Tracking Nuneaton’s footfall through the COVID-19 pandemic

When Nuneaton and Bedworth Borough Council invested in comprehensive footfall and foot-flow monitoring as a measure of town centre vitality and viability, it was not aware of its usefulness in managing the local response to a global pandemic.


Local authority: Nuneaton and Bedworth Borough Council

Submitted by: Jonathan White, Head of Town Centres and Marketing, Nuneaton and Bedworth Borough Council; Chris Wade, Director, the People & Places Partnership.

Case study synopsis:

When Nuneaton and Bedworth Borough Council invested in comprehensive footfall and foot-flow monitoring as a measure of town centre vitality and viability, it was not aware of its usefulness in managing the local response to a global pandemic. 

This case study offers insights about the application of footfall and foot-flow monitoring in aiding town centre decision-making at three distinct timescales and levels:  understanding the impacts of routine and responsive management; responding to the COVID-19 lockdown and devising subsequent reopening measures; planning for long-term investment needs and demonstrating change.   

The challenge:

Nuneaton is the largest town in Warwickshire with a population of 82,000. The town centre consists of a pedestrian area served by convenient car parking, bus and train stations.  There is a strong independent and national retail offer plus a thriving market.

To inform short-term management decisions and guide long-term investments in the town centre, in 2018 Nuneaton and Bedworth Borough Council sought a reliable measure of vitality and viability.  At the time, the Council was not to know the usefulness of such measures in also tracking the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic and measures to reopen the town centre.

The solution:

The solution that Nuneaton and Bedworth Borough Council chose as a proxy of vitality (or liveliness) and viability (or ability to attract investment) was footfall (pedestrian counts at a given location) and foot-flow (pedestrian movement between locations).

The High Street Task Force in its guide to footfall: a key performance indicator published in June 2020 describes how footfall can be conceptualised as a proxy for success.  The guide lists a number of key applications for footfall monitoring that align with Nuneaton’s needs, including:

  • demonstrating its success in attracting customers
  • detecting early warning signs of change, so that relevant strategies can be implemented
  • evaluating the success of marketing and promotion
  • establishing the contribution of development and public realm improvements in increasing visitor numbers
  • providing data required to attract new occupiers and investors into the centre
  • identifying over or under-performance by benchmarking against national and regional averages

In its guide to establishing a footfall baseline as part of recovery planning, the High Street Task Force recognise that counting footfall has become even more important in times of COVID-19.  Footfall counting shows if and how customers are returning to town centres as they reopen and this, in turn, can guide the implementation of necessary interventions and measure their impact. There are various techniques for measuring footfall including a simple manual system and associated dashboard set-out in the Task Force’s guide. All of the approaches to measuring footfall have in common the process of counting passers-by at specific location(s) and for defined time periods in a way that enables comparisons. 

Nuneaton and Bedworth Borough Council, working with Warwickshire County Council, opted in 2018 to use the GEO-Sense system provided by Proximity Futures and supplemented by tracking engagement with the accompanying Elephant town centre WiFi.

The GEO-Sense system works by listening for WiFi requests being made from mobile devices and makes a note of them. Each device has its own unique, though anonymous ID that enables sophisticated monitoring individual foot-flow around a town centre as well as footfall at selected points.  It provides a relative indicator of footfall, all day every day along with important insights on whether customers are new to the location or not, dwell times, and their journeys around the town centre. The accompanying Elephant WiFi provides additional information including visitor demographics and their home town.

Nuneaton chose to mount the small GEO-Sense monitors at six entrance points to the town centre and along key streets.  This enables comprehensive monitoring of changes in footfall at key locations as well as insights into the foot-flow of users across the town centre.

The impact:

The footfall and foot-flow monitoring in Nuneaton has aided town centre decision-making at three distinct timescales and levels:

  • impacts of responsive management and marketing against baseline data
  • changes due to COVID-19 lockdown and subsequent reopening measures
  • long-term investment needs and the impacts of changes

The footfall and foot-flow data for Nuneaton became unexpectedly important in monitoring and informing decisions during and following lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic.  Not surprisingly, the data showed a dramatic drop in footfall from late March 2020 followed by a steady increase through to early July and a more marked improvement thereafter.  Total recorded town centre visits for the 5 months to mid-August 2020 were 1.1million, compared to 2.4million for the same period in 2019.  Recorded visits in the second week of August following further easing of restrictions and new incentives, were, however, up to 24,336, which equated to 79% when compared to 30,749 in 2019. 

The average fall in footfall for the 5 months from mid-March was fairly even across Nuneaton town centre at 30-46% of previously monitored levels.  Footfall was though most reduced in the central, pedestrianised area with predominantly comparison retail.  The GEO-sense data demonstrates that this central area is the part of town that typically attracts the greatest number of first-time visitors who are likely to be from outside the local area and less likely to have visited during lockdown. The monitoring data in mid-August showed that the proportion of these first-time visitors is increasing in this area and more widely, accounting for 35.4% of town centre users across Nuneaton as a whole, compared to 23.4% in 2019. 

The data shows little difference in average dwell times for the 5 months from lockdown with a modest increase from 135 minutes in 2019 to 138 in to 2020.  This dwell time may differently comprise of customers queuing rather than lingering in local cafes etc.

The available data for Nuneaton provides other insights in to changing footfall trends including that the busiest time of day in the 5 months post-lockdown has shifted to 11am-12pm from 12-1pm in 2019.  This may be due to changing shopping habits by different groups including the more vulnerable and home-based workers, whilst there are fewer local office and other staff looking to pop into town at lunchtime.

Nuneaton’s Wednesday and Saturday markets are an important part of the town centre offer.  Tracking of foot-flow journeys between the 11 monitoring locations in Nuneaton town centre shows that whilst the Market Place was the most popular first destination for town centre visitors in August 2019, it was reduced to the second most popular for the same period in 2020.  This may be due to there being a slightly fewer number of market stalls to help maintain social distancing.  In contrast, the Market Place was the most popular first destination during lockdown in May 2019, as its food stalls remained trading.

This footfall and foot-flow data is important in informing and demonstrating the impact of measures put in place to combat COVID-19.  To help create a safe shopping environment and support town centre businesses post-COVID 19 lockdown, the Borough Council has been implementing measures designed to ensure a safe and welcoming town centre. These have included temporary interventions in areas of highest footfall such as a marked two-way pedestrian movement system, pavement stickers to assist social distancing and town centre ambassadors to provide support and guidance.  The pedestrianised area of the town centre is also closed to all traffic movement between 9am and 6pm to help provide a safe area and support the measures that are in place. A brand new section of the town centre website has also been launched at www.visitnuneatonandbedworth.co.uk.

How is the new approach being sustained?:

In the long-term, footfall monitoring will be a key indicator used to guide and monitor the impacts of proposed major investments.  The Transforming Nuneaton programme has already been allocated initial funding from the Local Growth Fund, administered by the Coventry and Warwickshire Local Enterprise Partnership.

Longer-term plans have a strong focus on boosting footfall and foot-flow by developing a multi-purpose town centre with a thriving cultural and leisure offer, new residential areas and a new economic growth on adjacent employment sites.

Nuneaton town centre has progressed to stage two of the Future High Streets Fund and a proposal is due to submitted to government in summer 2020 that will take full account of existing trends and COVID-19 impacts. Nuneaton is also one of 100 places invited to develop proposals for a Town Deal, as part of the £3.6 billion Towns Fund, with work underway to agree a Town Investment Plan during Summer 2020.

Wider investment in connectivity, economic and cultural assets plus enterprise infrastructure is set to boost the viality and viability of the town centre.  Footfall and foot-flow will serve as a proxy of success throughout the planning and delivery of these investments. 

Lessons learned:

The experience in Nuneaton has shown the value of routine monitoring of town centre footfall and foot-flow as indicators of vitality and viability.  This becomes especially important during the planning and delivery of long-term investment and adapting to an unexpected crisis such as the COVID-19 pandemic.  Such quantitative data provides objective insights that can be followed-up by more qualitative analysis of the changing customer habits indicated, e.g. the causes of shifting peak times; the balance of regular and new shoppers; and the changing nature of the dwell time experience. 

Contact: Jonathan White, Head of Town Centres and Marketing, Nuneaton and Bedworth Borough Council.
Email: Jonathan.White@nuneatonandbedworth.gov.uk
Telephone: 07976 662415