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.

Launch of National Retail Research Knowledge Exchange Centre

Last month I attended the launch of the National Retail Research Knowledge Exchange Centre, an initiative led by Professor Kim Cassidy and hosted at Nottingham Trent University. Following on from her successful retail navigator role for the ESRC, Professor Cassidy is developing a long-term solution for transferring knowledge between academics and practitioners in retail. Such a development is long-overdue as we know from our own High Street UK2020 project there is a wealth of academic knowledge that is currently untapped by retailers and, similarly, some of the most pressing problems facing the sector are not adequately researched.

I was very proud that the High Street UK2020 research was chosen to be included in the launch – as an example of best practice for impactful research. You can download the powerpoint slides from the presentation here:

HSUK2020 slides from NRRCKE launch.

Around 30 people attended the launch, including retail practitioners, retail consultants, leading UK academics and representatives of specialist retail publications. The launch was held on the 17th July 2016 at the Digital Catapult Centre in London.

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.

IPM Study Tour to Berlin June 2016 – Place Management in Action

From the 2nd to the 4th June IPM ran a 3-day accredited educational trip to Berlin to learn more about place management in the city.  The tour was a combination of site visits, lectures & workshops as well as meetings with local place managers (local partnerships, markets, town centre management, local initiatives, local tourism etc.).

The Study Tour was hosted by Dr Ares Kalandides, Professor Cathy Parker and Simon Quin, from the IPM at Manchester Metropolitan University. It took place in cooperation with New York University, Berlin (NYU Berlin).

Below is a short reflection on the three days, compiled from the tweets and photographs taken during the tour.

How does weather impact upon footfall?

Bad weather can impact on footfall, especially in traditional open retail centres like the High Street. During traditional peaks like Easter, bad weather can reduce footfall by around 5% according to Springboard who collect footfall data in retail centres across the UK. But good weather doesn’t impact as positively on retail footfall as consumers often find other things to do when the sun shines – like visiting the seaside, parks and other attractions.

 Retailers have to be very good at predicting the weather (and pay the Met Office to provide this insight) – as staffing levels and product ranges need to be sensitive to changes in both temperature and precipitation. Many maths graduates go on to careers with grocery retailers modelling the relationships between weather, consumer demand and the subsequent impact this then has to have on retail operations. Just how many barbecues do we need to put out on display next Saturday?

We are just about to start a big project that will analyse 9 years of hourly footfall data against 9 years of hourly weather data! For the first time the project consortium, led by researchers at MMU and Cardiff University, will be able to fully understand how weather changes  consumer behaviour and retail sales in specific locations  – not just in comparison shopping centres, but also in seaside and holiday or tourist destinations.
For more information on this project follow the link
And read this blog for more ‘soft launch stories’ around this research

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.


Poundland and the 99p Stores

Poundland wants to buy 99p Stores and I was invited, along with retail analyst, Kate Hardcastle, to discuss this with Naga Munchetty and Charlie Stayt on BBC Breakfast this morning.

Poundland has around 600 stores and plans to take-over all 251 99p Stores. This ambitious expansion strategy is typical of many UK retailers and, as a result, we have a very concentrated retail landscape. As a nation, a high percentage of retail sales are transacted through a relatively low number of multiple retailers.

Growth through acquisition is somewhat inevitable; Poundland now has to keep a very impatient set of shareholders happy. Since it was floated on the stock exchange last year, shares in Poundland dropped 3.7% as the company saw a slowdown in growth, mainly due to planned new stores not opening on time. With the city breathing down its neck, acquisition is the quickest way to grow. If the deal goes through, Poundland gets 50% bigger overnight, rather than having to wait to expand incrementally, where suitable premises have to be found on a town-by-town basis.

Poundland have been very successful, despite that small share price blip. They generate more sales per store than the 99p Stores, and have more outlets, so are the stronger operator. They have invested in store development, so their stores look modern and well organised. They have expanded their range to encourage more affluent customers, like their bakeware tie-in with Jane Asher. Finally, they work with big, well-known brands to offer consumers the products they are used to.

After so much doom and gloom about town centres, it is good to see that some high street retailers are doing so well. This supports our High Street 2020 findings – our analysis of Springboard’s national footfall data shows that many towns are doing fine. Especially those that are well on their way to adjusting to structural changes in the sector, by becoming ‘convenience centres’ – where people pop in regularly for everyday items, food, personal and household products, rather than more expensive things like clothing.

The fixed-price retailers are well placed to take advantage of these changes in shopping habits – and strengthen the offer of a convenient town centre – as they are reliable, in terms of range, price and opening hours. The fixed-price retailers have taken trade from lots of different retailers – including the local market. In fact, in terms of offer, a traditional market is probably a closer rival to Poundland than the discount supermarkets. Many traditional markets offer very similar merchandise – sometimes even cheaper. The problem with markets is they are often not so well organised and well branded and do not have such a clear fixed-price message.

The Competition and Markets Authority (CMA) will be investigating the deal as they will want to be assured that both consumers and suppliers will not be disadvantaged by the loss of a fixed-price retailer (i.e 99p Stores).

On the supply side – even with the additional stores, Poundland will not be powerful enough to exert undue pressure on suppliers. For example, their sales of FMCG brands are a drop in the ocean compared to the ‘Big Four’.

Likewise, it’s pretty hard to see how the price the consumer pays would be adversely affected as both companies effectively offer the same products at the same price (give or take a penny). Normally the CMA are concerned that a buyout of this nature could force prices up for consumers, but unless Poundland change their brand to TwoPoundland or even OnePoundTenLand after the acquisition I can’t see how prices can rise.

What the CMA may do is force Poundland to give up some of their stores so that other rivals can compete more fairly, with a more similarly sized portfolio. But retail competition is a very local issue, and unless specific stores are named by the CMA for divestment, then it’s unlikely to impact on Poundland’s position.


3 distinguishing characteristics of a functional market town

On Wednesday, on our #HSUK2020 tour, we were in Altrincham to discuss what makes a market town. Altrincham received its market charter in 1290 and is currently positioning itself as a ‘modern market town‘.

The UK footfall data supplied to us by Springboard suggests there are two types of market town (see Figure 1). The first, rather sadly, is more of an ex-market town, that really no longer functions as one. These towns do not have a strong weekly market and have lost other important services, such as, for example, their cottage hospital or registry office. These ‘ex-market’ or dysfunctional market towns (1) have a footfall profile equivalent to a community/convenience centre – in other words, footfall is fairly stable across the months, with no noticeable peaks.


                                                                                                      Figure 1 : Footfall profiles

In contrast, the functional market town, has a different type of footfall profile, with noticeable peaks around Easter and July and a gradual increase in footfall from September to December.

Comparing the footfall profile of a functional market town to other town types, it would appear that the modern market town has a little bit of everything. Which, of course, it always did have. It offers convenience; those important everyday products and services like food shopping, a library, doctors and opticians etc. It has leisure, recreation – and entertainment like gyms, sports fields or a swimming pool, a cinema or a theatre. And there are places for the community to meet; coffee shops, cafes, pubs and restaurants.

The functional market town also offers some comparison shopping; clothes, homewares, maybe a bookshop or two, as well as some more important services to the surrounding area, maybe a hospital or FE college. This all comes packaged in what might be a fairly ‘low-key’ but nevertheless historic environment which offers a pleasant visitor experience and an important link with the past.

Of course, this description applies to a great many small or medium towns. So, in our workshop with Altrincham Forward we explored some of the fundamental characteristics of a market town and what these might look like in today’s market towns.

The 3 defining characteristics of a modern market town.

1. There is a market and it is an anchor.

Seems obvious, but if your town hasn’t got a market building, a market place, or temporary market ‘space’ (such as a high street), then it can’t be a market town. Even if it has the physical space for a market, it’s imperative that whatever is in it (the collective offer from all the operators) is behaving as an anchor – and is generating significant footfall to the town.

Marketplaces represent prime retail space in market towns – in terms of delivering on the ‘brand’. They can’t afford to be occupied by operators who do not provide the merchandise or collective/relevant opening hours and service that will actually drive footfall – in contrast to just ‘ticking over’. This isn’t to say all markets should be gentrified. For example, Bury Market is a very successful traditional market, selling a wide range of value products, which brings in coach loads of people from all over the North.

2. The market town plays an important role in the network of nearby places. (2)

Market towns served the surrounding hinterland – not only with commerce and a market but also by providing other services, as well as being the seat of local government. Again, these are important drivers of footfall. Losing a health centre, council offices or a college reduces a town’s relevance to its catchment – and undermines its power.

Market towns should remain a focus for local supply chains and the local economy, providing financial and professional services, such as banks, architects, solicitors and accountants, as well as office space and employment. Altrincham, for example, has nearly 3000 businesses in and around the town centre.

But market towns are not only important economically. Once or twice a year, market towns were transformed into very special places for the community, during annual fairs and festivals. These events really would be the highlight of the year to many people. To what extent does the modern market town position itself as the heart of the community – with such celebrations? And how hard does the modern market town work to strengthen and reinforce the network with nearby places? Does it compete when it should be collaborating?

Finally, market towns should be relevant to the whole community, old and young. In Altrincham we heard that young people didn’t feel the town had anything to offer them. In other towns, the success of the Teenage Market and local music festivals proves that young people can be persuaded to come into town centres.

3. The market town is the one most accessible to most people.

Originally, people would travel to their nearest market town. It might be a two hours’ walk – but the other options might be three or five hours’ away. A modern market town will be accessible by a variety of transport routes from the smaller centres and hinterland, including public transport, cycle paths and maybe even the original footpaths. The modern market town, one that maintains its status, is likely to be the most accessible market town to the most people in an area.

Because of their location, in relation to other towns, and because their important status was ‘protected’ through the control of market licenses, market towns had no competition. Nowadays, it is a very different commercial landscape. There are bigger centres, like cities nearby; or other destinations, like out-of-town retail parks easily accessible by car. There are even other retail channels, like on-line, competing for consumers. But none of these can replace a market town with its special mix of convenience, community, retail, services, leisure and entertainment, history and heritage all packaged up at a compact and manageable scale.

For a town like Altrincham, a huge conurbation has grown up around it, since it received its market charter. This means it is now accessible and relevant to an urban ‘hinterland’ devoid of many traditional and rural connections. Recent improvements to the canal tow path means people can now walk or cycle safely from Manchester or nearby suburbs.

The footfall data suggest that the town is punching way above its position in the retail hierarchy. With its tram line, train station, and canal path it is now the most accessible and important market town to a population of 350,000 people in a 5 mile radius. Perhaps the modern market town has not changed so much, providing a weekly fix of a bit of everything, in a distinct but reassuring setting. Market towns have a scale, format and offer we are very used to and, it would seem, fond of. They are, perhaps, a tangible representation of many people’s perceptions of what a town should be.

Cathy Parker, Nikos Ntounis and Simon Quin.


2. Action For Market Towns, 2005, Healthcheck Handbook.

You can find out more about the High Street UK2020 project at