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.

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.




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.

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.


Journal rankings – do we care?

Last month the latest version of the Journal Citation Report (JCR) was released by Thomson Reuters. This publication is viewed as the ‘industry standard’ in terms of establishing a publication’s impact. The report does this by calculating a variety of metrics which stem from the number of citations an article in any given publication achieves.

With over 11,000 journals now publishing peer-reviewed research, it is not surprising that individual researchers and their employing institutions find the sort of statistics and rankings contained in the JCR helpful.

Researchers want their work to make a contribution to knowledge, so the average number of citations per article for a journal is a useful way of seeing if previous research published in that journal has a higher (or lower) citation rate. The more people that cite articles – the more those articles are likely to be influencing the development of theory or knowledge in an area.

Likewise, universities want to know that they are investing in influential research (and researchers), in terms of funding activity and promoting their best academic staff.

But what about journal editors like us? What do all these metrics and the rankings mean to the Journal of Place Management and Development?

Well firstly, as a relative new journal (published since 2008) we are not currently reviewed by Thomson Reuters. Therefore we do not appear in the JCR. Game over? Well, not quite. As we have already said, rankings and listings are a popular and simple way by which a journal’s impact is judged. Therefore, if we want to attract authors, reviewers and Editorial Board Members we need to give some indication as to how well JPMD performs.

Despite not being included on the Thompson Reuters JCR list, it is still possible to compare the citations of JPMD articles, using other, publicly accessible sources, such as The SCImago Journal & Country Rank. This uses information from the Scopus® database (Elsevier B.V.), which does include the Journal of Place Management and Development.

This year, our cites per document over a 2 year period (which is calculated in the same way as the Thomson Reuters journal impact factor) is 1.45 which puts JPMD in the top quartile of journals in Urban Studies (12th), Business & International Management (51st) and Geography, Planning & Development (80th). And it means we are also above ‘average’ in Strategy & Management, Tourism, Leisure & Hospitality Management, and Marketing too.

So what does this mean? Well, we are fairly specialist and have not published that many articles. Therefore, there is a fairly ‘tight’ community around the JPMD, which makes it more likely that the authors that publish in it are building on each other’s work. However, as a group we must be careful that we do not ‘game’ and skew the results – by, for example, only citing authors that also publish in JPMD or, even worse, self-cite too often. All of this gets monitored and could result in the JPMD being blacklisted in future rankings and listings.

The ease by which the 2 year citation average (Impact Factor) can be manipulated is probably why it is frequently criticised. Nevertheless, other metrics, such as the SJR indicator go one step further to measure the “scientific influence of the average article in a journal” and express how central to the global scientific discussion an average article of the journal is. This metric also includes where the citations are to be found, as well as how many are counted. Therefore, SJR includes both a measure of quality and quantity. The results using the SJR indicator for the JPMD are the same as for the 2 year citation average, which means we are also performing well in terms of our articles being cited in higher quality / more established journals.

So, whilst there are different ways of measuring, listing and ranking, we do care how well JPMD does as it shows how relevant the research we publish is to other academics. However, it is the individual articles that, collectively, make up the journal’s position, so the only way to improve our standing is to attract the best quality research and provide an excellent service to our authors. In our first Editorial of 2016 (Volume 9, Issue 1) we will explain how we intend to do this. But, as always, we are very open to your ideas and suggestions.

Cathy Parker and Dominic Medway

Note : If you are interested, and want to make comparisons with other journals, you can see the JPMD’s performance in the SCImago Journal & Country Rank for yourself here.

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

Out-of-town town – Plaza Mayor

I have just come back from Malaga, Spain and this is a picture of Plaza Mayor. A typical Spanish streetscape? Look closely, and things are not quite what they seem. There are no actual windows at first floor level. The recess in the window frame has been painted to look like a window. Likewise, the life-size horses and cows dotted around are not real. That’s a real clue that Plaza Mayor is a fake. I am a regular visitor to Spain and have never seen horses and cows wandering around freely in town centres.

Plaza Mayor comes complete with plazas, fountains and orange trees but devoid of local businesses, people (rather than shoppers), or the 200 years of history the architecture initially suggests.

Instead, Plaza Mayor has just over 10 years history as an out-of-town retail and leisure centre built to look like a small Andalusian town.

Like some other towns, its leisure offer is separate to its main retail offer. This was added in 2008 and, I guess, built far enough away from the original centre so as to avoid any disruption to existing trading by the construction works.

So, as the photo below demonstrates – Plaza Mayor’s plaza mayor (main square) is now a 1100 space car-park.

This may be quite an apt development and one that shows that even fake towns suffer the same forces of change as real ones.

At 8am yesterday morning there were plenty of cars in the car-park before the centre was even open. With all that free parking and being next to a railway station on a commuter line to Malaga (it takes 20 minutes) it is obviously playing an important role for local people, as the original marketing literature said it would, but I suspect transport interchange was not what the developers were thinking.

At 8pm the evening before the centre was busier – but certainly not attracting the 20,000+ visitors per day it was when it opened in 2002. Interestingly, the addition of more retail in 2008 is housed in a more ‘traditional’ development – in terms of looking more like a run-of-the mill shopping mall. It seems to be doing well as the only vacant units are in the leisure half. At 9pm there were shoppers in the retail half – but many of the restaurants and bars in the leisure half were empty.

I may be just one of the 10,000,000 tourists to the area who prefers the reality of Malaga, Torremolinos or Marbella to the hyper (or hypo) reality of Plaza Mayor. An out-of-town town just isn’t the same.


High street decline – what does the management and marketing literature suggest?

Whilst the drivers of change affecting high streets are complex and cross discipline boundaries, the management and marketing literature may offer some solutions. To simplify the literature, we have reviewed potential high street interventions under the broad categories of ‘repositioning’, ‘reinventing’, ‘rebranding’ and ‘restructuring’.

Repositioning is a strategy that can be used to counteract decline (Smith, 2004). Rapid economic, political, and social changes, are most likely to lead places to repositioning strategies that will allow them to identify potential competitive advantages (Kavaratzis and Ashworth, 2008). The focus of any interventions here should be on understanding the forces of change and the value of unique responses that reposition individual high streets, through building on distinct capabilities (such as local identity, Edensor, 1998) but are accommodative of future trends (such as an ageing population or the growth of m-commerce) and are therefore more resilient (Wrigley, and Dolega, 2011).

Reinventing should focus on elements of the place product within a framework of place marketing which suggests that any new developments should be guided by the marketing principle of meeting the needs/wants of identified target audiences (Ashworth and Voogd, 1990). The “reinventing” process of urban places can be built on activities that aim to revitalise a place’s identity and image; identity and image can be seen as both static (for communicative purposes in a fixed time) and dynamic, which recognises the uniqueness of each place and the difference in each stakeholder’s view about a place (Kalandides, 2011; Warnaby, 2011; Kavaratzis and Hatch, 2013). It is the latter view that can be used as a driver for reinventing places such as high streets and city centres; a framework built on these premises can unarguably assist the development of rejuvenated, competitive retailing spaces, which will merge innovation and local place identity, and will be meaningful for all stakeholders (Coca-Stefaniak, Parker, Quin, Rinaldi and Byrom, 2009). Retailing is an important element of the urban place product, and “reinventing” this sector along with improvements on complimentary elements of place can contribute to a better understanding of the formation of the “holistic” place product (Warnaby, Bennison and Davies, 2005).

Rebranding should focus on the communication of image and identity as previous studies demonstrate that place consumers may find that the place experience meets or exceeds expectations whilst the image of the place is ‘problematic’ (Selby, 2004). Rebranding a place is mainly concerned with the application of branding, marketing communications, and public relations techniques in order to deliver a consistent place identity, which can form a sum of beliefs, ideas, and impressions in the minds of potential consumers of a place (Kotler & Gertner, 2002). It can be thought of as the ‘organising principle’ for integrating measures (e.g. events, media relations, residents’ participation). Place branding can evoke favourable place images that transfer emotional and self-expression values, as well as utilitarian attributes to individuals (Caldwell & Freire, 2004). These images are part of a place’s secondary communication efforts (Kavaratzis, 2004), which consists of various slogans, advertisements, and PR campaigns which aim to assist a place’s actions towards development. Successful place brand management can lead to positive word-of-mouth, and also assist in the transformation of negative images (Hanna & Rowley, 2011; Skinner, 2011). The need to identify how potential stakeholders can co-create the place brand is the focus of recent developments in place branding (Warnaby, 2009; Hatch and Schultz, 2010). High streets, and particularly the retail sector, with the multitude of stakeholders involved in it (users, brokers, fixers) (Pal and Sanders, 1997), can highlight the desires, needs, and views of those stakeholders, which can lead to a better understanding of how place brands are created and evolve (Kavaratzis, 2009; Hanna & Rowley, 2011; Kavaratzis & Hatch, 2013).

Finally, restructuring, should focus on forms of management and governance, including formal and informal (Coca-Stefaniak et al, 2009; Peel, 2003); regulatory, functional, and contractual (Lloyd and Peel, 2008; Peel et al, 2009) and modes of communication / knowledge exchange (Peel and Lloyd, 2008a, b). Consequently, the major point of interest is how high streets can be restructured in order to facilitate all the changes mentioned above. Place management and retail management are recognised as interdependent areas, and practices that entail both commercial and locational benefits is the best way forward (Bennison, Warnaby and Pal, 2010). Restructuring and cooperation of all place stakeholders and creation of strategic networks and transparent public-private relationships can nurture conditions for the sustainable development of a place (van den Berg and Braun, 1999; Rainisto, 2003). Physical restructuring is also another area which is encapsulated in place management and place marketing strategies; the proper use of current infrastructure (temporal) and the development of new retail spaces are major antecedents of place attractiveness and place development (Pike, 2010; Teller and Elms, 2010). In the case of retailing, the best spaces created from restructuring can enliven the high street and also shape a better image for the place which can enhance retail operations (Pal and Byrom, 2003).

This review has been written by Cathy Parker, Nikolaos-Foivos Ntounis and Mihalis Kavartzis for an Economic and Social Research Council Knowledge Exchnage Project : High Street UK 2020. The full list of references is available upon request. Please contact