Never mind the annual Christmas lights ceremony; is your town switched on digitally all year-around?
Here we review how digital High Street technology could transform the customer experience of town centres over the next few years and what needs to be done locally to make the most of these opportunities. We consider the factors that determine the ‘digital health’ of town centres as modern, customer-focused destinations. We also look at how one key service should and could be a key part of this digital switch-on: parking! The opportunities are startling. Don’t be left in the dark!
Digital High Street 2020
A key reference document to read is the Digital High Street 2020 Report produced with backing from the Government’s Future High Street Forum in 2015. The report made four principal recommendations that it considered as critical to the revitalising High Streets in a digitally dominated world: 1. sufficient access through infrastructure; 2. basic digital skills; 3. High Street digital lab; 4. High Street digital health index.
The report concluded that “unless we move from piecemeal to a more complete solution represented by these four recommendations, our High Streets generally will continue to erode as the digital world progresses”!
The digital aspirations for your High Street or town centre should mirror wider ambitions for its evolution. The 2020 report defined these aspirations as: economically strong; convenient; engaging; relevant; adaptive; authentic and diverse; experiential.
Future focus for digital development
The 2020 Report had a strong retail focus with an aspiration to help independent retailers in particular to up-skill in their digital capabilities. According to the Report, your town centre’s digital development should focus on:
Omni-channel retailing and leisure: The town centre experience should extend customers’ choices of when to shop, where to shop, and how to shop by engaging with retailers’ websites and apps, as a seamless experience. Restaurants, cafes, pubs, cinemas and other important non-retail services need to be able to promote themselves with digital marketing and offer online reservations.
Big Data, personalisation and social media: The modern digital retailer should be able to use technology to re-create the classic one-to-one customer relationship that is the hallmark of the local shop. Town centres need to enable easy engagement through social media because a substantial proportion of customers make decisions using social media as part of a visit.
In-store experiences and street-trading: Shops should be making their locations digitally interactive and engaging to attract footfall including taking payments, demonstrating products, offering information, and encouraging social sharing. Mobile point-of-sale systems can enable temporary traders to open easily and inexpensively to compete on the High Street.
Marketing technologies: Both prior to and during a visit to the town centre, there are opportunities to engage with potential customers including through emerging contactless technologies such as QR codes, NFC tags and BLE beacons (basically different types of in-situ markers that a smart phone can interact with).
Proposed High Street Digital Health Index
The 2020 Report proposed the use of a High Street Digital Health Index by individual communities. This Index would be organized into four sections that reflect the Report’s broader objectives: Access and Infrastructure; Basic Digital Skills; High Street Attraction; Digital Engagement.
A town’s digital strategy could go further and link to understanding of function, identity, branding and place marketing as well as wider access, amalgamation and sharing of data. Such opportunities for the wider use of digital data are exemplified by ongoing work such as the Bringing Big Data to Small Users (BDSU) project led by retail intelligence specialists, Springboard, and involving the Institute of Place Management amongst others.
At People and Places we understand the importance of putting such metrics in place through our work tracking town trends nationally over many years. We especially welcome the proposed use of measures to track digital development. It is important to cross-check these against wider town centre regeneration issues and indicators whilst being aware that many external factors will impact on things such as footfall and vacancy rates. We work with towns to track indicators such as business confidence, customer perceptions and car park occupancy. We see the great opportunity with digital activity is to gather supplementary data about town centre users and their activities.
Wider digital strategy and engagement
The Digital High Street 2020 Report provides a useful starting point for framing your town’s digital future but our advice is don’t let your ambitions stop there. The Report’s aspirations for dynamic places enabled in part by digital development are spot on and its focus on baseline infrastructure, skills and engagement is essential. Our recommendation though would be that towns need digital strategies that look beyond retail. Other services like parking should be part of this and digital platforms can be used for wider engagement.
A town’s digital strategy clink to understanding of function, identity, branding and place marketing as well as wider access, amalgamation and sharing of data. Such opportunities for the wider use of digital data are exemplified by ongoing work such as the Bringing Big Data to Small Users (BDSU) project led by retail intelligence specialists, Springboard, and involving the Institute of Place Management amongst others.
The local leadership of a place-based digital strategy should also consider the role of digital a part of wider stakeholder engagement and opportunities for its use as part of local democracy and decision-making as highlighted by Nesta’s recently published research paper Digital Democracy: The Tools for Transforming Political Engagement which includes details of good practice in using digital techniques.
High Street digital hub
Since the publication of the 2020 Report, a pilot ‘High Street digital hub’ of industry experts has been providing strategic advice, measurement, digital toolkits and hands-on digital training to town centre managers, businesses and service providers in Cheltenham and Gloucester. The findings from this pilot seek to turn the 2020 Report recommendations in to tangible outcomes that will be shared nationally as part of the proposed Great British Digital High Street Hub.
One of the spin-offs from this work in Cheltenham and Gloucester is the #WDYT (What do you think) campaign that connects a digital retail with a sense of place. The focus of the #WDYT campaign is to increase digital and social media activity by retailers around ‘place’. The campaign offers: i. help for all non -digital High Street retailers to get online; ii. help for all non-social High Street retailers to join the conversation; iii. help to engage national and independent brands in the local High Street social conversation; iv. a campaign that enables the entire town to increase its social output; v. a campaign that national retailers and independent businesses can use to collectively to drive physical footfall to their town centre.
The #WDYT campaign provides Digital Place reports that measure the daily digital output of all of a town’s High Street businesses and benchmarks their activity against all UK towns. This report can link digital output to footfall and economic data provided by the Local Data Company through its Location Health Index.
Taking a parallel practical approach, the company Real Towns have developed a suite of digital expertise born out of their award-winning work in Oxfordshire. Importantly, the Real Towns’ approach focuses on digitally marketing the collective offer of towns including trade, tourism and community activities. The Real Towns’ Digital Status survey benchmarks provision against other towns and offers guidance on technology, training and the modern art of on-line story telling.
Importantly, the Real Towns approach advocates the need for places to prepare a town-wide Digital Strategy with a clear and comprehensive vision of what they are seeking to achieve. Their approach also involves metrics for setting a digital performance baseline and demonstrating incremental improvements in outcomes.
One of our specialisms at People & Places is providing guidance on improved parking provision in town centres as it is always perceived as a key local issue by businesses. We do this through our People, Places & Parking Process that provides a multi-layered review and includes an assessment of potential improvements in parking payment systems and associated digital technology. Parking is an area where new technology offers great opportunities to transform the customer experience and enable more efficient management.
Parking is a key service and gateway to town centres or can be perceived as a barrier that prevents potential town centre visits. As such, we feel that it is vital that parking is directly addressed as part of town centre digital strategies and practice. We recognise five distinct but inter-linked areas where these advances will be made and which link directly to the approach for retail advocated in the Digital High Street 2020 Report:
- Locating parking spaces: The ability to locate available parking spaces appropriate to the purpose of a journey. This should be integrated with innovation in marketing technologies and content for places
- Flexible tariffs: Ways easily extend a parking stay and offer flexibility to adjust charges to help manage demand. This should be considered as part of the omni-channel retailing and leisure experience that offers flexibility to the customer
- Cashless parking: User-friendly smart phone payments where ultimately payment is made automatically online. This is an extension of innovation in the in-store and street trading experience
- Customer data: Access to customer profile data and even the ability to directly market local offers and special events. This is just another aspect of the personalisation of Big Data and communication through social media:
- Customer loyalty: The option for retailers to reimburse parking costs to loyal and valued customers. This is a specific extension of the flexible and omni-channel approach advocated for retail and is also tied to personalisation of Big Data.
Sceptics about the digital development of parking provision and cashless payment cite the same inclusions issues faced by retail. Yes, consumers need choice and changes need to be introduced as part of a wider strategy. Imagine though a scenario possible in the next few years where all motoring costs are cashless, public transport uses Oyster cards and the like and town centre visits are paid for with contactless technology but you still have to search for change to feed the parking metre!
In the near future, it will be possible to join-up all these aspects of digital parking provision so that so many of the perceived barriers to town centre parking no longer exist and businesses can feel positive about the customer welcome to towns.
Your digital checklist
Here we summarise the main things that we think local leaders need to consider to make sure that a town’s digital potential is ‘switched-on’ and glowing brightly as part of wider revitalisation activity!
- Assess and invest in the local digital infrastructure in terms of things like broadband, mobile data and public Wi-Fi
- Monitor and mentor digital skills of retailers and other service providers
- Understand and work with businesses and other services to adapt to the town centre customer profile, purpose of visit s and experiences. Include parking provision as an intrinsic part of this.
- Use every opportunity to gather data and intelligence from digital interactions so that this can help monitor progress, target marketing and lead to further improvements in customer service.
If all this talk of town centre digital strategies seems complicated and potentially costly, just compare it to the Christmas light switch-on that can cost a small town £20,000 just to attract customers and animate a place for one month a year! The key here is to involve businesses and other stakeholders in sharing the costs as well as the measurable benefits.
Review on-line and off-street opportunities to improve the customer welcome in your town centre as part of our People, Places & Parking Process with Park Consult Ltd.
As ever, if you want guidance on the role of digital or other aspects of an integrated and town-wide regeneration strategy, get in touch by emailing firstname.lastname@example.org or give us a ring on 01223 563874.