Seasonal high street footfall figures fell yet again in 2015. But it’s not the internet that is killing the high street; instead, blame poor local decision-making by councils, retailers and the retail property industry, say researchers from Manchester Metropolitan University.

In the first research of its kind to attempt to identify and analyse all influences upon high street performance in one study, the High Street UK2020 project identified 201 individual factors (PDF) (Place Management website) that affect high street performance. The top five were:

  • Retailer representation - which retailers are represented on the high street, eg a mix of shop fronts and store sizes
  • Accessibility - can the centre be reached by a variety of transport modes, eg by bus, car, bike etc?
  • Out-of-town development - are there nearby out-of-town retail parks or poorly linked edge-of-town developments?
  • Convenience - can people shop in the town centre without much effort?
  • Leadership - is there a clear and realistic plan for the centre?

“About 38 per cent of a town’s performance can be explained by factors that it can influence locally,” says researcher Simon Quin. “The problem is that in many locations retailers and the local authority are not collaborating and working together effectively to increase footfall, and this includes ignoring how important other town centre attractions are to people, such as events like carol services or Christmas markets.”

Despite the Black Friday hype, this year’s UK high street footfall fell nearly ten per cent from 2014, according to retail intelligence agency Springboard. On the other hand, retail park footfall rose by three per cent on Black Friday 2015, compared to 2014.   

“Retail parks are direct competitors to the high street, unlike internet retailing which is more of a complementary channel,” says Professor Cathy Parker, the lead investigator for the High Street UK2020 research.

“Much has been made of the ‘restorative power’ of innovations such as click-and-collect, but in general we find that retailing continues to shift online and out-of-town,” Professor Parker continues. But her two-year study reveals that some of this shift is far from inevitable.

“We identified a definitive list of the causes of town centre decline as well as concrete local actions that town councils, retailers and stakeholders could take to reverse high street decline,” she explains.

Opening hours is top of the list of factors open to local influence. The High Street UK2020 project reveals that many medium and smaller sized towns are not adjusting to the changing needs of their local catchment area. People want their local centre to be convenient and open when they are likely to visit. But retailers and other stakeholders have not adapted, say researchers.

Libraries, shops and other services shut at 17.30, just before thousands of commuters may be arriving by rail, tram and bus services. "Obviously town centres can't be open 24/7, but each locality should establish its own optimum opening times, based on analysis of its local catchment", suggests Professor Parker. "This doesn't automatically mean late-night opening or longer trading hours. In locations with a high percentage of retired residents, earlier opening times may drive more trade.”

The second key factor that stakeholders can influence is a town centre’s visual appearance and cleanliness, say researchers. “Again, local stakeholders can do a lot to present the high street in the most attractive way. This factor is the easiest one to influence locally, as anyone can collect litter and weed flower beds,” Quin points out. Historically, this has been the role of the local authority, but with austerity cuts these basic interventions can be stripped right back. “Our research shows people’s attitudes to places are significantly affected by litter,” says Professor Parker. “Towns can't afford to look dirty, and this is why many locations have formed Business Improvement Districts to fund these operational imperatives,” she adds.

Which retailers are represented and what they offer to consumers ranked third in the list of factors open to local improvement.  Many retailers are simply not making location decisions based upon a good understanding of the local catchment, say researchers. “We think too many national retail chains are abandoning locations just because other retailers are withdrawing from that particular high street,” Quin points out. “And they won't invest in locations that do not already have significant multiple-retailer-occupied floorspace.”  Morley, one of the project towns, had found it impossible to attract a national coffee shop retailer, despite having evidence of unfulfilled demand for such an operator.

"Of course retailing is location, location, location, and retailers want to be where the major footfall is, in regional city centres and out-of-town retail parks. But we don't believe this strategy will give the majority of retailers a resilient store portfolio,” says Professor Parker. “They need to get better at fitting in and contributing to a strong and coherent overall town offer, recognising that people visit physical locations for a variety of reasons, including a good customer experience,” she adds. That might mean in some more historic locations retailers should ensure their shop fronts complement the heritage, rather than undermine it with their standard (sometimes garish) use of signs and branding. For example, New River Retailer, another partner in the High Street UK2020 project, has commissioned designer Wayne Hemingway to undertake an art deco makeover of the Arndale shopping centre in Morecambe, to reflect the town's seaside status.

In many cases, town centre decline can be halted, researchers conclude. “Effective local leadership, collaboration and clear visions and strategies work,” Quin insists. “The towns that took part in the project demonstrated that if the right people work together on the right actions it can bring people back to the high street.”