Warnaby and Cathy Parker (who presented the findings of HSUK2020).  We were delighted to bump into lots of old (longtime!) friends, like Jane Jenkins, Senior Fellow of IPM and Jim Yancula (Editorial Board Member of the Journal of Place Management and Development). Below you can read some of the ‘twhighlights’ of the Summit.




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?

Too posh for Aldi?

Last week I was invited onto BBC Radio Manchester to discuss an online row that had erupted in the Cheshire village of Poynton about the opening of a new Aldi store.

The online discussion on the Poynton Forum – was started by Poytonman62 posting

“I thought we were making real progress as a community with the opening of Waitrose in 2012. However with the opening of Aldi I feel as though we are taking a step back into the lower class.”

Aldi and Waitrose are at very different ends of the grocery retail market – but both have a similar market share (around 5%). And both are growing at the expense of The Big 4 (Tesco, Asda, Sainsbury’s and Morrisons) because, love them or hate them, they have a clear offer. Aldi is cheap and Waitrose is posh.

In contrast, The Big 4 have created confusion around their brands – is Asda cheaper than Sainsbury’s? Are Tesco Finest dishes finer than Morrison’s Signature dishes? Consumers aren’t stupid – we know these items are often made by the same manufacturers and just packaged differently. Likewise we know some ‘deals’ do not always represent better value. For example, Sainsbury’s are dropping ‘buy two get one free’ offers because they are not saving people money – instead, these offers are just encouraging customers to buy more than they need.

Opinion as to whether Aldi is a good or a bad addition to the village of Poynton is clearly firmly divided with one online forum user (Anotherwhingerlikeu) saying “It has the feel of an indoor market area with a car boot sale in the middle”. But markets and boot sales are well known for bargains, and another user (Belvoir) pointed out that Aldi is great for low prices – and cited caviar face cream – normally costing over £100, being available in Aldi for only £6.99.

Towns and their collective offer of shops are there for everyone – and one man’s tat is another man’s treasure. Retailers compete by offering a bundle of products, prices and service that appeal to particular customer segments. There is a lot of talk about customer loyalty in retailing – but loyalty can mean being loyal to brands (and shopping at different outlets), being loyal to outlets (and buying own brands) or being loyal to the idea of saving money (and buying bargains wherever they appear).

When discounters like Aldi entered the UK market they were just expected to appeal to people who had less money to spend, but 20% of Aldi’s customers are AB or middle class. And this figure is rising. Liking a bargain – or not feeling you are being ripped off – is not just the prerogative of poorer shoppers.

The last few years have been characterised by low consumer confidence. People obviously feel they should tighten their belts when there is talk of unemployment, or bad times ahead – but do you really have to do without Serrano ham when it is 1/10th of the price you are used to paying for it? Aldi and other discounters allow consumers to have their cake (or even posh gateaux) and eat it, literally.

Many of the posts on the Poynton Forum are not just about Aldi. They are more general comments about parking and also the impact the opening of another supermarket will have on local shops.

At the Institute of Place Management at Manchester Metropolitan University we have just completed a nationwide project, funded by the Economic and Social Research Council, that investigated all the factors that influenced high street performance (High Street UK2020), in particular footfall – or how many people shop in an area. The convenience of a centre was the 5th most important factor out of the 201 that we found. In other words how convenient is a centre to reach and get around once you are there is a very important predictor of its performance.

The Aldi development is not as convenient and well connected to the rest of Poynton as some of the other supermarkets (Waitrose, Asda and Coop). The Aldi is over the 500m distance of the typical linked trip. That’s when you go to a centre for one purpose, like a top-up shop (milk, toilet paper etc) and then also visit other stores or services, like stopping for a coffee, popping to the bank or doing other shopping like buying cakes at the bakery or picking up a birthday card.

So Aldi is unlikely to strengthen the collective offer of the village. Putting it simply, people driving to Aldi and parking are unlikely to shop in rest of Poynton. In fact, the walk from Aldi to Waitrose, the strongest anchor at the end of Park Lane, is well over half a mile.

Of course when Aldi and Lidl entered the UK, market analysts thought that there would be no cross-shopping between the discounters and high end stores like Waitrose. But that’s not the case. Consumers are far more willing to buy from a variety of stores. Some of that is due to the amount of in-town competition and provision. After the government of the day cracked down on the development of out of town shopping – The Big 4 grocery stores moved into town and edge of town centres because it was the only space they were allowed to expand into.

All of a sudden customers had a realistic choice to driving to an out of town location and doing a weekly shop. And that’s often been good news for the smaller traditional stores that tend to be located on high streets like Poynton. Supermarkets bring footfall.

As a village Poynton is very fortunate – as according to Which they have both of the UK’s best supermarkets, Aldi and Waitrose. Whether you think Aldi is good news or bad news is a matter of personal opinion and, of course, where you shop is up to you. As an academic who has been studying town centre change for nearly 20 years I am pleased to see there is such a strong local grocery retail offer in Poynton. Which is accessible to both car drivers and pedestrians.

If you want to hear the full BBC Radio Manchester story click here.

If you want to see how the Daily Mail covered the story click here.

The High Street and technology: Friend or foe?

The Internet is a transformative technology. It is changing retailing. At IPM we have been lucky enough to have access to Springboard’s historical footfall data. We have analysed over half a billion shopper movements, and the overall picture is that town centres and traditional retail areas like High Streets are in decline.

Whilst much has been made of the ‘restorative power’ of innovations such as click and collect, in general retailing is shifting on-line and out-of-town. Springboard’s footfall figures from Black Friday demonstrated this, measuring a 10% decline in High Street footfall, compared to the same day in 2014. In 2015, many multi-channel retailers were keen to offer higher discounts online, perhaps to avoid the more shameful displays of in-store consumer behaviour we have seen in previous years. Similarly, many shoppers picked up a car boot-full of bargains, enjoying the convenience of driving to their local retail park (where footfall was up 3%, compared to Black Friday 2014).

Whilst national statistics can be very useful, averages can be misleading. When we drilled down into the Springboard data we found many centres with stable or increasing footfall, even over the Christmas period. And we think we know why. Those centres with a clearer collective offer perform significantly better than those whose offer is unclear. So far, we have identified 3 generic types of centre offer from their footfall profiles. Comparison, speciality and convenience/community towns. Comparison shopping towns still have significant retail floor space. The anchor is clearly retail. These towns and cities are where multichannel retailers are concentrating their offer. In contrast, speciality towns are not anchored by retail. They tend to have a strong tourist offer instead. Convenience community towns are anchored by services that people need frequently, if not daily. Like transport hubs, employment or food retail.

What’s interesting is that size does not always predict centre type. We are releasing a report early next year with our findings but the headline message is this….

“retailers will perform better if their offer is congruent to the overall offer of the location”.

In other words, if retailers collaborate with other stakeholders and help deliver the overall experience customers want from a location, they will attract more footfall. For example, a failing comparison centre should be concentrating its retail offer geographically if the catchment usage and profile suggests the town needs to adjust to becoming a convenience/community town. The Internet makes this possible as so much comparison shopping has already shifted from smaller centres online. Shops selling stock have a big physical footprint – they take up space (remember the size of an average Woolworths?) Without so many of these ‘public warehouses’, centres can shrink and become more walkable and convenient for regular – in some cases, daily visits. Some comparison retailers should be thinking of more congruent store formats to suit convenience/community or speciality locations. The big four grocery retailers have already showed how they can shrink the size of their operations significantly and slot into existing units in traditional centres.

We see many opportunities for the disruptive power of the Internet to save some of our failing physical retail environments. However, in many instances we are concerned that it just won’t happen. Strategic decision making skills and the analytical skills needed to use evidence to inform change are poor – so many of the positive opportunities technology can bring will be missed. Through our High Street UK partnership with 10 UK towns, we have already identified the 25 priorities that will improve footfall in physical retail centres and technology can facilitate many of these. For instance, intelligent waste disposal and more responsive or even automated street cleaning can improve levels of cleanliness. And these seemingly basic aspects of the customer experience take on even more importance when people have a choice not to visit physical locations at all.

In summary technologies can help physical centres – but they need grasping and integrating. And this shouldn’t be just the responsibility of the local authority. Because if retailers invest in strengthening the locations they are in, in the way our research suggests, they will see a return on investment, in the same way they invest in back-room operations to improve the bottom line.


How business rates impact upon high street performance – the evidence

There is an ongoing talk about the re-evaluation of business rates, and several high profile reports (e.g. the Grimsey Review 2013) call for drastic measures in the business rates system before it is ‘too late’ for the high street.

The University of Liverpool and Local Data Company are investigating factors that affect business rates (occupation, vacancy rates and rents ) and their preliminary analysis highlighted the disproportions in rents, vacancy rates and business rates – meaning some high streets are suffering more than others.

A CLG (2011) report presented a government plan that allows local authorities to retain a part of the income generated by business rates to reinvest in their own economic development priorities .

However, De Magalhaes’s (2012) highlights the problem with redistribution of business rates to local authorities, which still does not guarantee money will be spent in-line with a particular place’s priorities.

This is in contrast to the surtax generated by Business Improvement Districts, which is always re-invested locally, according to priorities set by the BIDs’ members.

Secondary shopping areas seem to suffer the most from the business rates system, and this was recognised in a scoping paper by Tym et al. (2000) who called for business rates revisions in these areas.

Also, Findlay & Sparks (2009) raised their concerns about business rates and argued whether they are well matched with the buying power of users and types of retailer present in a location.

In our research, business rates came out the 32nd strongest influence on high street performance, out of 200 factors, on a equal pegging with rents.

We will be presenting the order of influence of all 200 factors we investigated at the free High Street 2020 conference in Manchester on 10th July 2014.

Please click here to register.


CLG. (2011). Local Government Resource Review: Proposals for Business Rates Retention – Consultation, (July).

De Magalhaes, C., & De Magalhães, C. (2012). Business Improvement Districts and the recession: Implications for public realm governance and management in England. Progress in Planning, 77(4), 143–177. Retrieved from

Findlay, A., & Sparks, L. (2009). Literature Review: Policies Adopted to Support A Healthy Retail Sector and Retail Led Regeneration and the Impact of Retail on the Regeneration of Town Centres and Local High Streets. Scottish Government. Retrieved April 29, 2014, from

Grimsey, B, 2013, The Grimsey Review.

Tym, R. (2000). Secondary Shopping: Retail Capacity and Need —A Scoping Paper. National Retail Planning Forum, (June 9).

Place marketing and sustainable places

Recently, Piccadilly Gardens was voted Manchester’s worst attraction on Tripadvisor. The designers of Piccadilly Gardens, Arup, say “Piccadilly Gardens transforms Manchester’s central park from a problem area into an effective public space”. On the other hand tripadvisors say “Designed by numpties. Dirty, rotten, awful area. Avoid at all costs. Shameful display and use of civic area.”

Piccadilly Gardens is a ‘great’ example to use to illustrate the complexities inherent in place marketing and how the practice must change if it wants to be relevant in the context of sustainable places. In the last couple of months I have been asked to speak about the topic of place marketing and sustainability at three international tourism conferences. Most recently, this was at the 1st Corfu Symposium on Managing and Marketing Places.

What visitors (and many locals) don’t like about Piccadilly Gardens is the rubbish. Traditionally the role of place marketing has been to attract mobile investment, like tourists or to boost economic activity, such as ‘the evening economy’.

Place marketing activity is designed to draw additional inputs into the system – but with little or no regard for the unwanted outputs created, like litter. If visitors and residents are seeing something as simple as rubbish build up – then that’s saying the system isn’t working. Worse than that – our most recent research demonstrates, unequivocally, that rubbish is impacting on peoples’ place attitudes and increasing their anticipation of witnessing other sorts of incivilities – such as harassment, drug-dealing and public drunkenness. This then makes them wary of the very space that is supposed to be attracting them, illustrating how more interconnected place marketing activity needs to be with other aspects of place management. Is the place marketing budget better spent on more place promotion or more tidying up?

We can tip-toe around the eggshells here – but being blunt – a lot of place marketing activity conflicts with the philosophy of a sustainable place. Place marketing based on the mantra of place competition is always about attracting resources away from somewhere else. Meaning there is winners and losers. Sustainability is about everyone surviving.

Place marketing’s obsession with drawing resources from the ‘outside in’ (inward investment) means, at the moment, it does not have much to offer those trying to create more sustainable forms of development, from within. The empty shops on the UK High Street and the empty hotel rooms in Corfu show how destructive global systems can be on specific places. International property developers, retail chains and tour operators all see location as a key part of their business strategy – but have no loyalty or attachment to any one particular place.

Gold and Ward (1994) stated that “Public or quasi-public policy should embody notions of public good and social benefits, but not promote one place at the expense of another” so to be relevant in the future, place marketers should take heed of this advice (better late than never).

Marketing has evolved from the transactional, one-dimensional activity it once was. It has become more strategic, theories such as the service profit chain, demonstrate the value of service companies investing in their staff, as employee satisfaction is a driver of customer satisfaction. Relationship marketing proves the value of keeping customers rather than attracting new ones. The trouble is these developments in marketing theory don’t reach many of the people practicing place marketing.

The opportunity for place marketing is to shift its focus to endogenous development. Recently, Cambridge was identified as the best city to find a job with 0.22 jobseekers per vacancy. 100 less than in Salford. Whilst Cambridge University competes on a world-stage to attract talent…..that talent often stays. Local firms are supported – there is an home-grown innovation supply chain. Successful companies say you are only two phone calls away from what you need.

If we accept sustainability is a legitimate (perhaps the ultimate goal of a place), then place marketing has an important role in communicating this vision and helping to glue everything together. If it continues to just promote and ‘sell’ places, then it becomes just another destructive force, taking much needed public funding away from building a more sustainable future for our towns and cities.

Using the Sustainable Communities Act

An update from Local Works

Following two years of campaigning, the government have made regulations that give town and parish councils the right to submit proposals under the Sustainable Communities Act.

This is a real ‘game changer’ for the Act: citizens and community groups can now submit proposals for specific actions from government to help their communities, local economies and the environment via their town or parish council as well as via their local authority. We expect to see a lot more proposals coming forward.

On Thursday 21st November Local Works are holding a public meeting in East London as part of their ongoing work to tell people and councils all about the Act and help them use it.

Anyone interested in East London can attend.

Details are as follows:

Thursday 21st November, 7pm to 9pm

Venue: Hackney CVS, 84 Springfield House, 5 Tyssen Street, London E8 2LY

Chair: Aimee Brannen, News Editor, Islington and Hackney Gazettes

Cllr Sophie Linden, Deputy Mayor of Hackney Council
Shanaz Khan, Chair, East Trades Guild
Michael Calderbank, Sustainable Hackney
Steve Shaw, Local Works, National Co-ordinator

There will be free food and drink!